Clandestine Progress


In April, two chil­dren – Orlando and Roberto Cama­cho – died in a fire in a tex­tile work­shop on Páez Street, in the Flo­res neigh­bor­hood of Buenos Aires. Just as in 2006, after another fire on Luis Viale street, their deaths brought atten­tion to the tex­tile econ­omy and its key com­po­nent: thou­sands of sewing work­ers, who accord­ing to non-offi­cial data num­ber around 300,000. This num­ber gives the impres­sion that this sec­tor is more pow­er­ful than the Metal Work­ers Union. How­ever, there is a rad­i­cal dif­fer­ence: they are migrants, non-union­ized, and the most pre­car­i­ous work­ers.

The Argen­tinean media and NGOs ded­i­cated to denounc­ing the work­shops and “sav­ing” the migrants have pop­u­lar­ized the expres­sion “slave labor” to describe that enor­mous num­ber of women and men. Pri­mar­ily from Bolivia, they man­u­fac­ture for one of the last decade’s most prof­itable and quickly expand­ing indus­tries: the large national and inter­na­tional cloth­ing brands, along with a net­work of inter­twined pop­u­lar mar­kets. Cat­e­go­rized as slaves, migrants are thus lim­ited to only becom­ing vis­i­ble in moments of tragedy, under images of com­plete sub­mis­sion. In this dis­course, the tex­tile work­shops are a sort of black hole where another type of human­ity is con­cen­trated, one that is never fully rec­og­nized as such, other than under the idea of com­plete for­eign­ness.

The accu­mu­la­tion of images dur­ing those days carved out expla­na­tions of the hor­ror: “death work­shops,” “human traf­fick­ing,” “ances­tral sub­mis­sion.” These for­mu­la­tions cir­cu­late like clichés, as quick ways of racial­iz­ing and sim­pli­fy­ing a much more com­plex, var­ie­gated, and mul­ti­form real­ity. A real­ity that, although one wants it to stay far away, ends up on our bod­ies, when the fab­ric of a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a sweat­shirt, or some leg­gings, whether bought in a shop­ping mall or in an infor­mal mar­ket, touches our skin and brings us close to the work­shop.

“We make cloth­ing in Bajo Flo­res and put tags on it that say Made in India or Made in Thai­land. This way, nobody will think that what they are buy­ing is made by Boli­vians in Buenos Aires, in clan­des­tine work­shops. They think that it comes from the Far East,” a worker says, smil­ing as he impro­vises a local and inverted ver­sion of Ori­en­tal­ism: con­struct­ing an exotic far­away fan­tasy capa­ble of pro­ject­ing any the stigma an enor­mous dis­tance from the sites of man­u­fac­ture in neigh­bor­hoods of Buenos Aires, in vil­las, and in many dis­tricts of the urban periph­ery.

April’s tragedy is not exempt from enter­ing into the elec­toral machin­ery. It would not be strange, as in 2006, for a mas­sive raid of work­shops to be car­ried out as a new way of set­ting the media stage in the city of Buenos Aires. As the raids of almost a decade ago have already proven, the work­shops do not dis­ap­pear: they move beyond the Gen­eral Paz, into the urban periph­ery. This time, in an attempt to give a voice to the actors them­selves, social orga­ni­za­tions, cur­rent and for­mer tex­tile work­ers, unions, and neigh­bors started an autonomous assem­bly, meet­ing in Flo­res, that calls for “tak­ing the pop­u­lar and migrant econ­omy out of the ghetto.”

Migrant Calculation

“While they let them­selves be exploited, they go about build­ing their micro-enter­prises,” says Boli­vian soci­ol­o­gist Sil­via Rivera Cusi­can­qui, try­ing to reframe the debate around the tex­tile work­shops. “The idea that a dynamic of slav­ery is in play in these places seems totally incor­rect to me.”1 She suc­cinctly sum­ma­rizes an oppo­site per­spec­tive from the one that is usu­ally used by the media and cer­tain Argen­tine plat­forms (espe­cially La Alameda) to cod­ify the migrant dynamic linked to tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing. By insist­ing on the image of the pure vic­tim, what becomes inaudi­ble in the migrants’ accounts, when they are reduced to com­plete pas­siv­ity, is the type of urban cal­cu­la­tion mobi­lized by some­one who migrates, estab­lish­ing a cer­tain rela­tion­ship between sac­ri­fice and vital aspi­ra­tion. This is a ratio­nal­ity of pro­gress that is obscured by the lan­guage of slav­ery. The nomadism of the migrant work­ers, espe­cially the youth, is a kind of know-how that ties short term tac­tics (“for a short time, no more,” as many recent arrivals are heard to say) to con­crete objec­tives. That dynamic com­bi­nes piece­meal wage labor, small con­tra­band enter­prises, semi-rural work (on small farms in the urban periph­ery), self-employed domes­tic and com­mer­cial work­ers, and/or trav­el­ing ven­dors (mar­kets, re-sales, etc.) with flex­i­ble terms and tem­po­ral­i­ties.

