Traumatized in Sweatshops, Trafficked People Find Little Help After Rescue or Escape

Promised jobs in Argentina, people caught in human trafficking often don’t understand what is happening to them until they have crossed the border and it is too late to turn back. They are frequently forced to work in sweatshops, where they cannot escape and are watched constantly. A growing awareness of the problem helps some get out, but they too often know no one and are given little help, if any, by the Argentine government.

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Traumatized in Sweatshops, Trafficked People Find Little Help After Rescue or Escape

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Ariel Quisbert García, 22, works at “December 20” Cooperative, which was created by the Alameda Foundation to employ people who escape sweatshops.

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BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – A single ray of sunlight slips through the bars of a small rectangular opening near the ceiling. Dust floats in the air, and a stale stench comes from the kitchen and bathroom to mix with the smell of human sweat.

Tacka tack, tacka tack, tacka tack: The noise from the sewing machines is continuous beginning with daylight and going late into the night, without pause, so loud that it obscures all other sounds.

That’s how Ariel Quisbert García, 22, describes the sweatshop where he was held against his wishes and forced to work for five months.

Like many people who cross borders illegally, Quisbert García came to Argentina because he was promised a good job. He left his native Bolivia after he saw an ad that led him to a contact who promised him $500 a month for working in a clothing factory. Quisbert García wanted to attend university and thought he had found a way to finance his education.

But he knew something was off when his bus crossed the border into Argentina in December 2014 and he didn’t fill out any official documents.

By then, it was too late. Quisbert García was caught in a web of human trafficking that has ensnared an estimated 21 million people around the world into forced labor and other exploitation, according to the International Labour Organization. These activities generate $150 billion in illegal profits each year.

In Bolivia, we suffered hardships, but we had never lived what we lived here.

Reports of trafficking have been on the rise in Argentina compared with previous years as recent sweatshop raids and other incidents have shed a public light on the issue, and local authorities say they plan to conduct more raids to rescue more people from inhumane and illegal treatment.

But organizations that work with people who are trafficked say such people, once rescued, are prone to fall back into exploitative situations because the system meant to protect them after their rescue is inadequate.

A 2008 law establishes the rights of people who are trafficked and implements measures to punish perpetrators, but that hasn’t stopped the flow of people from around South America into the city and province of Buenos Aires, both of which are the country’s primary centers where exploitation occurs, according to a 2014 report by the Prosecutor’s Office of Trafficking and Exploitation of People, known locally as PROTEX.

Fifty-four percent of the people trafficked in Argentina were foreigners between April 2008 and August 2015, according to 2015 government data. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 57 percent of those people who were trafficked were from Bolivia, 23 percent from Paraguay and 9 percent from the Dominican Republic.

From April 2008 to August 2015, more than 9,000 trafficked people were rescued in Argentina, according to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Forty-nine percent of rescued people were trafficked for labor exploitation.

There are indications that people are more aware of trafficking than in the past and increasingly likely to report signs of it. There have been 1,764 reports over the past year through September to a government hotline created in 2012 for tips on human trafficking. That’s nearly double that of 2014, when there were 956 reports at that point in the year.

Since the hotline was created, the government has received over 5,000 reports on trafficking, according to the justice ministry.

A fire that killed two children April 27 at a house functioning as a textile factory galvanized Argentines. The factory was reportedly a clandestine sweatshop. PROTEX hopes to use the publicity of that sweatshop fire to rally the public to find more illegal factories, says Marcelo Colombo, coordinator of PROTEX.

Argentines are now more aware of labor trafficking, Colombo says. Historically, his department and organizations that track tips from the public on trafficking receive more reports about sex trafficking than labor trafficking, even though similar numbers are rescued from each type of exploitation.

In August, for example, PROTEX received 195 trafficking reports from citizens, of which 39 were for forced labor, Colombo says.

Farms, textile factories and brick factories are far more common than brothels, he says. But people are more disconcerted by brothels.

“Sex trafficking scandalizes more, the people recognize it more, it bothers them more, and for that they report it more,” Colombo says.

Photos by Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Olga Cruz Ortiz, 39, escaped from a sweatshop before joining the “December 20” Cooperative, which formed in 2005.

The Alameda Foundation, which helps people who escape from sweatshops and assists them as they create new lives, is also home to a community kitchen.

Posters display slogans opposing trafficking and slave labor at the “December 20” Cooperative.

Marcelo Colombo, coordinator for the Prosecutor’s Office of Trafficking and Exploitation of People, shows photos taken during a raid of a yerba mate plantation that used slave labor.

Ezequiel Conde, a member of the Alameda Foundation, an organization that fights trafficking and labor exploitation, says it’s not always easy to identify a sweatshop.

“You can tell by the amount of cables or consumption of electricity, but if you don’t want to see the clandestine sweatshop, you won’t see it,” he says. “It has to do with your awareness on the topic.”

Inside the sweatshops, conditions are often inhumane.

Quisbert García, the man who came from Bolivia to work in a clothing factory, says he became suspicious when his contact coached him to tell people that he was visiting relatives, not working in a factory. Then, when he saw children working in the factory, he says he knew he’d been lied to.

The sweatshop doors were locked during the week, he says, and managers allowed the workers to go outside only on Sundays, and then under supervision, which managers said was for the workers’ protection.

Instead of $500 per month, Quisbert García says he earned 3,000 pesos ($315) per month, working 80 hours in a six-day workweek. That works out to less than $1 per hour. He had one 30-minute break each day.

