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Coming to work in the sewing shops of São Paulo has become a common idea in Bolivia. Radio ads offer work with wages up to ten times the Bolivian minimum wage, plus housing and boarding. Everything seems easy. Because no experience is required there are many candidates. Even those who can’t afford the trip have an option: the “cats”[1]will pay for the trip and charge for it later. But the trip expenses are inflated and the wages reduced. Thus, indentured servitude is created.

Migrants:  Needed and discriminated against

 Luiz Bassegio*

 The phenomenon of migration is becoming ever more present in a globalized world. There are millions of people migrating from poor to rich countries. Filipinos seek work in the Middle East and Europe; Ecuadorians leave their country for Spain; millions from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean hope to find in the United States a place to improve their lives. The same is true for North Africans seeking work in Europe.

 The Brazilian case is not different. Besides the millions of internal migrants there are over two million Brazilians abroad. There are hundreds of thousands of Brazilians in Paraguay, almost a million in the United States, two hundred thousand in Japan, sixty thousand in Germany and fifty thousand in Portugal. It is estimated that close to one hundred thousand Brazilians migrate abroad every year.

 Migration is currently a planetary reality. It was and still is a defining fact of history, enriching countries and humankind with its cultural diversity, despite the difficulties. The migratory phenomenon is contradictory and complex. Immigrants are not welcome because many believe they “steal” jobs from nationals and because of their different customs; they are seen as “strangers” living in a new environment. Yet, they are needed to perform certain jobs the majority of the people of the receiving countries do not want to do, the so-called “dirty” jobs.

 However, despite all the contradictions, the contribution of emigrants to their home countries has been very important. More than 20 million emigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean living abroad send close to 30 billion dollars to their original countries. In 2003, Brazilians living abroad sent home over 5.2 billion dollars, which is more than the direct productive investment by American companies in the same period. Thus, despite the global trend to discriminate against immigrants, the phenomenon can no longer be ignored and immigrants should not be criminalized in the richest nations, as usually is the case.

What are the causes of migration?

 According to a report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) the main cause is the fact that globalization failed to generate jobs in the peripheral nations. This process created a structural feature in the world economy: inequality. In addition to concentrating wealth, this policy produces a deterioration of the living conditions. It is enough to consider the demands of the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for structural adjustment, with the reduction in public expenditures and in governmental jobs.

 Largely, migratory displacements respond to the need of industrialized nations for unqualified cheap labor for their agricultural, food, construction, and textile industries, as well as domestic service and the care of children, the elderly and the ill. In the United States, the fate of the immigrant is usually the dirty, dangerous, and difficult work. Japan is even worse and immigrants are expected to do harder, more dangerous, demanding and undesirable jobs.

 However, knowing that the main world transformations were always preceded by large migratory flows, we can foresee a positive contribution. The migratory phenomenon points out the need to rethink the world as no longer based on competition, but on solidarity; not on concentration, but on sharing; not on the closure of borders, but on universal citizenship. A world based not on unstoppable consumption, but on a sustainable society where there is a place and a dignified life for everyone.

Immigrants Working as Slaves

 The ILO estimates at 200 million the number of enslaved people in the world. In general, they are migrants who live far away from their homelands. Without social structures to protect them, it is difficult to break away from the restraints imposed by coercion. Often they accept this situation either because of their economic need or because they believe they must pay off the debt generated by the costs of traveling.

 The case of Bolivian immigrants in São Paulo is related to the data above, but with certain particularities. There are close to two hundred thousand Bolivians in São Paulo. This exodus reflects the sad reality of Bolivia, which has one of the worst social indexes in South America. It occupies position number 114, out of 177, in the report of the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program. For the purpose of comparison, Brazil occupies the 72nd position. It is because of such a miserable situation that many Bolivians subject themselves to subhuman working conditions in the city of São Paulo.

 Coming to work in the sewing shops of São Paulo has become a common idea in Bolivia. Radio ads offer work with wages up to ten times the Bolivian minimum wage, plus room and board. Everything seems easy. Because no experience is required there are many candidates. Even those who can’t afford the trip have an option: the “cats” will pay for the trip and charge for it later. But the trip expenses are inflated and the wages reduced. Thus, indentured servitude is created.

 Life and Working Conditions

 The great majority of Bolivian immigrants in São Paulo lives and works in the same unhealthy place where the sewing shops are located, which causes them to suffer from serious health problems, such as tuberculosis. The common workday in the textile sector is 12 to 14 hours long, but many work from 7 AM to midnight.

 Barred by immigration laws from taking legal jobs, which provide the rights and protections established by the Brazilian constitution and labor laws, undocumented immigrants have no choice but surrender themselves to exploitation, long working hours and vile wages. Fear of deportation keeps them silent.

