Buenos Aires – Maria Velasquez was in need of work. She had no prospects in her hometown of La Paz, Bolivia, so when she was offered a bus ticket to Argentina and assured of steady work and a home there, she jumped at the chance.
It was a trip that would take her to the depths of the garment industry’s slave labor trade only to emerge as a member of a cooperative credited with raising awareness about slave labor on two continents.
“I was promised a sewing job in Argentina that would pay a dignified salary of $200 a month. But just like so many other victims, I was lied to,” says Velasquez, 31.
She quickly became a victim trapped inside a vast network of workers who are lured from Bolivia to Argentina on empty promises.
Most endure long and brutal journeys before being sent to work in clandestine clothing factories under oppressive conditions.
In Velasquez’s case, she and her husband, with their one-year-old son, crossed the border into Argentina in 2006 using counterfeit documents provided to them by the smugglers.
There was not a fake passport available for an infant boy, so Velasquez had to cut her son’s hair and put him in a pink dress so he looked like the baby girl pictured on the passport. It worked.
Once in Buenos Aires, Velasquez soon realized the whole scenario was a scam. She was dispatched to a hot, crowded factory and forced to sew 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
She says she was rarely allowed outside, and had to sleep in a hallway alongside 20 other workers. For all her work, she made $25 dollars a month.
“My son would sit under the sewing table and cry, and my boss would yell at us all the time,” she says.
With little money and no contacts in Argentina, she felt she had no choice but to stay and work at the sweatshop. After a year, though, the mistreatment became too much, and she fled with her husband and son.
Eventually, she arrived at La Alameda, a community center that serves Argentina’s burgeoning Bolivian community. Velasquez soon learned that they also make clothes there, and found that her sewing skills were in demand.
La Alameda clothing collective is situated on the noisy second floor of a century-old corner building in the working-class Parque Avellaneda neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
Inside, Velasquez and a dozen other men and women – nearly all of whom are former victims of slave labor – produce sweat-free clothing in a non-threatening environment.
Instead of constant verbal abuse and sleepless nights, they now spend their days stitching dresses, blouses, and uniforms for small local companies.
Each member works an eight-hour shift, and earns around $4 dollars an hour. The cooperative’s rules are simple: there is no boss, all issues are voted upon, and profits are split.
“I now have the freedom to be a part of my children’s lives. I have a say in the decisions we make here. We all earn the same amount. It is an excellent change of lifestyle for me,” says Velasquez.
In 2009, La Alameda decided to take their goods global. They partnered with a similar workers’ collective in Thailand, Dignity Returns, and began jointly producing colorful T-shirts under the label name “No Chains.”
The T-shirts feature designs by artists from all corners of the globe, and are sold online and in shops in Buenos Aires and Bangkok for $15 dollars each.
The “No Chains” initiative has been credited with helping bring attention to slave labor in Argentina and Thailand, both countries where the trade is particularly prevalent, while also promoting ethical consumption practices.
In Argentina, slave labor boomed during the past decade, a consequence of the country’s devastating economic crisis in 2001, when it defaulted on some $100 billion dollars in debt. The currency devaluation that followed made it prohibitively expensive to import products and, consequently, Argentina’s textile industry exploded.
“The clothing business grew very quickly here but without serious fiscal, political or labor controls,” says Gustavo Vera, the director of La Alameda and a leading advocate for labor rights in Argentina.
“Now, in Buenos Aires city there are 3,000 clandestine clothing factories with some 25,000 workers. Nearly 80 percent of the clothing produced in Argentina is made in clandestine factories,” he says.
Buenos Aires city officials say in 2010 they identified 1,200 locations where forced labor was suspected of taking place. They acknowledge it is a challenge to shut down the sweatshops and admit they do not know exactly how many clandestine factories exist.
That is one reason why Daisy Cahuapaza, 34, values her job at La Alameda so much. Like her workmate Velasquez, she came to Argentina from Bolivia, and worked long hours for little pay in a clandestine factory.
Now, as a member of the collective, she is thrilled that she can make a living wage and support her four children. She is quick to point out, however, that many others are still falling prey to the same trap.
On a recent trip to Bolivia, she says she saw a dozen buses at a La Paz bus station filled with nervous young women destined for foreign borders – and uncertain futures.
“More people are being brought from Bolivia every day. Not just here to Argentina, they go to Brazil too,” she says. “The reality is that people need the work. And for that work, they have to suffer.”
The continual violence caused by the drug cartels in Ciudad Juárez, México, have left thousands of children orphaned. At least 12,000 children have been faced the loss of a parent because of violence.
Majority of the 7,000 people murdered were between the ages of 17 – 35.
