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 a social sciences professor at the Universidad Buenos Aires and researcher at the National Research Council (CONICET). She is the author of Neoliberalism from Below (Duke University Press, 2017), Feminist International (Verso Books, 2020), and co-author of A Feminist Reading of Debt (Pluto Press, 2021). She was formerly a member of Colectivo Situaciones and is currently a member of the Ni Una Menos Collective.