This per­spec­tive shifts the prob­lem: it is not about “con­scious­ness rais­ing,” as an expert on ide­ol­ogy would say – the Boli­vians know what they are doing. Nor is it sim­ply about “sav­ing them,” as the orga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cated to res­cue aim to do. It is a mat­ter of deep­en­ing the analy­sis of the cal­cu­la­tion that orga­nizes the migrants’ jour­ney, their inser­tion into the work­shop, the drive of their expec­ta­tions, and to jux­ta­pose it with the rela­tion­ships of exploita­tion between the work­shop own­ers, the work­ers, the brands, and the inter­me­di­aries that are inter­wo­ven with that cal­cu­la­tion of pro­gress. This also implies high­light­ing the unfore­seen con­di­tions, dis­il­lu­sions, and unful­filled agree­ments that can obstruct that ini­tial plan, and force work­ers to recal­cu­late their strat­egy. From this per­spec­tive, a space can be opened up for strug­gle, for demands over the sector’s con­di­tions, as well as the chain of exploita­tion that the large brands profit from. At the same time, it is from this place that migrant voices can be heard with­out crim­i­nal­iz­ing the pro­duc­tive cir­cuits that make met­ro­pol­i­tan life pos­si­ble and afford­able for the pop­u­lar classes.

The Sym­bio­sis Cul­tural Col­lec­tive – a col­lec­tive of cur­rent and for­mer tex­tile work­ers – rec­og­nizes that this cal­cu­la­tion is a source of the mobi­liza­tion of expec­ta­tions, and that it is also what must be remade in the face of the dis­ap­point­ments and decep­tions that many migrants face when they reach Argentina. They argue that there is in fact a dou­ble cal­cu­la­tion. The first cal­cu­la­tion is made before migrat­ing; the sec­ond, when it is observed that the con­di­tions of work are worse than had been imag­ined. Even so, what is at stake in this uproot­ing and com­mu­ni­tar­ian reter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion is a sus­tained dif­fer­en­tial of exploita­tion that attempts to be con­fined within the work­shop walls. That dif­fer­en­tial, fur­ther­more, is triple: wage, legal sta­tus, and, above all, com­mu­ni­tar­ian wealth, in terms of com­mu­ni­tar­ian know-how, net­works, and prac­tices.

My goal is not to defend an eth­ni­cized econ­omy (as claimed by many work­shop own­ers and lead­ers who call them­selves rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the com­mu­nity and aim to resolve prob­lems “behind closed doors,” “between coun­try­men”). Instead, my goal  is to open up the work­shop and under­stand it as a pro­to­type of the labor form that is repli­cated in other sec­tors (espe­cially in agri­cul­ture), which includes many Argen­tinean work­ers, and even for­mal work­ers – since the work­shop is usu­ally framed as a type of sub­merged modal­ity, which ben­e­fits an increas­ingly pre­car­i­ous city that is deter­mined to man­age that pre­car­ity in a racist and secu­ri­tist way. For exam­ple, one way that this has already been prac­ticed was in the vio­lent evic­tions in the Indoamer­i­cano Park, which is now evoked again when the Buenos Aires city gov­ern­ment links the issue to a prob­lem of “open bor­ders.” Secu­rity ends up being a com­mon code for crim­i­nal­iz­ing these sub­merged economies, mak­ing them invis­i­ble again while simul­ta­ne­ously exploit­ing them.

