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Clara Leme Ribeiro Researches the Garment Industry in São Paulo, Brazil

A garment-industry sweatshop in Brazil
Bolivian-owned garment-industry sweatshop set up in a domestic space. Photo credit: The Migrant Support Center / Centro de Apoio ao Migrante (CAMI)

March 2, 2022

My current research addresses labor, immigration, and human rights violations in domestic garment-industry sweatshops in São Paulo, Brazil. Highly precarious working conditions in this context fall under the Brazilian Penal Code’s conceptualization of “analogue to slavery” labor. Based on extensive fieldwork, I argue that these highly exploitative working system is predicated on gender-based arrangements of labor and social reproduction. Currently, I am investigating how contextual changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic – economic, social, and political – have impacted labor and social reproduction conditions for Bolivian immigrants presently working in São Paulo’s garment industry, advancing conversations around gender, migrations, and labor in the contemporary context.

In the Summer of 2021, I conducted preliminary fieldwork in São Paulo. Due to Covid-19 pandemic conditions, I was not able to conduct preliminary fieldwork in São Paulo, Brazil, and therefore conducted interviews through Zoom. I selected key informants from three non-profit organizations that work with Bolivian immigrants in São Paulo. From each organization, I reached out to current employees and members with whom I had previous contact. I was able to conduct two of these interviews between August and September and expect to conduct the last one in the first week of October. Interviews were held in Portuguese and recorded. Both interviewees allowed the use of their names but not of their image.

The Migrant Support Center (Centro de Apoio ao Migrante) is a non-profit organization funded by grassroots sectors of the Catholic Church. I interviewed Isabel Camacho, who works in the documentation sector, providing support to immigrants applying for their residency documents. The Association of Immigrant Women Luz y Vida (Associação de Mulheres Imigrantes Luz y Vida) is a grassroots organization funded by sweatshop-working Bolivian women who felt the need to organize projects on behalf of their community and themselves. I interviewed Miriam Guarachi, one of the association founders, who is herself a Bolivian sewist who has worked for years in São Paulo’s garment industry. Finally, in the last week of October, I expect to conduct an interview with Soledad Requena from the Center for Immigrant and Refugee Women (Centro da Mulher Imigrante e Refugiada), who has worked with immigrant communities in São Paulo throughout the pandemic.

Both Camacho and Guarachi coincide that labor and social reproduction sweatshop conditions worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. During this period, immigrants struggled with evictions and hunger, and many went back to Bolivia. Issues such as increased domestic violence and child labor also surfaced. Policies of border control and barriers to documentation put forth during the pandemic increased deportations, fines, and precarious labor conditions, since undocumented immigrants tend to accept longer hours for lower wages. Sweatshops started sewing health-related garments, such as face masks and hospital gowns, but for prices as low as BRL 0.15 a piece (USD 0.03). Additionally, immigrants infected with Covid-19 struggle since they cannot work as they are sick and with the sequelae.

Therefore, the results of my preliminary fieldwork demonstrate that pandemic conditions have increased human rights violations and the occurrence of “analogue to slavery” labor in São Paulo’s garment industry. Immigrants now face increasingly precarious labor and social reproduction conditions, including lower wages, lack of work, evictions, hunger, disconnection of utilities, domestic violence, child labor, and lack of documentation.

These interviews help me prepare for future on-site fieldwork in a number of ways: by strengthening my relationship with key informants; knowing how these organizations restructured their work during the pandemic, so I have a better grasp on how to collaborate with them in the future; and assessing current pressing issues and challenges for the Bolivian community involved in “analogue to slavery” labor that inform my research.

In addition to this preliminary fieldwork, throughout the Summer I worked on a literature review on the topics of social reproduction, border policies, and immigrant labor. This review will support my applications for on-site fieldwork funding in the Summer of 2022. I am also currently working on a publishable paper on my previous research with immigrant labor in São Paulo’s garment industry (working title: “Precarious labor and social reproduction in Bolivian immigrant sweatshops in São Paulo, Brazil”). Thanks to the support from the Center for Human Right’s Dr. Lisa Sable Brown Endowed Fund for Human Rights for making this work possible.