In sweatshops, the 'Brazilian dream' goes awry

Sun Sep 1, 2013 12:36pm EDT
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By Lucas Iberico-Lozada

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - When Margot Alarconciles woke up one morning last year and found her son sick with what appeared to be a cold, there was little she could do but wrap him in an extra blanket, walk down the hallway and start her workday: sewing clothes for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week.

"I couldn't leave my machine," she said. "Without my job, we could not eat."

Her 5-year-old son's condition deteriorated, and without proper care he soon died. Still grieving, Alarconciles now questions her decision to leave her native Bolivia for Brazil, where salaries can be many times higher but poor immigrants often must settle for work in sweatshops.

"This work is not worth it," she said on a recent Sunday as she waited to meet with an accountant who helps immigrants avoid legal problems by filing tax returns.

Despite efforts by Brazil's government to prevent labor abuses and the tragedies that stem from them, thousands of immigrants continue to toil in illegal factories supplying clothes and other goods to some of the country's best-known retailers, officials and immigrant advocacy groups tell Reuters.

Their stories show how one of the world's biggest economic shifts of the past decade - the rise of large emerging markets such as Brazil - have generated new social problems that many of the countries don't yet have the financial resources or experience to deal with properly.

As the economy boomed, the "Brazilian dream" became a magnet for workers from poorer Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Peru and even faraway Haiti. While Brazil's per capita income is only a quarter of the United States', it's still double that of Bolivia - and its currency has been so strong in recent years that migrant workers have been able to support entire families back home.

In Sao Paulo, the country's business center, the number of immigrants from other South American countries more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 to over 23,000, according to the Brazilian statistics agency IBGE. However, unofficial estimates by city officials put the number at between 200,000 and 400,000.   Continued...

A Brazilian woman browses clothes at a shop of a Bolivian immigrant (not pictured) in the Bras neighbourhood of Sao Paulo early morning August 9, 2013. REUTERS/Nacho Doce