A sec­ond point com­pli­cat­ing this image of slav­ery is that many migrants seek and strive for social ascen­sion. The major­ity of tex­tile work­ers aspire to become own­ers – to become inde­pen­dent from the owner of the work­shop, but in order to open another one. It is a sort of “nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion” for many tex­tile work­ers: they know the work­shops’ oper­a­tions from within, they have con­tacts, and they under­stand the work’s dynamic. The work­shop is eas­ily assem­bled. The nec­es­sary machin­ery is cheap and sim­ple, which enables its even­tual trans­fer: open­ing a work­shop requires a house or other premises (a busi­ness that real estate com­pa­nies in neigh­bor­hoods such as Flo­res, Lin­iers, and Villa Celina are well aware of and take advan­tage of by sell­ing prop­er­ties for this pur­pose), some inex­pen­sive cap­i­tal goods, and elec­tric­ity. Still, speak­ing of slave labor also erases the orga­ni­za­tional and oper­a­tive het­ero­gene­ity of the work­shops, which com­bine diverse types of fam­ily enter­prises with medium-scale ini­tia­tives and other inter­nally diverse schema.

Cen­ter­ing the dis­cus­sion on var­i­ous forms of exploita­tion rather than on slav­ery, which in lib­eral and pop­u­lar dis­courses is meant to sug­gest that these forms of labor are prior to or out­side of cap­i­tal­ism, and high­light­ing labor power (and its ambiva­lences and ten­sions), pre­vents us from return­ing to  the trope of sub­mis­sive or unciv­i­lized sav­ages. “It would seem to be very cru­elly colo­nial­ist, but this rule is not colo­nial,” notes Rivera Cusi­can­qui.  “Thus, the word slave, always part of a cul­tural het­eron­omy, is incor­rect, although it is true that the knowl­edge acquired in colo­nial exploita­tion becomes an input for all forms of exploita­tion.”2 It is over this sub­merged part of the econ­omy that the large brands mount their exploita­tion.

Leninists or Slaves?

Speak­ing of slav­ery erases all desire for cit­i­zen­ship on the part of those who come to Argentina in search of work and, above all, the ratio­nal­ity in play in migrant tra­jec­to­ries through the migrants’ patient “Lenin­ism,” as Rivera Cusi­can­qui char­ac­ter­izes it. “In that sense, our com­pa­tri­ots are rather Lenin­ist: You have to dream but on the con­di­tion of metic­u­lously achiev­ing your fan­tasy. Tick, tock, tick, tock: this year I sim­ply sur­vive, next year I get a room and bring my wife, the fol­low­ing year I’ll save some money, and within ten years I’ll start assem­bling my own work­shop and bring­ing in oth­ers.”3 Today that cycle seems even faster than a few years ago, dri­ven by the increased demand of pop­u­lar con­sump­tion. Cou­pled with a sort of strate­gic patience, the period in the work­shop resolves issues of hous­ing, work, and lack of knowl­edge about the city and one’s rights. This guar­an­tees, at least for a time, the dif­fer­en­tial of exploita­tion that is cen­tral in the very orga­ni­za­tion of the work­shops.

Thus, their clan­des­tine nature is a simul­ta­ne­ously excep­tional and pro­lif­er­at­ing con­di­tion. The work­shop is both a work­shop-dor­mi­tory and a “com­mu­ni­tar­ian” space, a site of intense labor extended in work­days of over twelve hours, with rotat­ing shifts, and com­bined with an extremely risky migra­tory wager. The entire lives of many recently arrived migrants from dif­fer­ent parts of Bolivia takes place in those few meters, to the extent that the work­shop solves the issue of lodg­ing and of employ­ment in the same time-space. It is where peo­ple cook, raise chil­dren, sleep, and work; and, at first, it serves as a way of pro­tect­ing one­self from an unknown city.

To stay in the work­shop a short time, no more. To make con­tacts. To change jobs. To study den­tistry or busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion.  To make new net­works. To make hip-hop. To dream about mar­riage equal­ity. These are also options prac­ticed by many young migrants who do not become work­shop own­ers. These are tra­jec­to­ries, life plans, goals of pro­gress, lines of flight. The migrant labor force is artic­u­lated between the micro-enter­prise and self-employ­ment, small-scale work, and wage rela­tions based on fam­ily ties, com­bin­ing the work­shop with under­de­vel­oped tech­nol­ogy, the large brands that export their prod­ucts, and the dynamism of infor­mal mar­kets for pop­u­lar con­sump­tion.

Our hypoth­e­sis, then, for under­stand­ing the flow of the migrant labor force is to rec­og­nize the force of deci­sion and will to pro­gress that brings a “com­mu­ni­tar­ian cap­i­tal” into play with a strong invest­ment of indi­vid­ual sac­ri­fice. It is a vital impulse that deploys a cal­cu­la­tion in which neolib­eral ratio­nal­ity (extreme infor­mal­ity, pre­car­ity, and flex­i­bil­ity) is inter­mixed with a reper­toire of com­mu­ni­tar­ian prac­tices (for exam­ple, var­i­ous work­shop own­ers have taken advan­tage of pop­u­lar soup kitchens to feed their work­ers).

