The fact that Uruguay’s textile workers have been suffering majorly under the pressure of international competition is difficult to deny. The official statistics that are available show that exports of textiles have been decreasing at an astounding rate, supplanted by cheaper imports. This process has been particularly nuanced during the last decade . These numbers, however, cannot capture the much more complex reality behind the textile sector and the workers active in it.
A quick historical detour allows one to trace back the Uruguayan textile industry to the ’30s, when the state, following a developmentalist paradigm, took an active role in guiding the birth of a sector that would steadily increase its share to the national GDP. Following economic policies of import-substitution, the government attempted to build an environment in which Uruguayan textile production could flourish and at the same time be absorbed by national consumption. This policy was carried out until the 70s, when the previous paradigm started to crumble. In the years to come, the focus shift on expanding production and increasing competitiveness in the global economic arena.
Today, the inability to reap the benefits of mass production, outdated technology and the lack of a supportive environment, have led textile sector to hit a pole. Large segments of the workers employed in the industry operate in precarious conditions and it is estimated that half of the clothing sold locally originates from an illegal source. A branch of the national worker’s union, the PIT-CNT, estimates that the formal industry has shrank to employing 10.000 formal workers and 10.000 informal workers.
The impact, that such developments had on workers and factory owners, has been captured by popular culture in the motion picture Whisky which received some international notoriety in 2004 and is still very up-to-date. A depressed owner of a small sock factory struggles with outdated machinery, a dull life characterized by repetition and the trauma of having lost his mother recently. The visit of his long time forgotten brother, a Uruguayan compatriot emigrated to Brazil to start his own textile business, confronts him with a cheery relative, full of joy and entrepreneurial spirit, who cannot stop praising the wonders of modern machinery and the booming Brazilian economy.
Others have captured the impact of a shrinking textile sector on the daily lives of workers with different mediums and words, maintaining the central message however. According to a field-study conducted by Psychologists and Sociologists of the University of the Republic, textile workers have internalized the uncertainty and precarity linked to a perishing industry. In less sophisticated, but more earth-bound terms, textile workers have begun accepting exploitative practices and subhuman wages due to a lack of better opportunities.
Limiting oneself to the previous description of the textile worker that is undertaken by sociologists and movie directors, produces a skewed view and depicting a person deprived of its lifeblood. A walk through the streets of Montevideo can be sufficient to debunk the previous reality and show anther one, the one of protests and discontent. This different reality emerged at a sit-in protest that unfolded today at the central square of Plaza Independencia. It was guided by workers of the union for textile workers, the Sindicato Único de la Aguja.
”Why are textile workers treated like sub-humans? Criminal liability should be applied! This would be a first step towards fostering legality and building the capacity of our industry.”
Rosana Ceresa, spokewoman of the SUA , stressed the necessity of enforcing law 18.846 which was promulgated in 2011 to regulate local production and improve the traceability of imports. Further suggestions brought forward by the union included an increase from 20% to 35% of the tariff on imported goods originating from markets outisde of the Mercosur area. ”The revenues generated by these tariffs”, suggested Ceresa, ”could then be redirected towards technological upgrades”.
In sum, what is unfolding in Uruguay, in the textile industry, is a very delicate situation. On one hand we are witnessing a process of creative destruction linked to the presence of cheaper imports and deregulation. On the other hand, textile workers are mobilizing and attempting to attract the attention of the government and putting forward regulation of the sector. Will the future entail a return to the protectionist measures or will the textile industry slowly meet its demise?