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The workshop paid by the piece, and working eight-hour days for five or six days a week, Mamani and José took home only $40 a month — less than half of Bolivia's minimum wage.
Most of the workers were women, and José recalls supervisors berating them. "When the women didn't work fast enough, the supervisor would yell at her, calling her 'useless' and telling her that she was 'better suited for the red-light district' that was across from our workshop," remembers José. "Some of them would start to cry, and we'd be told: 'Don't console her. If she's crying, it's her own fault.'"
In 2006, José, Mamani, and a few others decided to unionize their shop. At first, the 80 other workers were terrified — their meager pay in one of South America's poorest countries makes the difference between being able to feed and school their children or not. But with abuses mounting daily, the workers decided they had no other option. Once management got wind of their organizing, Mamani recalls, they were quickly visited by "Bracamonte's man," who tried to talk them out of their decision. The workers held their ground, and the next day they found their workshop door padlocked. The site had been closed, and all workers were fired on the spot.
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Rosario knows about the incident and says she's lasted as long as she has only because she doesn't rock the boat. "My supervisor knows that I don't complain, I work at a good pace, and am reliable," she explains. But, says the woman who is not yet 40: "I'm getting too old for this." It's her eyes, she says. They are red and bloodshot and burn constantly. And her back, which is sore from years of working hunched over. "You feel like you can't raise your head because you are working so fast, and if you slow down you'll make less money," she says, instinctively hunching into her working position and then straightening up, her face belying pain as one arm moves to rub the sore area.
Rojas, with the Center for Agrarian and Labor Development Studies, says that this double-manufacturing system is common in Bolivia. "The main factory is a sort of cover," says Rojas, explaining that many companies in La Paz have one central facility that minimally abides by labor laws but that supplements its production with off-site — and off-the-books — labor. "There is no doubt that conditions in these workshops are extremely precarious and constitute serious worker exploitation," he concludes.
Bracamonte's defense at the time of the 2006 firings was that the workshops were a separate, subcontracted entity. But according to Bolivian law, the Aurafin factory is responsible for the working conditions of those employees, confirms Rojas: "Our national law is clear on this. [Aurafin] is liable."
There is not yet a Spanish translation for greenwashing. But José gets it: "They take our work and tell people that they treat us better than they do so that they buy it."
The soft-spoken man who's a strong power forward for his neighborhood soccer team took several odd jobs to support his family after Aurafin. Two years ago, he was able to go back to school and is now a law student. He plans to open a small labor-law practice.
"My dream is to sit down at the table with the bosses [like Bracamonte] but this time knowing our rights as workers," he says. "I want to help out all workers in positions like we were," he says as he glances, perhaps inadvertently, in the direction of the Aurafin factory. "You know, so they have someone on their side."
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a freelance journalist based in La Paz, Bolivia. She is the Time magazine reporter and ABC News producer in Bolivia and has been published in The Economist and Newsweek (Russian edition), among others. She is a fellow at the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in Arts and the Media at Colombia College in Chicago.