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Exploring Inequalities in Latin America: Trafficking in Humans and "the Return of the Sweatshop" in early the 21st Century

During recent decades, the clothing industry has undergone thorough transformations worldwide. According to the findings of my PhD thesis, these changes have had dreadful consequences for working conditions in the industry, including nothing less than “the return of the sweatshop” in some European and American cities, and the surge of “sweating systems” in cities where they had never existed. Amongst the latter we may include some Latin American cities (e.g. Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Bogotá) in these, since the mid 1980s there has emerged thousands of small and medium inner-city garment workshops working as subcontractors of clothing companies (be them small businesses for illegal outdoor markets, small and large retail companies, or renowned brands). These “sweating systems” are managed by leaders of immigrant communities who provide the industry with a continuous influx of workers who are in a large portion trafficked into these cities. In this research I aim at understanding the rise of trafficking in humans for the purpose of labour exploitation in Latin America during recent decades. For this purpose, while identifying and describing the main “sweating systems” in large Latin American cities, I will focus in particular on the emergence of a “sweating system” in Buenos Aires since the mid 1980s. In this context, it seems essential to explore the shifting balance of power between capital and labour, as well as the changes in the role of the state that have taken place since the 1970s in Argentina as well as in other Latin American countries. The Latin American experience has been strongly affected by broader shifts in international political economy that have been conceptualised as the passage from Fordism to Post-Fordism (Amin, 1994; Lipietz, 1987; Jessop, 1993), or to Neoliberalism (Castree et al, 2004; Harvey, 2005, 2010; Peck and Tickell, 2002). The crisis of Fordism towards the late 1960s (decreasing corporate profitability, high unemployment, "stagflation", economic and political instability) brought about significant shifts in the international spatial divisions of labour. The increasing financial deregulation and the consequent financialisation of the world economy, not only discouraged industrial production based on large capital investments (since financial speculation may ensure higher profits with lower risks and in shorter terms), but it also subjected it to the whims of financial speculators (Harvey, 1995; Merrifield, 2000). Worldwide, these trends led to (and were timely coupled by) a reorganisation of industrial production. In the fashion industry, which embodies these changes with astonishing clarity, they have triggered an increasing use of subcontracting arrangements which, coupled with other developments (notably the rising importance of fashion), have led to the return of the sweatshop. The existence of trafficking in humans poses serious questions about the progressive discourse of several centre-left wing administrations in Latin America. This is why in this research, I also want to aim at contributing to the long-term conceptualisation of the economic policies of the current centre-left-wing governments that exist in Latin America. In my viewpoint addressing these issues is essential for the analysis of socio-economic inequalities in today’s Latin America. The questions that guide this research are: (a) What are the main flows of human trafficking for labour exploitation within Latin America? And why do they exist? (b) What forces and interests have led to the rise of the sweatshop in large Latin American cities? (c) What is the role of the national state in these matters?

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