The monthly minimum wage in Argentina in early 2015, when he was working at the sweatshop, was 4,716 pesos ($495).

Quisbert García says he was forced to pay what he was told was his travel fare. His bosses told him that if he refused, he would be arrested for crossing the border without the necessary paperwork, he says.

“I wanted to leave, but I didn’t have money. I even owed them the money from the trip,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody.

“What would I do by myself in Argentina? I had to keep my head down, or I would be left on the street.”

On May 29, Quisbert García escaped.

“I waited until the owners were showering, and I escaped jumping over a wall,” he says.

He says he immediately filed a complaint with the city police.

Quisbert García was lucky to get out of the sweatshop after just a few months. Some trafficked people live in the harsh conditions for years.

Olga Cruz Ortiz, a 39-year-old mother of two from Bolivia, wound up in a sweatshop more than 15 years ago after she accepted a job offer to work as a seamstress in a clothing factory. She says she knew the hours would be strenuous, but she wanted to provide for her young son and daughter.

I wanted to leave, but I didn’t have money. I even owed them the money from the trip. I didn’t know anybody.

“In Bolivia, we suffered hardships, but we had never lived what we lived here,” she says. “In the sweatshop, I was with my two children enclosed in a room while I worked. They wouldn’t even let them out onto the patio so that they wouldn’t make noise.”

Because Cruz Ortiz was undocumented, the sweatshop managers threatened to have her arrested and deported if she told anyone about the conditions in the sweatshop, she says. So she continued to work out of fear.

Cruz Ortiz says she, like many people working in sweatshops, didn’t know her rights, so traffickers were able to take advantage of her.

“(Traffickers) think that they are the owners of people,” she says.

People who don’t know what acceptable working conditions are aren’t likely to report trafficking, Colombo says.

“Exploited people come from very strong conditions of exclusion, from a lot of marginalization,” he says. “It is difficult for them to register that they have labor rights, the possibility of demanding financial compensation. Those who are in greater conditions to demand this are the victims who have inscribed in their conscience a memory of having gone through a better working condition.”

Cruz Ortiz managed to escape the sweatshop after six months.

But freedom doesn’t usually solve a trafficked person’s problems, experts say. The Argentine government doesn’t support those people, says Carlos Beizuhn, a lawyer and member of the Alameda Foundation.

“There is no appropriate psychological or legal support,” Beizuhn says. “Nor are they offered a legitimate option for labor reinsertion, which is why many fall back into clandestine sweatshops, and this way the victims are being recycled.”

(Traffickers) think that they are the owners of people.

It’s not clear how many trafficked people wind up back in an exploitative situation after they are rescued or escape, Beizuhn says.

In addition to the 2008 national law, the Argentine government signed the Palermo protocols, a set of international agreements from the United Nations, in 2000 and 2001 to fight organized crime, including trafficking of people, smuggling migrants and firearms trafficking.

People who were trafficked get help when they are preparing to testify in court about their experiences, says Agustín Aráoz, a lawyer in Buenos Aires who specializes in trafficking cases. He adds that the government doesn’t always fulfill its promise to continue helping those people after they act as legal witnesses.

There is no long-term plan from the government to assist people with social and labor reinsertion, he says.

The government offers to help a person remain in Argentina after that person makes a statement in court, Colombo says, if that’s what the person wants.

“In the cases in which they want to stay, the assistance given to the victim can be normal, good or bad because not every province has a strongly reinforced system of protection,” he says. “This is the aspect for which we receive the most criticism.”

Some trafficked people might not have much to return to in their home countries. They often come from vulnerable, impoverished backgrounds, says Celeste Perosino, an anthropologist who specializes in trafficking and is the founder of Coordinated Actions Against Human Trafficking, a nongovernmental organization. Those people need daily help once they’re released from exploitation, she says.

“When you are about to give psychological support, you realize that in reality in the majority of cases, trafficking wasn’t the worst of what the victim went through,” Perosino says. “That is why policies of social inclusion must be furthered.”

People who have access to education, housing and employment aren’t likely to fall back into trafficking networks, she says. But more vulnerable people fall prey to the same traps. Perosino says she has, on more than one occasion, helped a single person multiple times. That’s often because they don’t know their rights and because they were in vulnerable situations in their home countries as well as in Argentina, she says.

There’s no consensus about how to prevent labor trafficking.

Leaders of the Cultural Symbiosis Collective, an organization of Bolivian textile workers in Argentina, say sweatshop raids only leave workers without a place to live.

Sweatshops should be transformed into legitimate workplaces, says Juan Vásquez, a member. The collective has organized protests and marches to publicize the idea, he says.

But Beizuhn argues that such a change would only whitewash the problem. The government should convict the owners of companies that employ slave labor, he says.

In May, the government closed the sweatshop where Quisbert García worked.

Since mid-July, he has worked sewing and printing T-shirts in the “December 20” Cooperative, a workshop founded in 2005 and owned by Alameda. Cruz Ortiz is one of the cooperative’s founders, and she works there as a seamstress. The cooperative produces clothing, fabrics, quilts, bed linens and cloth bags, among other things that can be purchased at the collective and a market in Buenos Aires.

Quisbert García chooses how much to work and logs between four and seven hours each day. He says he can earn up to 6,000 pesos ($631) per month.

The air in the workshop is clean, he says. There are large windows, and the environment is relaxed.

Quisbert García says he wants to stay in Argentina to testify in court against his traffickers and assure that the people who tricked him end up in jail, he says.

And he wants to attend school. Once he earns enough money, he says, he’ll study graphic design.

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish. 

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