Deadly factory fire in Peru exposes country’s high use of slave labor

Firefighters reaching the area where the workers went missing during the fire. Credit: General Corps of Volunteer Firefighters of Peru
A factory fire in Lima, Peru, that killed four young people has drawn official and international attention to the sometimes deadly risk posed by the country’s use of forced labor, or slave labor.
This tragedy, the International Labor Organization says, revealed that the Peruvian factory had operated in an abusive manner that “approaches modern forms of slavery such as forced labor, which affects millions of people around the world.”

Peruvian media reported that the workers were illegally locked inside the factory on the facility’s rooftop terrace, where young workers tried to call for help while surrounded by the flames.

In a communique for the victims on Saturday, the ILO Office for the Andean Countries expressed concern about the conditions of the workers.

“Working in the conditions of imprisonment represents a clear and obvious violation of fundamental labor rights and of human dignity,” the ILO said in its statement. “This tragedy reflects a sad and terrible reality, it is close to modern forms of slavery such as forced labor, which affects millions of people across the world and Peru is no exception.”

The workers rights organization called on the Peruvian government and authorities to work together to eradicate labor trafficking and other forms of slavery. It added that reducing informality, strengthening labor inspections, enforcing the law and improving worker safety “must be prioritized in order to avoid this type of sinister that end with the life of human beings or puts them in danger.”

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Peru’s Public Ministry has opened an investigation over a “probable offense of human trafficking via labor exploitation,” which resulted in Thursday’s fire.

According to the anti-trafficking NGO Walk Free Foundation, Peru has the third highest rate of cases of forced labor in Latin America after Mexico and Colombia, and ranks 18th highest out of 167 countries evaluated worldwide. A 2016 report by the organization revealed an estimated 200,000 Peruvians suffer from one type or another of forced labor.

According to a 2016 assessment by the U.S. State Department, Peruvian men, women, and children are exploited in forced labor principally through gold mining and related businesses, as well as logging, agriculture, brick-making, unregistered factories, organized street begging, and domestic services.

Peruvians working in artisanal gold mines and nearby makeshift camps are particularly vulnerable to forced labor, often through methods of deceptive recruitment, debt bondage, restricted freedom of movement or inability to leave, withholding of or non-payment of wages, and threats, according to the U.S. State Department.

Children who fall prey to labor traffickers are often forced to beg or sell items on the street, produce or transport drugs, and other criminal activities.

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In recent years, the illicit industry has garnered more attention from the Peruvian government, which has established new specialized anti-trafficking regional prosecutor offices, increased anti-trafficking operations and efforts to identify and assist victims.

Peru’s state government budget has also allocated US $9 million to combatting human trafficking in 2015 – an increase from the US $4 million invested in 2014.

As reported by El Comercio, however, the funding falls well short of the US $18 requested by Peru’s Public Ministry alone. Human rights groups say that official complicity and overall corruption has also undermined the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, as convicted traffickers often receive sentences insufficient to the gravity of their crimes.

In 2014, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Peru said that despite increasing political will to tackle human trafficking, efforts are also being undermined by a strong economy, lack of awareness, and persistent social and ethnic inequalities.

“There are places in Lima where the police won’t go but there are also places where you can eat the best piece of fish in the world,” José Iván Dávalos, the IOM’s head of mission in Peru, said in an interview with the Guardian.  “Often agencies look at Peru and say, ‘No. You don’t need anything.’”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com