How global garment industry relies on precarious work of migrants?
During my visit in Sao Paulo I interviewed Renato Bignami, a Ministry of Labour Inspector, responsible for addressing modern slavery in garment industry of Brazil. In this conversation he explains the links between garment production and human trafficking and precariousness of working conditions.
How would you describe garment industry in Brazil?
R.B.: Garment industry is traditionally related to low wages. Now people foster the idea of a living wage, but living wage and garment industry don’t seem to match. When you take into consideration the phenomenon of fast fashion it only gets harder. Other issues are: health and safety, discrimination, labour conditions, working hours, child labour… everything. The main problem in garment industry is that the salary is paid by piece, not by hour. This rhythm of work is diminishing wages. Workers have no idea what is their minimal wage. They think that the piece wage is acceptable although it makes them work even up to 17 hours a day. Modern slavery in garment sector in Brasil is mostly the case of migrant workers. Not only here, it is very similar in other places.
"People work for months for free to pay back the depths to traffickers who brought them to Sao Paulo."
What issues does your team address?
R.B.: It’s very dynamic. Our inspections found people from numerous countries working in sweatshops of Sao Paulo. Mostly they are Bolivian, but also: Paraguayans, Peruvians and sometimes Haitians. We estimate that there are at least 300-400 000 Bolivians in Brazil and 80% of them live in Sao Paulo. This group is circulating: we have found more than 3 squares where typically garment jobs are announced to migrants. Also you have the recruitment happening in Bolivia, for example in poor region of La Pas where people are desperate for work, live in huge slums and hear about prominent industry operating in Brasil. Basically you have this asymmetry of very poor La Pas and very rich Sao Paulo that makes people come here through the open border. It is not illegal to announce a job in the sweatshop and migrants have the right to live here, if they work in a regulated way, which often they don’t. Maybe registration is too bureaucratic or they don’t know how to do it properly. It could be the case of language barrier: Bolivians speak Kechua and Mara, Peruvians as well, but Paraguayans speak Guarani and Spanish, while Haitians speak Creole. Sometimes they come illuded with promised good wages and living conditions. People work for months for free to pay back the depths to traffickers who brought them to Sao Paulo. Sometimes they are threatened, raped, or beaten. So called ‚coyores’ charge them up to 2 000 US dollars. It is an impossible amount of money to people who make 300- 400 Brazilian Reals a month, while the lowest allowed wage in garment industry is 1300 Brazilian Reals. They make one third of it, this clearly is another indicator of slave like working conditions.
What are relations of Labour Inspectors with Labour Unions in Brazil?
R.B.: Labour unions still need to reflect upon their role on defending worker´s rights. Especially because the most vulnerable, migrant and informal workers are hardly covered by unions. At the beginning trade unions in Sao Paulo were against migrant workers saying that they steal the jobs. That scenario changed after our intervention on the issue.
Can you describe the practice of your team?
R.B.: My team of labour inspectors works within garment sector in Sao Paulo since 2007. We started our programme with social dialogue. The brands we contacted at the start stated that they take no responsibility for working conditions. We were talking to government bodies, employers, workers, NGOs and amongst them Reporter Brasil, that became one of our supporters. After that in 2010 we started to enter work places to audit and enforce labour law to eradicate slave like work conditions. I was the founder of the garment sector group back in 2010. Out of 2 400 inspectors in Brazil, we have currently 4 designated for the garment sector.
Before our programme started there were many complaints mainly from Bolivian, Peruvian and Paraguayan workers from thousands of sweatshops across Sao Paulo. In the past Brazil had the policy to deport these people, as they were considered illegal migrants. We are against this approach and worked hard to prove the benefits of integrating, rather than deporting, migrant workers. But then in 2003 Brazil ratified the UN Palermo protocol against human trafficking which doesn’t allow to deport the victims of human trafficking. It was not easy, but eventually the behaviour of police changed. Whenever we enter a sweatshop and we see all these violations happen we try to figure out who is responsible for that. We rescue the workers, terminate their relationship with the factory and state what wages and fines are due to them.
"Audit is like a picture of a place."
How efficient you think, auditing workplaces is?
R.B.: Audit is like a picture of a place. Just a picture, not a documentary movie. That’s why my team does far more than that. We try to reduce the demand for these jobs by telling the brands that they have an obligation to fully respect their entire supply chain. We are building a doctrine to legally make migrant workers liable here. Because legislation is not clear enough yet.
How do you enter the sweatshop and what happens next?
R.B.: We have the right to enter any workplace in Sao Paulo. We make unexpected, unannounced inspections according to 81 convention from ILO that Brasil ratified. We fully follow it. It says that you have to have a non- announced system of inspections. We cross data trying to figure out potential targets for inspections. We make a list of violations that are there and start to fine brands or sweatshop owners. We have more than 90 cases, about 36% of them were related to garment industry and we succeeded to make even brands like Zara responsible. Of course brands resist and many cases against us are still in courts. In 2011 we made Zara responsible for 3 sweatshops and people working there. The prosecution team imposed a fine according to our proof. Brand agreed to pay 7 million Brazilian Reals in fines and to invest in migrant workers. In 2015 there was another inquiry commission in state of Sao Paulo and I was asked if Zara was accomplishing their agreements. So we carried out another inspection and found that they were not fully accomplishing with what was agreed in 2011. So we imposed more fines. This is an ongoing process, it never ends. Brands have this paradoxical behaviour. On one hand they say they truly support what we do and on the other hand they fight us at the judiciary not to pay the imposed fines. They are contesting our acts. It is a trend. It is a world logic nowadays. Precariousness.