SUBMERGED ECONOMY

“You will never see an ad in the paper offering ‘Exploited workers’”

Police are struggling in the fight against clandestine sweatshop slavery

A Chinese workshop in Mataró, Barcelona that was raided in 2009, in the biggest police operation of its kind.
A Chinese workshop in Mataró, Barcelona that was raided in 2009, in the biggest police operation of its kind.Gianluca Battista

Three different fliers vie for attention on the windshields of cars parked in the Madrid neighborhood of Vallecas. All three are advertising Latin girls, but each one provides a different telephone number. The prostitution of foreign women is a familiar form of exploitation on Spanish streets. But there are other, much less visible forms of slavery.

Vallecas is home to a Chinese textile factory that the municipal police raided in October. It is situated in a basement with four street-level windows, which have been boarded up with plywood. Ringing the doorbell sets off a mechanism that automatically opens the door, and an Asian man who looks about 40 appears at the end of the staircase. He seems surprised to see unfamiliar faces.

Behind him, another man is bent over a sewing machine, working on a raincoat. There is no natural light in the room, and the floor is littered with spools and piles of clothes. The foreman, who says his name is Juan, explains that everything has been given the OK by the police, that his workers get a salary, but that he doesn't know how much they make because he leaves that sort of thing to his accountants. A woman shows up, screaming in Chinese, and invites the visitors to leave.

The Madrid Municipal Police confirmed that they were unable to act against this sweatshop beyond a slap on the wrist for occupational hazards. The two officers who walked inside found 12 workers - four of whom had deportation orders against them - and a long list of workplace infractions, including a complete absence of ventilation and cables hanging loose. But making the case that these workers are victims of economic exploitation requires proving coercion or abuse, and this is no easy matter. That is why dramatic situations like this one often remain under the radar until something happens, as was the case recently in Prato (Italy), where a sweatshop went up in flames, killing seven people.

The police raided a Chinese textile factory in Vallecas in October

José Nieto is the head of the Unit against Illegal Immigration Networks (UCRIF) in Madrid. "We charge the Chinese workshops with exploitation, but the public prosecutor never recognizes it," he says. Nieto is familiar with the working conditions at these factories, which often involve 14-hour days in exchange for nothing more than food.

He explains that the number of sweatshops in Spain is going down because it is more profitable for owners to keep them in China. But eradicating the ones that do operate on Spanish territory, he says, poses many challenges. The first one is convincing the workers themselves that they are victims, since conditions considered unacceptable in Europe may be desirable to an impoverished Asian. Then there is the reliability of Chinese-Spanish interpreters, who often have strong ties to their community. And then there is the fact that Spanish legislation is very protective.

Nieto, a man with a broad chest and a few gray hairs poking out of his goatee, says that the crisis has made these cases even more complicated. "Nobody is going to complain if they are being fed. In the end the suspect is arrested, he is read his rights, then released again," he explains about investigations into human trafficking for non-sexual ends. Nieto defines trafficking as when a person is taken from one place to another through deception or abuse.

"If that does not happen, if people travel in the knowledge of where they are going and for what, but later find that the working conditions are abusive, then it becomes a case of economic exploitation. That is a crime against the rights of foreign workers," explains Patricia Fernández Olalla, of the prosecutor's office for foreigner affairs.

Making a case that these workers are victims requires proving coercion

Between January and September 2013, the National Police launched 224 operations against workplace exploitation, which resulted in 329 arrests, and six against human trafficking, yielding 14 suspects. As for victims, police found 285.

Unlike the major rings specializing in human trafficking for prostitution, sweatshop slavery works through networks of relatives or acquaintances who take advantage of their fellow countrymen. "There are no big rings because it is not the kind of crime that generates dizzying sums of money. If you want to get rich, you go for the sex trade," says Nieto.

Fernández Olalla confirms this, and explains that only five percent of cases that reach her office concern non-sexual workplace exploitation. "It is more clandestine and harder to investigate," she notes. "You will never see an ad in the paper offering 'Exploited workers - Call this number,' like you see with the prostitutes."

Yet the drama of non-sexual exploitation has the same ingredients: the victims are captive, and they only know about their host country through the eyes of their captors, who have instilled in them fear of the outside world.

Nieto explains that exploitation lurks behind many people we see every day on the streets, such as the African immigrants who sell pirated movies and music and get nothing for their sales beyond a sandwich and a mattress inside an apartment packed with other migrants. "That is why the only thing they fear is the municipal police, who seize their material, forcing them to repay their exploiters," says Nieto.