Thus, value is placed on a specif­i­cally post­mod­ern artic­u­la­tion of the com­mu­ni­tar­ian: its capac­ity to become an attrib­ute of labor, a speci­fic qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the migrant work­force from the Boli­vian high­lands in Buenos Aires, as well as its reper­toire of prac­tices that mix life and work, fam­ily and com­mer­cial ties, rela­tion­ships of trust and of exploita­tion. This mix­ture chal­lenges the com­mon under­stand­ing of the clan­des­tine work­shop as excep­tional at the same time as it exac­er­bates it.

Alternative Arguments: Culturalism and Moralization

It is dif­fi­cult to clear the jun­gle of stereo­types – prin­ci­pally because it is thick with cul­tur­al­ist and moral­ist argu­ments. The cul­tur­al­ist arse­nal is sum­ma­rized in a con­tro­ver­sial and land­mark court rul­ing: in 2008, the fed­eral judge Nor­berto Oyarbide acquit­ted three exec­u­tives of a cloth­ing com­pany accused of “con­tract­ing tex­tile work­shops where undoc­u­mented immi­grants were employed under con­di­tions of max­i­mum labor pre­car­ity.” The judge argued that this mode of exploita­tion oper­ated as the legacy of “cul­tural pat­terns and cus­toms of the indige­nous pop­u­la­tions of the Boli­vian high­lands,” where the major­ity of the work­shop own­ers and work­ers orig­i­nated, and that those who cohab­ited in the work­shop were “a human group that lives like an ayllu or an extended famil­ial com­mu­nity native to that region, which func­tions as a type of coop­er­a­tive.”

Thus the ayllu was trans­lated into a pro­duc­tive unit for the tex­tile work­shop. At the same time, by fram­ing it as an ances­tral-cul­tural struc­ture, the court denied that it is a form of orga­niz­ing labor, thereby leav­ing it out­side the scope of the law. The para­dox is exposed: the court rul­ing speaks of ances­tral tra­di­tions to assign a far­away cul­tural origin to that which, here and now, func­tions as a mode of exploita­tion.

The cul­tur­al­ist jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, in the name of rec­og­niz­ing tra­di­tion, vin­di­cates and defends the excep­tion­al­ism of the tex­tile workshop’s labor forms pre­cisely by not con­sid­er­ing them labor. It also uni­fies work­shop own­ers and work­ers under the for­mula of the Boli­vian “col­lec­tiv­ity,” as if it were a homo­ge­neous total­ity. If the com­mu­nal logic was cre­ated out­side of the para­me­ters of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, it is this same ref­er­ence to origin that exempts it from being judged accord­ing to the logic of exploita­tion in the cur­rent moment. At the same time, it is fully incor­po­rated into the out­sourcing of the tex­tile indus­try as a key ele­ment of its new flex­i­ble struc­ture. Here the entan­gle­ment of the state’s dif­fer­ent respon­si­bil­i­ties and agen­cies (at the level of the city and of the nation) is opened up by design­ing a type of inter­ven­tion that aims for con­trol over busi­ness lead­ers and not the repres­sion of pop­u­lar ille­gal­ity.

Sec­ond, the mor­al­iza­tion deployed both by orga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cated to denounc­ing the work­shops and church-based orga­ni­za­tions – already with the scale of a global agenda – uni­fies the diver­sity of migrant itin­er­aries under the label of “human traf­fick­ing.” Migrants only appear as sub­ju­gated fig­ures, infan­tilized and forced into labor, inca­pable of hav­ing their own ratio­nal­ity. The colo­nial imprint of these orga­ni­za­tions, who posi­tion them­selves as sav­iors, struc­tures an entire dis­course of res­cue and pro­tec­tion, and those orga­ni­za­tions feel “defrauded” when the sup­posed sav­ages return to the tex­tile work­shop or “defend” their bosses; or, even more, when they reject and/or crit­i­cize the mis­sion of found­ing coop­er­a­tives accord­ing to the stan­dards of those orga­ni­za­tions. Again, the voice is still not heard that speaks of the vio­lence of the raids and vari­able forms of police and judi­cial com­plic­ity that are artic­u­lated with the out­sourcing busi­nesses. (This com­plic­ity is not only with the pro­ceed­ings – it is also known that the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Police’s uni­forms are man­u­fac­tured in these work­shops.) Even more: the pro­tag­o­nism of the work­ers, who – even if not under clas­si­cal union forms – are the social sub­ject capa­ble of cre­at­ing another dynamic around this con­flict, is taken away.

