Argentina’s 21st Century Slavery

Bolivian workers in Argentina are pressing the government to take action against slave-like conditions inside clandestine textile shops after a fire in a factory killed 6 people in Buenos Aires last week.  

The government has initiated inspections of seamstress shops employing Bolivians and Paraguayans. Inspectors shut down at least 12 of these plants.

"We are starting to fight compañeros, thank you for being here." These are the words of Ana Salazar at an assembly of textile workers on Sunday.  The blaze that killed four children and two women has brought light to abusive working conditions inside a network of clandestine textile plants in Buenos Aires. Witnesses said that 25 families were living in four square meter rooms inside the plant that caught fire.

Representatives from the Union of Seamstress Workers, an assembly of undocumented textile workers have reported at least 8,000 cases of labor abuses inside the city’s nearly 400 clandestine seamstress shops in the past months. According to Olga, a textile worker who asked for her last name to be omitted because of safety issues, slave-like conditions in textile factories is systematic.  "During a normal workday in a shop you work from 7am until Midnight or 1am. Many times they don’t pay the women and they owe them 2 or three years pay. For not having our legal documents or not knowing what our rights are in Argentina we’ve had to remain silent. You don’t have rights, to rent a room or to work legally."

In many cases the workers were drawn into the network through radio or newspaper ads promising decent wages, room, board and transportation to Buenos Aires. Once inside the textile factory they are forced to work 16 to 18 hours per day and are warned that if they complain they will lose their jobs or will be deported. Since 2003, thousands of reports of slave-like conditions have piled up in the courts without any resolution.

Nestor Escuedero, an Argentine who participates in the Union of Seamstress Workers, says that police, inspectors and courts are also responsible for the documented slave-like conditions inside textile factories. "This organization that’s only 4 months old formed from the labor conflicts in the textile workshops in the neighborhood, where in many cases conditions are reduced to slavery. They bring in illegal immigrants to brutally exploit them. The textile worker is paid .75 cents for a garment that is later sold for 50 dollars. This profit is enough to pay bribes and keep this system going."

Textile workers are organizing a march next week to demand that the foremen and owners of the factory that caught fire be brought to justice. They are also pushing for the mass legalization of immigrants, housing for immigrants living in poverty and an end to workshop slavery.

For Free Speech Radio News I’m Marie Trigona in Buenos Aires.

Marie Trigona is an Argentine based activist and media maker. She can be reached at She works with Grupo Alavio. For more information on Grupo Alavio, visit