BOGOTA, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Peruvian authorities have launched a major crackdown on modern slavery after a warehouse fire in Lima last month killed four workers, including two who were trapped inside a padlocked container on the roof.
Officials said they had shut down six furniture factories in the capital on Monday in an operation to root out forced labour and exploitation, following raids by prosecutors, police and labour inspectors.
Last month’s toxic blaze which tore through several warehouses in the city centre highlighted labour exploitation in the capital and prompted calls for better protection of workers’ rights and more labour inspections.
Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski said the victims were “practically slave workers” when he visited the site following the June 22 blaze.
Peru’s attorney general said on Monday there would be more raids on factories and warehouses to prevent further “tragic accidents”.
Another eight operations are planned this year in the wider Lima region and the north of the country where forced labour has been linked to the fishing industry.
Prosecutors said the furniture factories targeted in Monday’s raids were operating without a licence, health and safety was “inadequate” and fire exits had been blocked, putting workers at risk.
An estimated 200,500 people are trapped in modern day slavery in Peru, according to rights group The Walk Free Foundation, the third highest number in Latin America after Mexico and Colombia.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), which estimates there are 21 million people in forced labour worldwide, welcomed the new labour inspections in Peru.
“The tragic fire was shocking. People were outraged,” said Teresa Torres, coordinator of ILO’s programme against forced labour in Peru.
“Having this kind of task force carrying out inspections is progress and an important response from the government,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Public prosecutors have launched an investigation into possible human trafficking following the fire.
“What’s important in this case is that there’s justice, and as such those people responsible are punished,” Torres said, adding those found guilty could face up to 25 years in prison.
Across Peru, forced labour is more commonly linked to the illegal logging industry and illegal gold mines in the Amazon jungle. Girls are also trafficked to these areas for sex work.
Torres said the warehouse blaze showed forced labour is more widespread than many Peruvians believe.
“This is more evidence to show that forced labour doesn’t just happen in … remote areas of the Amazon, but it could be happening right in the centre of the capital too,” Torres said.
“We have information that forced labour is also happening in the north of Peru, in other sectors such as the shrimp fishing industry.”
She said victims of forced labour were often hidden from view, working on fishing vessels, in small clandestine workshops, commercial agriculture or private homes.