Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dispatches: São Paulo

Dennis Barbosa reveals that 100,000 Bolivians, many of them undocumented immigrants, live and work in Sao Paulo, re-creating a Bolivian community in the midst of Brazil’s industrial capital.

More than 100,000 Bolivians work as sweatshop laborers in Brazil’s largest city. Like the immigrants that came before, it’s the first rung on the ladder.

Yola Usnayo, born to a poor family in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, dreams of becoming a hairdresser. The 25-year-old mother puts in 17-hour days as a seamstress at a cramped sweatshop in São Paulo’s Bom Retiro neighborhood. She earns less than $500 a month for sewing up to 400 articles a day. But since she arrived in Brazil by bus three years ago, she has been determinedly putting away her savings for the better life she is convinced awaits her family. “I’m happy,” says Yola, who lives rent-free in the shop along with her one-year-old son and two other workers. “The only thing I don’t like about living here is that I’m far away from my family.”

But at least she’s not alone. An estimated 100,000 expatriate Bolivians like Yola are scrabbling for an economic foothold in Brazil’s wealthiest city. These hidden migrants, most of whom work in garment industry sweatshops, are among Brazil’s most exploited workers. The migrants come on their own or are brought by traffickers paid by employers to provide them with low-wage workers. Often, the labor process amounts to little more than indentured servitude. The employer pays the traffickers for bringing in the workers, but the worker is then indebted to the boss for that amount until the transport charge is paid off.

Despite Yola’s upbeat attitude the work is backbreaking. Yola and her companions get only four short breaks for food and rest in their 7:00 a.m. to midnight shift. And the work work is far from secure: from time to time, local or federal police or agents from the Ministry of Labor raid warehouses where Bolivians are found packed in amid sewing machines, working exhausting hours. Anyone without papers is required to leave within eight days. Most never do.…


Tags: Bolivia, Bolivian immigration, Bolivian sweatshop laborers, Bolivians in Brazil, Bolivians in Sao Paulo, Bom Retiro, Dennis Barbosa, g, labor practices, migrants, Ministry of Labor, Praca Kantuta, raids, Sao Paulo, sewing machines, sweatshops, Yola Usnayo
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