 An immigrant who chose not to identify himself said: “I couldn’t complain, I couldn’t claim my rights because I thought I had none. I had no papers here.”

 On August 20, 2004, a raid by the Labor Public Ministry[1] caught a Korean couple that owned a sewing shop that illegally employed 11 foreigners – Bolivians, Paraguayans and Peruvians. In the shop, located in a central district of São Paulo, the disregard for the constitution and labor laws was flagrant. Subjected to long and exhaustive workdays, in conditions similar to slavery, these immigrants were forced to work in the basement of the building, under the surveillance of a closed TV circuit.  

 Despite having defective electric wiring and lacking the minimal health and sanitary conditions, the place was also used to house the workers. In an area next to the shop, eight of the workers and a six-year old child shared six improvised cubicles of 6 x 6 feet. The others would frequently sleep there as well, as the workdays would extend late into the night. There was also a kitchen where they would eat the food provided by the employers.

 According to the Health Department of the Mooca[2] District, the main problems faced by these immigrants are:

  • Health professionals have difficulties accessing their residences, while the immigrants have difficulties accessing the public health services.

  • Pervasive presence of the following diseases and health conditions: tuberculosis, dengue fever, dermatitis, late prenatal care, poor dental health, poor hygienic conditions of individuals and residences.

  • Unsanitary working conditions and high turnover of the work place and residences.

  • Unschooled children.

  • Intolerance from the local population towards immigrant people.

  • Barriers such as ignorance of cultural differences, customs and languages (most immigrants speak Spanish, Quechua, Aymara and Guarani) by both health workers and the residents of the area.

According to the newspaper Latin Presence:

 “… Men and women, often with school degrees, arrive dreaming of stable work and a good salary: 100 dollars a month. 300 reais might look like little money, but it represents a middle class salary in Bolivia. The dreams are soon emptied by reality. These people come misled by recruiters who promise housing, food, and work. When they don’t have the money to pay for the trip, they borrow from the “coyotes”, who will also charge 500 to 600 dollars to provide “documents”. To pay the debt can take six months of work. (…) We see the involvement of Brazilians, Koreans, and Bolivians in the search for people to work here. Once they arrive in São Paulo, their documents are retained to avoid communication and they don’t even know where they are living. They live in the workplace, work 12 to 14 hours a day, in horrible conditions. Many are now infected with tuberculosis.”

 These undocumented immigrants fear the police and they fear retaliation. After paying their debts, some of them escape, only to find themselves facing legislation that criminalizes them, but does not punish the trafficking of human beings.”[3]

 What are the characteristics of slave labor? If we look closely at the situation of the Bolivian people, we can highlight the following:


  • The means by which they are recruited in Bolivia, through false promises of wages of up to 500 dollars a month, when in fact they are not paid more than 100 dollars a month.

  • The confinement and forced work for several months to repay travel debts, while being held without communication with the outside.

  • Retention of documents, blackmail, and threats to call the police.

  • Long and exhausting work days that sometimes go beyond 16 hours.

  • Frequent rotation of the workplace, to prevent any organizing among the workers, as well as to avoid detection by local authorities.

  • Unsanitary working conditions, living and working in the same space, breathing dust in the sewing shops.

  • Deprivation of freedom by coercion.

 As a suggestion to deal with the problem, we bring attention to the issue of reciprocity: we should treat immigrants the same way we want Brazilians to be treated abroad. After all, we advocate for universal citizenship and struggle for another world: possible, necessary and urgent.

Kantuta Square

 Not everything is sadness and exploitation. On Sundays, thousands of Bolivians meet at the Kantuta Square, in the Pari neighborhood of Eastern São Paulo. Sunday is the day to see the sunlight, although they come to Kantuta Square close to sunset. Most of them are very young and walk with their heads down. They don’t make eye contact with strangers. They are afraid. Music and the smell of food smooth the harshness of life. They walk by the stands, but the most popular one is the one that displays job ads. They eat salteñas and drink gaseosas and speak with acquaintances to be informed about good places to work. The ones who have been longer in Brazil provide information to the newcomers.

 Slowly, the sad Bolivian music quiets down, and the immigrants begin to turn off the lights in their stands. They go back to the walls that oppress them, taking with them new addresses, phone numbers and the hope of finding a job that will allow them to buy their own sewing machines and a passport to freedom.

 *Luiz Bassegio is the National Secretary of the Migrant Pastoral Service and member of the Advisory Council of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights.

[1] Brazil’s federal prosecutor of labor violations.

[2] A largely industrial and blue-collar district in São Paulo.