By Michael E. Miller
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By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Yet this is just one of the inconsistencies between Aurafin's representation of the quality of Love, Earth manufacturing and worker testimony or documents uncovered in Bolivia.
New Times secured confidential payroll sheets from the Aurafin factory that show workers made far less than what would be considered "responsibly sourced" products. Base salaries for workers in 2008 were just cents above Bolivia's legal minimum, then around $85 a month. According to a 2009 report by the U.S. State Department, this minimum wage in Bolivia "did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family."
Not that Maria and Julia needed Washington to tell them that. "Basically, we make between $75 and $85 a month," Julia says, which is less than half of what Bolivian economists consider sufficient to cover basic necessities. "Sometimes we can make [more] during the high season. It means working six days a week for 12 hours," she explains. "But that's giving up your life."
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Another worker, 21-year-old Claudia, says that's the worst part: "You must stay if there is production to be completed; there is no other option." She wants to go to night school but says she is threatened not to do this. "We are told that nothing that would compete with our time or take away from work being our priority will be tolerated," she explains.
For Fernando, who's finishing his ninth year as an Aurafin employee, the biggest problem is feeling threatened into silence. "The safety equipment is just for show, and we are paid miserably," says the slight father of two. "But I learned to keep my mouth shut early on when Bracamonte brought me into his office after I voiced concerns. I don't say anything anymore."
Bruno Rojas, an employment and labor rights investigator for the Center for Agrarian and Labor Development Studies, a think tank in La Paz, says that the Aurafin operation contradicts promises of Love, Earth being a responsibly sourced product. He wonders: "Isn't the point of social responsibility at least to give workers a wage that allows them to pay for their basic necessities and conditions that are better than the norm?"
José is 31 years old and, like most in the impoverished city of El Alto, Bolivia, indigenous Aymara. His thick black hair flops up and out from an even middle part, creating something resembling McDonald's arches atop his forehead. It was 2004 when he started with Aurafin: He entered the factory as a trainee, part of a highly fluctuating rookie work force that, according to the company's payroll record, makes up a constant source of new and low-paid labor.
(Though it has been years since he was employed by Aurafin, José spoke to New Times only on the condition of anonymity because he fears retaliation by the company against friends and family.)
His memories of inside the factory echo current worker testimony. José recalls being in a meeting when a coworker complained about the low pay. A supervisor responded: "You don't have the right to demand anything here because we are the ones who put the bread on your table each day." José's job of filing gold created a lot of dust, but he, like Maria and Julia, wasn't given a mask for protection.
After three months, he was let go, as were all but 30 of about 200 who entered with him. José was disheartened. But that didn't change the fact that he needed to work to help support his parents and younger bother. So in 2005, he sought out a job closer to home — in one of El Alto's talleres, or clandestine workshops, that supply labor for the Aurafin factory.
"I thought I knew what I was getting into," José remembers. He knew it would be far from a dream job, but the experience was worse than he imagined: poor pay, no benefits, long hours. Workers were forced to complete tedious tasks like braiding gold chains in rough conditions and with verbal abuse by supervisors. And it's these workshops that constitute the most glaring contradiction between Love, Earth's promises and on-the-ground reality.
According to a 2005 New York Times article, José's workplace was one of 17 subcontracted outfits used by Aurafin, accounting for 1,600 jobs. Records released in 2008 by the Aurafin factory confirm that 11 percent of its costs, or $918,000, went toward paying the workshops to produce jewelry — meaning a yearly per-worker salary of about $574, or less than $50 each month.
From the outside, the workshops are unrecognizable: a two-story house with a garage door open that signals to employees that the shop is operating, for example. Inside, according to José and Elvio Mamani, another former workshop laborer, there's nothing more than benches and chairs. Mamani has worked in various Aurafin talleres over the years and says that some of his fellow workers were as young as 14, under Bolivia's legal minimum of 18. Lighting is scant; there are no robotic magnifying glasses. "Your work materials are your hands, some tweezers, and the gold," says Mamani.
Rosario is going on her 11th year in the workshops and says nothing has changed in all that time. Rosy-cheeked with slightly crooked teeth, she daily dons a pollera, the traditional Aymara skirt, and a typical bowler hat tipped to the side. "I stay out of necessity," she said in December 2010, also requesting anonymity. She admits it's a precarious way to provide for her three children.