“In Miami we found a human trafficking trade like we didn’t find in any other places,” says an alarmed Aaron Cohen, a modern day abolitionist who has documented the slave trade around globe many times over. From glamorous hotels to seedy motels,Aaron Cohen says Miami has emerged as a profitable target for human traffickers.
Emerging from his undercover work, he met with Chief I-Team Investigator Michele Gillen and walked her through a collection of his videos that show how some of these young women find themselves literally locked away with no freedom to leave or say “no” to being prostituted for sex.
On one, you hear a counselor who is called an interventionist, speaking with a young woman who, Cohen explains was a run away, lured to Miami with the promise of working as a model.
“You make them money. You are a money machine for them,” the interventionist explains to the girl with the hope of giving her hope and an exit.
The young woman responds “I ended up getting locked in a house”
Assisting in what ‘s called a “break away”, Cohen is a human rights advocate known as ‘The Slave Hunter’ – and he bought a so-called date with the girl to help her break away from her captors.
“They locked her in closets, they beat her if she disobeyed, they would starve her if she disobeyed,” says Cohen
She is one of thousands of women, men and children who have been rescued by Cohen, who often works undercover and along side law enforcement in some of the most dangerous, darkest places in the world. His aim now…our backyard.
“You have to look at on the East Coast, the cocaine cartels. The cartels are bringing girls in in droves into Miami,” says Cohen.
“When you think of trafficking in the US you have to make the connection with organized crime. And organized crime has drugs as their number one business, sex trafficking as their number two business and arms as their number three. What people are failing to realize is our own US citizens are being trafficked. Runaways who are picked up within hours of running away from their families are moved from state to state, forced into prostitution and other horrible acts,” says Carmin Pino, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, based in Miami.
Pino says he is outraged and haunted by this illegal trade and how South Florida has become a magnet for it and young American runaways are ever more vulnerable.
“We have very high end trafficking. (In) our escort services because Miami is very high end and a lot of money is involved. And now what’s becoming a very bad trend. US citizens are being abducted and taken abroad and they are being forced into a variety of heinous crimes,”says Pino.
Breaking girls into the trade often involves multiple rapes and torture.
“I was not prepared to see the amount of depravity that I was going to witness,” Cohen shares with Gillen.
Nor is local law enforcement. Police painfully told Gillen about an 18 year-old girl who they say was lured from a BBQ to go to a party. Instead she was brought to one Miami hotel and then another, where it’s alleged she was beaten and kept against her will for 31 days forced to essentially work those days and nights as a sex slave.
A Miami man and woman were arrested in the case and are set to stand trial in December for alleged crimes that include sex trafficking and kidnapping.
Meanwhile, it is the hoped for rescues that keeps Cohen going into the trades worst danger zones, including post earthquake Haiti.
But it is the reunions of freed slaves with their long lost loved ones, as he documented in Sudan, that propels him to find the next survivor and strengthens his voice to wake up the world. His message, “If we don’t do something about these problems we are feeding this monster that is going to eat us alive.”
ICE encourages the public to report suspicious criminal activity through its toll-free hotline at 1-866-DHS-2ICE. This hotline is staffed around the clock by investigators.
Unite in the Hope Movement to Combate Modern-day Slavery!
- The clashes with police erupted over permission to build a church
- Police fired tear gas and arrested 93 people
- Building permits for churches are often a source of tension
Cairo, Egypt (CNN) — A Christian protester was killed and dozens others were wounded Wednesday in violent clashes with police that erupted over permission to build a church here.
Egyptian police fired tear gas. The 150 demonstrators answered with Molotov cocktails.
In the aftermath of the melee, the ground in front of a government building in suburban Giza was littered with rocks and knocked-over potted plants.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said 93 people were arrested.
Tensions have been running high between Egypt’s Muslim majority and minority Christians who make up about 9 percent of the people.
Copts, who are adherents of an Egyptian sect of Christianity, complain of discrimination, including the lack of freedom to build houses of worship. The government denies those accusations.
However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has expressed concern that the Egyptian government and media have deliberately promoted sectarian friction ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for December.
“We’ve seen a clear uptick in recent weeks of incitement coming from media outlets and clerics espousing sectarian hatred and violence,” said Leonard Leo, chairman of the independent, bi-partisan commission. “This kind of rhetoric goes too far and stokes the fire of extremists looking for ammunition to justify violent acts against religious minorities.”
The commission said that earlier this month, ten Coptic Christian homes and several businesses were burned and looted in Qena province in southern Egypt following rumors of a romantic relationship between a Christian man and Muslim woman.
Security officials imposed a curfew and arrested several Muslims, the commission said.