A deadly fire in a Peruvian warehouse has exposed forced and child labor and exploitive working conditions in the country’s vast informal economy. Four workers, one just 15 years old, who were locked into storage containers that doubled as work spaces are missing and presumed dead.
The blaze also injured at least 15 people, according to news reports. It took more than 500 firefighters five days to extinguish the flames.
On Thursday, June 22, the fire broke out in Nicolini Gallery, a building used for retail and manufacturing, located in the Las Malvinas area of Lima, Peru’s capital. Crammed with formal and informal businesses, the building included a fifth “floor” where metal shipping containers, ostensibly for storage, were used by JPEG SAC company as a workshop to produce counterfeit light bulbs. JPEG SAC employees included workers under 16 years old, who were not registered with the labor authorities.
The General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) said that workers were killed ”not by mistake, happenstance, destiny or bad luck,” but rather they were victims of an “exploitive model that privileges profit by any means possible.”
Government officials called working conditions inhumane and slavelike.
“One of the victims called his mother to ask her to take care of his 21-day-old baby, knowing he would not make it out alive,” said Samantha Tate, Solidarity Center Peru country program director. “While it is not clear what started the fire, the building’s safety risks had been reported and it had been ordered closed. And it’s clear that these deaths were entirely preventable.”
The day before, more than 400 labor inspectors and assistant labor inspectors went out on a national strike to call for the strengthening of the National Superintendence of Labor Inspections, known as SUNAFIL. Among their strike demands, the labor inspectors called for an increase in the budget for the Labor Inspectorate to ensure proper protection of labor rights in the 14 regions where it currently operates and to open inspectorates in the 15 regions where there currently are none. Additionally, inspectors call for their employer to respect their collective bargaining agreement, and judicial decisions that would provide a bonus for inspections. The Solidarity Center works with SUNAFIL and the two labor inspectors’ unions to train workers about how labor inspections can help achieve stronger enforcement of worker rights.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment Promotion and SUNAFIL have come under scrutiny for their decision to halt a program to inspect small informal enterprises, like those found in Nicolini. On June 27, Minister of Labor Alfonso Grados testified before the congressional labor committee about the government’s role and responsibility in preventing tragedies like this one. The International Labor Organization’s office for the Andean region decried the use of forced labor in Peru, calling for all parties to abandon their indifference and join the fight to end all unacceptable forms of work in Peru and around the world.
“The labor inspectors and the young men and women working at JPEG SAC, while worlds apart in terms of education and life opportunities, are connected in the web of common humanity. When one group improves their conditions, they will be able to help the other group come out of darkness, out of danger and into the light,” said Tate. “Once we begin to recognize and act upon our connectedness, and make policies and budget decisions oriented by this respect for human life, then, and only then, will we know that there will be no more Nicolini tragedies.”
More than 200,000 workers toil in slavery-like conditions similar to the victims of the Nicolini fire, without labor rights or the information that would help them defend their rights. Seventy percent of Peruvian workers labor in the informal sector, most without contracts, social benefits, family-supporting wages or health and safety training and protection.
Many of the more than 150 million migrant workers around the world endure abusive conditions—and one of the most exploitative phases of transnational labor migration takes place before migrants even leave their home country: recruitment for work abroad.
Forced to take on debt to pay the exorbitant fees labor brokers charge to secure a job, migrant workers often cannot repay it even after working for years. Trapped in debt bondage, a situation further exacerbated when workers’ visas are tied to employers and employers confiscate workers’ passports, they have no means of escape when employers abuse them or withhold wages.
“Labor recruitment fees can lead to debt bondage and should be eliminated,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center senior program officer for Asia. Mistry is taking part this week in Civil Society Days, a series of panels and events by nongovernmental organizations leading up to the December 10–12 Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) meeting. Participants in Civil Society Days will present recommendations to representatives of the more than 100 governments meeting at the annual GFMD conference.
GFMD events, taking place this year in Bangladesh, coincide with Human Rights Day December 10. Commemorated annually, Human Rights Day marks the date in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
‘Multinationals Must Hold suppliers Accountable for Forced Labor’
Mistry, who will speak Friday on the Civil Society Days panel, “Protecting and Empowering Migrant Workers in all Global Supply Chains,” says multinational corporations have not done enough to prove to consumers that their supply chains are not tainted with forced labor.
Solidarity Center’s Sonia Mistry outlined strategies for reforming exploitative migrant labor recruitment practices.
“Multinational corporations need to exert their significant power as buyers to hold suppliers accountable for supply chains free of forced labor,” she says. Companies argue that it is too difficult or expensive to completely map their supply chains.
The recruitment and placement industry is a $464.3 billion-a-year industry.
During the recruitment process, it is routine for recruiters and their agents to make false promises about the jobs on offer, charge would-be migrants fees that exceed their annual income and offer loans at usurious rates, demanding property deeds as collateral.
Mistry and co-panelist Anup Srivastava from the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) say promoting the rights of migrant workers in supply chains requires a multifaceted approach that can be undertaken even in difficult environments—“so there is no space for ‘it’s too hard’ excuses by employers or governments,” Mistry says.
At the panel, Mistry will recommend:
- All workers have equal access to internationally recognized labor standards, regardless of where they are.
- Workers—who are the best workplace monitors—have the freedom of association rights they are due and are protected to raise and help address workplace safety, health, legal and rights violations. “At all points in the supply chain, unions serve as key partners in promoting decent work and addressing some of the most egregious rights violations, including child labor, forced labor and gender-based violence,” says Mistry. “No auditing system or third-party verification scheme can replace the role of unions.”
- Binding and enforceable agreements be struck to enforce and protect worker rights. These can take many forms, from an International Labor Organization (ILO) standard to a collective bargaining agreement.
Unions Call on GFMD to Take Action to Protect Migrant Worker Rights
Participants at the GFMD’s ninth meeting are considering how member states can design a “Global Compact” to govern the mobility of migrant workers and the possible commitments by stakeholders to create a comprehensive global framework and follow-up mechanism. The Solidarity Center, along with the Council of Global Unions (CGU) and the AFL-CIO, is calling for recognition in the Global Compact negotiations of the “vital role of the ILO, founded on a mandate of social, justice, peace and democracy.”
Participants from unions around the globe held discussions and events in preparation for the GFMD meeting. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sonia Mistry
As noted by the CGU, the “ILO has important standards related to labor migration and a robust system to supervise those instruments. It is also the institutional protector of other workers’ rights that also apply to migrant workers, such as trade union rights (including freedom of association and collective bargaining), forced labor (including trafficking) and child labor, occupational health and safety protection, social security and many others.”
Civil society groups are urging the GFMD to take action to protect migrant workers’ rights by fulfilling the portion of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 8) that calls for taking immediate measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking, protect labor rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers.
The GFMD is a non-binding and government-led process open to United Nations member states and observers “to advance understanding and cooperation on the mutually reinforcing relationship between migration and development and to foster practical and action-oriented outcomes.”
Unions and other civil society organizations have been advocating for a stronger role for civil society in the GFMD.