Contemporary Slavery in Brazil a Sad Reality

September 26, 2010

After responding to an anonymous claim filed last August, the Federal Police identified 14 individuals held as slaves at a farm in Brazil’s western state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The victims, natives to various northeastern states of the country, had travelled to Mato Grosso do Sul in response to attractive job offers and better lives.  Instead, they met slavery and abuse. They were subject to extremely poor living conditions and they lacked employment contracts, which left their rights fully vulnerable.  They worked 13-hour shifts for three entire months, without pay. Having no other option but to buy their food and basic goods for credit at the farm’s shop, they accumulated unintended and unmanageable debts, which empowered the farm owner to prevent the workers from leaving the farm’s premises.

Housing made of wood and canvas

Also, in the city of Sao Paulo an immigrant from Bolivia was recently arrested for subjecting six fellow immigrants into slavery. The suspect owned a sewing shop where people worked 15-hour shifts and were grossly underpaid.  Employees were made subject to conditions terribly unsuitable for dignified work.  Like in the case from Mato Grosso do Sul, the Bolivian employees had no employment contract and were kept unaware of their most basic employment rights.

According to the UN, in 2008 there were up to 40,000 contemporary slave laborers in Brazil. Workers are generally young men recruited from a state characterized by extreme poverty, illiteracy and rural unemployment.

The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery explains that the vast majority of workers in slave labor are in debt bondage. They are laborers from very poor areas of the country’s northeast region, who are enticed to work in distant towns in return for an advance on their wages and promises of attractive salaries. The workers are recruited by verbal contract, and taken by bus to plantations and ranches, usually located in another state of Brazil. Once they arrive, they are told that they have to pay back any advance given and pay for their transport, food and accommodation. The attractive salaries promised to workers are reduced, and their salaries rarely cover their costs. Workers become indebted to their employers from the outset. They usually do not have any access to information about how their debt is calculated, nor do they receive their wages in cash. In some cases, the workers become more and more indebted, since they have to buy everything they need at inflated prices from the estate shop. Workers’ debts increase to such an extent that they can never be paid off; the workers are thus forced to continue working.

Aware of this problem, in 2003 the federal government created the National Commission for Eradication of Slavery Labor. Although progress has been made nationally, the persistence of this international crime is unacceptable.  The situation becomes even more worrisome, when we consider the country’s aspirations to be a regional socio-economic leader. To meet its obligation as leaders, Brazilian authorities should demonstrate that the nation cares for the lives and wellbeing of its citizens and immigrants by ending the impunity of slavery and forced labor, both of which are considered crimes against humanity under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, of which Brazil is a member.

The solution for these terrible crimes relies in combating poverty. The government, however, should go beyond social programs such as “Bolsa Familia” and provide comprehensive and sustainable programs to ensure that those most vulnerable to slavery enjoy basic human rights, such as food, water, health and education. The government should also promote programs to educate rescued workers and communities whose members are likely to end up in slave labor about the importance of having employment contracts to have their rights enforced. Only with concrete and practical projects that put an end to impunity, Brazilian authorities can eliminate this shameless practice in our country.