Why you should care
Your clothes, furniture or steak may have been tainted with slave labor.
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On March 28, federal inspectors raided a remote farm on the Araguaia River, which skirts the eastern edge of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil. They found a family of five, including a baby, living in a cattle shed with rats, frogs and bats. They had no toilet or drinking water and had been paid $550 for two years of farm work. “I never imagined getting out of this situation,” the family’s patriarch, Luiz Cardoso da Silva, 69, told investigators. “I thought my life was over here.” The case is now with federal prosecutors, who intend to prosecute.
Since 1995 Brazil has had one of the world’s most celebrated programs to rescue its estimated 161,000 modern slaves and punish the companies that abuse them. But with major business interests closely aligned with President Michel Temer and powerful factions in the Brazilian Congress, those protections are being severely undermined. Many key elements — a public blacklist of guilty companies and labor laws that allow the punishment of big firms for the actions of contractors — are under threat. The number of federal inspectors who raid suspect businesses is being cut back. And a proposed law seeks to change the definition of slavery, abolishing much of it in words. “Today in Brazil we have some of the most advanced laws in the world to fight modern slavery,” Ronaldo Fleury, Brazil’s chief labor prosecutor, tells OZY. “But we are facing a regression of 130 years. This is about treating people like humans.”
There is clearly a corporate agenda behind these [political] changes. Outsourcing is a necessary condition for the existence of slave labor.
Ronaldo Fleury, Brazil’s chief labor prosecutor
Slavers shipped nearly 5 million Africans to Brazil — more than 10 times the number sent to the U.S. — from the 16th century until slavery was abolished in 1888. Since 1995, teams of roaming inspectors have freed nearly 50,000 people like Cardoso da Silva and his family from “conditions analogous to slavery,” which is the country’s broad legal definition of forced labor, debt bondage, degrading conditions that violate human rights or overwork that threatens life or health. Slavery is most prevalent in the Amazon rain forest, on cattle ranches, in charcoal camps and in the deforesting and illegal logging of the jungle. “The mobile squads have been enormously effective,” says Ginny Baumann, senior program officer at the Freedom Fund, a private philanthropy dedicated to ending slavery. “But it is the ‘dirty list’ that has put Brazil ahead of any other country in giving a disincentive to businesses.”
That public blacklist of firms caught using slave labor is now under sustained attack. In December 2014, a business lobby reportedly persuaded the Supreme Court to suspend publication of the list, which served as a public shaming of transgressors and enabled sanctions such as the withholding of loans from state banks. The ruling followed a petition by the Brazilian Real Estate Developers Association (Abrainc), comprising many big construction companies, including a subsidiary of the giant Brazilian firm Odebrecht, which admitted running a massive bribery scheme and also has been condemned for using slave labor. Last month, the company agreed to pay a $9.5 million fine for the way it treated 400 Brazilian workers at the construction site of a sugar mill in Angola.
That ruling was lifted in May 2016, but the Ministry of Labor declined to republish the list, despite the United Nations urging it to do so. It was only after months of legal action by labor prosecutors that it was republished on March 23 of this year, with the names of 85 companies or individuals. Three hours later, it was published again with just 68 names. “The Ministry of Labor created any problems they could to avoid publishing the list,” says Leonardo Sakamoto, a coordinator with Repórter Brasil, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns to eradicate slavery. “Now, public banks that relied on the list do not know if it is reliable, or if it will continue to be published in the future.”
Another blow was struck on March 31 when President Temer signed a bill that lets companies outsource core activities. Ninety-two percent of slave labor cases involve outsourcing, as do eight in 10 industrial accidents. The Spanish company Zara, the world’s biggest fashion retailer, has admitted that slave labor existed in its supply chain making clothes in Brazil in 2011. Vale, a Brazilian multinational and the world’s largest producer of iron ore, also faced accusations that its outsourced drivers at a mine were subjected to “disgusting” conditions and forced to work 23 hours straight, with just a 40-minute break.
The new law will make it harder for the courts to hold a large company responsible if it outsources its core activities to a firm that is caught using slave labor. “There is clearly a corporate agenda behind these changes,” Fleury, the prosecutor, says. “Outsourcing is a necessary condition for the existence of slave labor.”
Supporters of the law, which will have wide-ranging effects on Brazil’s economy and workers’ rights, say it will help reduce Brazil’s 13 million unemployed and aid competitiveness. “In no way does this law create any problems for workers,” says the bill’s sponsor, federal deputy Laércio Oliveira. “Much to the contrary.”
Another law being debated by Congress could significantly curtail Brazil’s progressive definition of slavery, removing the mention of degrading conditions that violate human rights, or overwork that threatens life or health. Only conditions that feature captivity, coercion or punishment would be regarded as slavery.
In January, a report by Brazil’s Ministério Público Federal, a body of public prosecutors, said the change represented “a huge social regression, because it would withdraw from a modern conception of slave labor, relegating it purely to the classical notion of slavery as exclusively a restriction on physical freedom.”
Brazil’s labor inspectors, a crucial element in the fight against slavery, also have been hit by the austerity drive that has swept the federal government. The Ministry of Labor now has just four mobile inspection units, down from nine in 2009. The number of slaves rescued has steadily declined, too, from a high of 5,999 in 2007 to 749 in 2016, although last year did feature a prolonged strike by inspectors. The number of inspectors has likewise fallen, from 3,142 in 2008 to 2,450 currently, according to SINAIT, their national union. “The fight against slave labor will, of course, be impacted by the lower number of inspectors,” a spokesman says.
Activists worry about how much longer the system can withstand the pressure. “We are suffering a blitzkrieg of attacks simultaneously,” says Sakamoto, the NGO coordinator. “We only hope we can reach 2018 with the fight against slavery ongoing.”