Forced labour in Brazil
Source: Third World Network

The following article shows how modern-day slaves in Brazil become ensnared in a trap of debt and coercion.

Maraba, Brazil: For five days now, Jorge has been waiting for work, and each day it's costing him money. And the 20 other men waiting for jobs they've been told will pay well – it's costing them money too.

The long wait in this small dusty town in Piaui State is going to be expensive for these men. Because with each passing day, they are building a debt that will illegally bind them to backbreaking work.

These are the ‘escravos’, or slaves, of Correntes, poverty-stricken people who've been unwittingly trapped into a cycle of manipulation. They are mostly illiterate and innumerate, with few skills. They are also modest, and often really believe they have a debt to pay.

Forced labour affects some 30,000 to 40,000 men, women and children in Brazil today, according to figures cited by the national media. The exact number is unknown because of the remoteness of the locations and the illegality of the work.

This kind of work can take many forms. It may be seasonal, or can last for many years. Its victims often fall into the same trap time and again.

‘After I ran away from the last “fazenda” (farm), I could not believe that this would happen to me again,’ says Guilherme Pedro of his work herding cattle. ‘But it did, for the third time!’

According to a government survey, up to 40% of victims are in Guilherme's shoes, gaining their freedom only to return to the fields again as forced labourers.

Forced labour in Brazil invariably involves debt bondage – a type of forced labour often used in remote agricultural areas. People incur debt, sometimes as small advances, or unknowingly build debt through accommodations, supplies or travel – like the men waiting in Correntes, eating chicken and drinking beer – even before they start working.

Recruiters, known as ‘Gatos’, or cats, have no trouble exploiting the vulnerability of the poor and unemployed. In Brazil's northeast, where most forced labourers are recruited, recent estimates classified 49% of the population as poor. In their search for work, many people will take anything on offer in the hope of escaping poverty, starvation and idleness.

The Gatos visit small towns and villages looking for victims suitable for heavy work. These victims are almost always poor and uneducated, and they are easily seduced by the promise of stable employment at good rates of pay.

The workers then travel to a collection point, normally in another state hundreds of miles away from their homes. From there they are taken to a fazenda, but only after waiting several days or even weeks. And while they wait in ramshackle dormitories, they are constantly building a debt. When the bill for room, food and drink is paid by the farm supervisor, the worker is bound to a lengthy term of labour.

Somehow, their debt can never be paid. In such remote places, landowners run the stores selling food, drink and other items at inflated prices. Workers are told not to worry about the price and the store manager has the only record of their purchases. When the work is completed, the landowner gives them an exorbitant bill.

Many of the work sites are deep in the undeveloped areas of the Amazon, in the remote Far West, as the edge of the jungle is called.

‘We travelled by boat and on foot for 15 days to reach a fazenda we knew was using forced labourers,’ recalls a Federal Prosecutor of his last raid. ‘It was almost impossible to reach them.’

Even outside the Far West, families of forced labourers suffer.

‘I was starving with my kids, worrying about [my husband] there. I had to beg people for food. And I begged for any kind of daily work. That's how I survived,’ says one woman, her eyes welling with tears.

These forced labourers are the hidden victims of a global phenomenon which affects millions of people in both developing and developed countries. But across the world, governments, employers' and workers' organisations, and civil society groups, are starting to face up to the problem with the support of the international community.

Under the leadership of its new President, Ignace Lula da Silva, Brazil has recognised the reality of forced labour, and has formally committed itself to eradicating this practice. Under a bold initiative, entitled ‘Plano Nacional Para a Erradicaçao do Trabalho Escravo’, a multi-agency approach to eradicate forced labour has been put into motion.

The plan calls for increasing raids by inspectors on ranches, logging operations and mines which lure people into servitude. These inspection teams, called ‘mobile squads’, investigate and track forced labour based on information from escaped workers. Most of these rescues have taken place in Bahia and Mato Grosso States. In a recent raid in Bahia, 850 workers were released in the biggest single operation to date. The mobile squads successfully released 2,306 and 4,779 enslaved workers in 2002 and 2003, respectively.

The Government is also moving to increase fines and criminal penalties for offenders, as well as to pass legislation to allow the seizure of businesses and properties where forced labour is used. These seized assets can be used to compensate forced labourers, as well as to offset the costs of eradicating the practice.

A broad-based partnership is providing information about patterns and locations of forced labourers to international organisations and government agencies. This collaboration, which includes individuals, workers' associations, local communities, NGOs and the church, is enhancing our understanding of the problem and its causes. Respected institutions like the Pastoral Land Commission are providing vital assistance to freed workers, such as shelter, food, and medical treatment.

Raising awareness of the practice of forced labour is another major challenge. Through workers' organisations, such as the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura, workers are trained on how to recognise and avoid potential forced labour situations.

Local unions provide workers with information about work destinations, alerting them to potential abuses. The workers are also given contact numbers and locations, in case they need to flee forced labour.

In collaboration with the Brazilian government, the ILO has launched a technical cooperation project, Combating Forced Labour in Brazil. With funding from the US Department of Labour, the project is supporting national efforts, including the Government's mobile inspection teams, as well as initiating awareness-raising, rehabilitation and prevention activities.

A national campaign, targeting rural workers and their families, has been launched to help them avoid being ensnared into forced labour. Partnerships with other key players, such as the media, are also helping to ensure wide dissemination of national policy and information on forced labour in Brazil.

The complex nature of forced labour recruitment and the remoteness of the locations where the people work, have hobbled eradication efforts. And with a quarter of the population living on less than US$2 a day, grinding poverty will continue to make people vulnerable to forced labour.

Even more difficult to overcome is the general perception that landowners have impunity. Freed forced labourers often fear for their lives because landowners are wealthy and have many friends in powerful places. When these workers denounce the landowners to the authorities, they can be at risk of retaliation. Even government officials and prosecutors have been targeted with death threats.

On 28 January 2004, four Labour Ministry officials were ambushed and killed in a shooting which the authorities believe is related to the discovery of slavery in a farming region dominated by large soybean farms, about 140 km (90 miles) from the capital, Brasilia. These officials often travel with armed federal police officers. However, since this was a routine inspection, they were not accompanied by police.

This tragic event has renewed calls for the passage of a constitutional amendment, which, if passed, will enable confiscation of lands where slavery is found. The bill has already passed the Senate, but due to pressure from the rural landowners' lobby, a vote is still pending in the House of Representatives.

The President of the Tribunal Superior do Trabalho, Francisco Fausto, calls forced labour ‘the shame of humanity’ which must be eradicated. ‘We still need stronger laws. Someone who does not respect human rights, who assaults the human dignity of people, should be subjected to a stronger punnishment. It is a war we must win.’ – Third World Network Features

The above article first appeared in World of Work (No. 50, March 2004).

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