Bolivian immigrants in São Paulo tend to work from
6am to 11pm, and make between R$200 and R$400 ($70 to $140
US dollars) per month. They live in a cubicle in their workplace.
These are small rooms, 2.00m x 1.50m, which house the worker,
their family, the sewing machines, and a space to put the
clothes they produce. A mattress is rolled up during the day,
then at night, when they go to sleep, it become their beds.
The finished clothes are normally delivered to Koreans who
own cheap clothing stores.
Bolivian Immigrants in São Paulo
The waiting room at the Centro Pastoral dos Latinos (Latino
Immigrant Center), in São Paulo, is always full, from
Monday to Friday. Most of them are undocumented immigrants
from Bolivia. They work under precarious conditions in sweatshops
in the neighborhoods of Belém, Brás, Vila Maria,
Bom Retiro, Mooca and Pari. The immigration lawyer, Ruth Miriam
Camacho Kadluba, attends approximately 30 of them per day.
According to the Center, there are between 30 and 50 thousand
undocumented Bolivians in São Paulo. Many of them prefer
to remain undocumented because of the high costs of the legal
Bolivian workers came to Brazil for the same reason. They
are trying to make a little more money, since work in Bolivia
is extremely scarce and there are no opportunities for those
who can't attend a university (most Bolivians in Brazil used
to starve in their country). They also explain that their
goal is not to make money they can save, but to have a slightly
better life. Many learned to sew here, with the sweatshop's
owner; others worked in the industry in Bolivia, under very
bad conditions. They say that, if they could ask one thing
from the Brazilian government, it would be to facilitate the
conditions for them to work legally in the country. Most of
them say that working conditions, despite everything, are
still better in Brazil than in Bolivia. Not all of them know
of cases of slave labor, and don't view themselves as slave
Bolivians tend to work from 6am to 11pm or from 7am to 12am
and make between R$200 and R$400 ($70 to $140 US dollars)
per month. The live in a cubicle in their workplace. These
are small rooms, 2.00m x 1.50m, which house the worker, their
family, their sewing machines, and a space to put the clothes
they produce. A mattress is rolled up during the day, then
at night, when they go to sleep, it become their beds. The
finished clothes are normally delivered to Koreans who own
cheap clothing stores.
shop owners keep the Bolivian workers from leaving with a
system of debts. Many people work for free until their debts
are paid. If they make a mistake on a piece of clothing, they
have to pay what the owner would have received had he sold
it to the Koreans. During a good run, they sew between 200
and 250 pieces a day. Lately, they make an average of 80 pieces
a day, receiving R$0.10 per piece - they should receive R$0.20,
but the difference covers food and housing.
to the Bolivians and the Immigrant Center, in order for this
situation to change it is necessary to legalize those who
are undocumented. In addition, the government needs to monitor
the clandestine clothing factories. Today, legalization is
possible in the following cases:
- when the Bolivian has a child born in Brazil;
- when they marry a Brazilian;
- in the case of family ties, such as when a Bolivian who
obtains documents through amnesty can also obtain them for
their spouse, children, or parents;
- amnesty (when it is open to everyone, the last happened
- legalization (Free Movement in Mercosul). In this case,
the cost is very high: R$53.80 to file the petition; at the
Federal Police they receive a fine of R$848.00 which, if not
paid, the immigrant will not be able to return to the country.
Some lawyers charge R$1,500.00 to fill out the paperwork and,
despite their promises, do not pay off the fine. Without knowing
this, many people can't return to Brazil after visiting Bolivia.
majority of the Bolivians come from cities such as La Paz,
Sucre, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and Cochabamba. Usually they
enter Brazil through Cuiabá, in Mato Grosso, or San
Mathias, in Bolivia, which borders Caceres, Mato Grosso and
Corumbá, in Mato Grosso do Sul.
food is very poor in the factories. Rice, potatoes, salad
and sausage are usually on the menu. The workers rarely eat
meat or eggs. The food is extremely inadequate for someone
who works more than 17 hours a day. As a result, one of the
workers explains that she wakes up the next day with no energy
for another shift. In addition, children do not get proper
nutrition and the parents are the ones who have to buy milk,
vegetables and fruit. The workers get one-hour breaks for
lunch and dinner and 15 minutes for breakfast.
One of the women says that she has not been paid in two months.
She has a young daughter who is forced to stay locked up in
a room all day. According to Father Roque Renato Pattussi,
from the Latino Immigrant Center, the Bolivians rarely go
out for fear of being arrested by the police.
Bolivia, roughly 50% of the economically active population
works in the informal market. Beside the problem of unemployment,
there is also a lack of housing and public services, such
as health and education.
Brazil the destination of cheap Bolivian labor is, generally,
small factories controlled by Koreans. The Bolivia Foundation
estimates that there are approximately 100 thousand Bolivians
in São Paulo (September 1992). The largest concentration
of Bolivians is in the city of São Paulo, followed
by Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, and Corumbá. Most
people who work illegally in the clothing business in São
Paulo are young, between 15 and 35 years old, with a medium
level of education for men and a lower level for women. Most
of them have little knowledge of Portuguese. The sector that
uses most illegal workers are the sweatshops, with 40% of
the total, while the rest is spread between factory workers,
maids, street vendors, construction workers and carpenters.
The average salary for the textile workers is between 50 and
200 dollars a month.
lack of legal documents is one of the biggest difficulties
faced by the Bolivians. Their worse nightmare is to be approached
by the Federal Police and sent out of the country. The feeling
of insecurity in which most live is a result of, on one hand,
the lack of legal documents and, on the other hand, the strategy
used by the owners of the sweatshops, who frighten them by
saying that the police could approach them at any time on
the streets or threaten to turn them in if they decide to
*Evanize Sydow is a journalist at the Social Network for Justice
and Human Rights and participated as a researcher for a survey
made by the International Labor Organization to create a database
about slave labor in Brazil.