The end of the line (english)

Interview with: 
Mario Geremia

In Bolivia, about half of the economically active population works in the informal market. Many migrate to Brazil, according to Bolivian National Electoral Court more than 150,000 Bolivians reside in Greater São Paulo. There, a main destination of the illegal Bolivian labor are textile sweatshops, usually controlled by South Korean migrants.

How and when did the migration of Koreans to Brazil begin and why were they directed to the textile industry?

The Korean migration had its beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, with the arrival of the first groups which were assisted and welcomed by our missionary work of the Igreja da Paz (Peace Church). In São Paulo, due to a specifically favourable environment, they found the possibility to work in textile production in an informal and clandestine way, being integrated as service providers, as already happened to other migrant groups.

Since when and why did the migration of the Bolivians happen?

The Bolivians in the decades between 1970 and 80 (and until today) were integrated in this niche of the market, continuing the same work system and in the same (or even worse) work conditions as in Bolivia, since it is an exploited, informal and clandestine type of work. In spite of the possibility of legalization for a great part during the last five years, the working situation hasn’t changed much. They continue to work under terrible conditions, enormous exploitation and work shifts of up to 18 hours. The average salary for the textile workers is between 70 and 200 dollars a month. That is due to the fact that their work is directly linked to production volumes and, therefore, the more they sew, the more they earn.

How is the migration – is the majority women or men?

A large majority of the Bolivian migrants are young, sometimes with rural origins, or even coming from the large cities of Bolivia where they already constituted the first migration wave from the countryside to the city. Now we have whole families and already about forty percent are women. We also have the presence of many elderly that accompany their children, sometimes due to health problems, mainly because they would find better health care possibilities once in the new country.

What is the condition of the migrants' work? I.e. do they have access to labour rights, public services or health insurance?

Labour rights and also citizenship rights are today still totally compromised; we, from the “Centro Pastoral do Migrante” (CPM) and ten more organizations have actually signed a pact for decent work conditions in the textile industry, but have failed to implement it so far.

There is still a long road between the migratory legalization and the labour legalization. A lot of is to be done in this area, in dialogue with all levels of political power, for the organization of the chain of production. We also have to highlight the responsibility of the large fashion retailers and suppliers of the material for the textile production. It is not fair to point the finger exclusively at those who are victims of the unfair system of production of the textile chain of production. All have their degree of responsibility in this sense. For next year, I believe that we will be able to implement the pact of decent work to a much larger extent.

Public services should be guaranteed to all of the people – but fear and the insecurity for not having proper immigration documents and, especially for being different cause them to be discriminated against, and a lot of doors are shut in their faces. The employees of the public sector do not treat the migrants well. There is still a lot of work to be done in this sense.

Which institutions support the migrants? What is the role of the government?

The churches and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are those providing the largest support to the migrants. The government is limited to the legal subjects and in providing the normal public health services, education, transport, etc. It takes trust for the migrant to approach the institution and look for help. The Migrant Pastoral Center in this sense is the most reliable space and where they look for every type of support and information.

We are at the limit of our resources, and there is a daily overload of requests, especially at this time. Right now we are implementing the agreement Brazil-Bolivia. There has been the agreement about the amnesty for illegal migrants, and now also the agreement of residence in Mercosul with Chile and Bolivia.
We are also willing to favour the maximum of resources to enable self-organization, and place the migrants as protagonists of their condition – they will then be able to begin to speak and to demand their rights for themselves. We will have the migrants’ 4th march on December 13th, exactly to work in that direction. We worked a lot with the subject of the culture and of the integration in all of their dimensions, and we always aim to place universal citizenship in focus.

How did the financial crisis affect the textile Industry and consequently the migrants' lives?

The crisis heavily affected the branch of the textile and fashion industry – a lot of people returned to their country of origin or changed their country of residence, hoping to improve their working and living situation. The fact that the migrant comes in search of work is directly affected by the economical factor.

That strikes exactly the central point of the issue. It is necessary to rethink the future and the unfair economic system of the relationship between capital and work, because it seems that the crisis is much deeper. It is an environmental crisis, a crisis of civilization, of changes of paradigms, and even a moral and ethical crisis. The financial system wants to impose its ways through it – its unfair, exploiting, concentrating and consumerist ways, forcing millions of human beings to migrate in search of better living conditions.
If work is a universal right, nobody is therefore taking someone else’s work. It is just a human right which all should have access to. The great capitalists and investors should be made aware of the damage that they are causing to earth and to humanity. The migrants are being prophetic subjects of humanity since they are, on one side, denouncing the unfair system that is in place, and, on the other, they are announcing the urgency of another possible (and also urgent) world.

Interview: Cristiane Tasinato

Translation Portuguese–English: R.C. Benedetti

For further background information: Caciamali, Maria Cristina e Azevedo, Flavio Antonio Gomes de: "Entre o trafico humano e a opção da mobilidade social: A situação dos imigrantes na cidade de São Paulo." (pdf document).