Can the Textile Workers Speak?

At first, when speak­ing of the tex­tile work­shops, clan­des­tin­ity is the name given to the jux­ta­po­si­tion of a series of labor con­di­tions of extreme pre­car­ity that mix, in a con­text of (both for­mal as well as infor­mal) eco­nomic growth, irreg­u­lar­i­ties from the stand­point of the reg­u­la­tion of for­mal, con­trac­tual work, with ille­gal­i­ties from the strict juridi­cal point of view in sit­u­a­tions of strong indis­tinc­tion between con­di­tions of life and work. How­ever, the clas­si­cal divi­sions between formal/informal or legal/illegal no longer suf­fice. The notion of clan­des­tin­ity exposes a more gen­eral char­ac­ter­is­tic of sub­merged economies: a man­age­ment of the work­force that exceeds the juridi­cal para­me­ters and that includes vital spheres within a broader gov­ern­ment of the body and the sub­jec­tiv­ity of the worker.

The tex­tile work­shops, there­fore, exhibit in the extreme cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics that today con­cern the pre­car­i­ous forms of con­tem­po­rary appa­ra­tuses of exploita­tion that are increas­ingly based on the gov­ern­ment of life rather than the reg­u­la­tion of modes of employ­ment. And that, as the cur­rent vice-pres­i­dent of Bolivia once wrote, is a new busi­ness order that sub­or­di­nates even the “blood net­works of the sub­al­tern classes.”

How­ever, char­ac­ter­is­tics of those labor forms are already spread through­out the labor mar­ket in gen­eral as con­crete forms of pre­car­i­ti­za­tion. Agri­cul­tural labor in the coun­tryside, but also in the small farms of the urban periph­ery, the extreme pre­car­i­ti­za­tion of the cat­e­gories of com­merce and other modes of home-based work, as well as the more gen­eral con­di­tion of infor­mal work that accounts for almost half of the national econ­omy, make it so that cer­tain fea­tures of the tex­tile work­shop mir­ror the world of work under­stood in a broad sense.

In the tenac­ity of migrants that, recently arrived, lock them­selves up in a work­shop, there is also a cal­cu­la­tion about pre­car­i­ous life that no one seems to want to hear. It is as if we were to return to Gay­a­tri Spivak’s ques­tion about the subaltern’s power to speak, to warn that the usual dis­courses that appear to nar­rate these economies are Argen­tine busi­ness­men, offi­cials or lead­ers of national orga­ni­za­tions. The same thing hap­pens, for exam­ple, when Argen­tinian ven­dors rep­re­sent – becom­ing its polit­i­cal and media voice – the clan­des­tine La Sal­ada mar­ket, which leaves the major­ity of the mar­kets’ par­tic­i­pants, who are for­eign migrant work­ers, in the shad­ows.4

Here a cen­tral con­flict is debated: over­com­ing the racist iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Argen­tine labor with dig­ni­fied work, while migrant labor is linked to “slave labor.” For this it is nec­es­sary to con­nect these economies, to take them out of the ghetto, and lis­ten to the voices that pro­tag­o­nize them. And in any case, to locate the obsta­cle on the other side: why can’t the tex­tile work­ers speak? They are part of a labor force that day by day, “from below” con­fronts the dis­pos­ses­sive effects of neolib­er­al­ism.

–Trans­lated by Liz Mason-Deese

  1. Colec­tivo Sim­bio­sis and Sil­via Rivera Cusi­can­qui, De chueq­ui­s­tas y over­lockas: Una dis­cusión en torno a los talleres tex­tiles (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón), 20–21. 

  2. Ibid., 22. 

  3. Ibid., 24. 

  4. Jorge Castillo, the Argen­tine admin­is­tra­tor of one of three main sec­tors of La Sal­ada, has become the lead­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive of La Sal­ada mar­ket in the main­stream media, despite the fact that the major­ity of the market’s orga­niz­ers, ven­dors, and shop­pers are Boli­vian. See Verónica Gago, La razón neolib­eral: Economías bar­ro­cas y prag­mática pop­u­lar (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2015). 

Author of the article

is part of Colectivo Situaciones, teaches in the School of Social Sciences at Buenos Aires University, and is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). She is currently working on a project exploring popular economies in post-neoliberal contexts.