Brazil: Contemporary Slavery and Proposals to Fight the Practice

In our first few years at school, we learn that slavery in Brazil was abolished with the signing of the Golden Law by the princess Isabel on 13th May 1888.  In theory, it became illegal on that day to exercise ownership over another human being in Brazil: in practice, however, the exploitation of slave labour persists on Brazilian territory, albeit in a new guise.

Slavery in Brazil: from its origins to the present day

The practice of slavery is as old as human civilisation itself. Peoples conquered in battle were generally enslaved by their vanquishers or sold to third parties; on other occasions, people were forced to work to pay off their debts in a regime also known as servitude [pt].

O Escravo de Paraty, Anderson - A única estátua viva de escravo no Brasil. Foto de Mario Crema no Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Slave of Paraty, Anderson – The only live statue of a slave in Brazil. Photo by Mario Crema on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the first case, the racial element is combined with force to justify the superiority of the victor as master. In the second, the worker was not the master's property and his freedom, at least in theory, could be re-purchased once the debt to his creditor had been paid off.

Contemporary slavery in Brazil is akin to servitude and is present in both rural and urban areas. In the countryside, procurers hired by ranchers in areas of agricultural expansion recruit workers to clear the jungle and to sow seeds. Among the false promises used to persuade workers are offers of free transport to the ranch, a decent salary, and accommodation and food paid for by the employer. Workers then find themselves in an entirely different situation from that described, as reported on the website of the NGO ‘Repórter Brasil’, which describes [pt] how people come to be enslaved in the countryside:

Ao chegarem ao local do trabalho, eles são surpreendidos com situações completamente diferente das prometidas. Para começar, o gato [aliciador] lhes informa que já estão devendo. O adiantamento, o transporte e as despesas com alimentação na viagem já foram anotados no caderno de dívida do trabalhador que ficará de posse do gato. […] despesas com os emporcalhados e improvisados alojamentos e com a precária alimentação serão anotados, tudo a preço muito acima dos praticados no comércio. Se o trabalhador pensar em ir embora, será impedido sob a alegação de que está endividado e de que não poderá sair enquanto não pagar o que deve. Muitas vezes, aqueles que reclamam das condições ou tentam fugir são vítimas de surras.

Upon arriving at the place of work, they are surprised with conditions which are completely different from those promised. To start with, the ‘gato’ (as the procurers are known) informs them that they are already in debt. The advance, transport fees and subsistence costs paid during the journey have been noted in the worker's debt book to be held by the procurer. […] expenses for the dirty, impromptu accommodation and the substandard food will also be noted, all at prices much higher than those normally charged. If the worker thinks about leaving, he will be prevented from doing so with the allegation that he is in debt and will not be able to leave until he pays his dues. Often, those who complain about the conditions or attempt to escape are beaten.

The study “Profile of the Principal Actors Involved in Rural Slave Labour in Brazil” [pt], published in 2011 by the Brazilian office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows the seriousness of the current situation in Brazilian rural areas. In the report, the ILO states that from 1995 (the year in which the Brazilian government recognised that slave labour existed on its territory) to 2011, more than 40,000 workers were rescued from slavery.

Policies to tackle contemporary slavery  

Although far from an honourable admission, the government's recognition that slavery continues to exist in Brazil has at least allowed the creation of governmental structures to combat the practice, such as the Executive Group for the Repression of Forced Labour (GERTRAF) and the First and Second National Plans for the Eradication of Slave Labour, which aim to prevent slavery as well as financially target those keeping slaves. Incidentally, it was as a result of the murders of three labour auditors on 28th January 2004 in the rural area of Unaí (Minas Gerais) that this date was chosen to commemorate the National Day to Combat Slave Labour.

National Day To Combat Slave Labour, 28th January. Photo: Verena Glass in Brasil Atual (CC BY 3.0)

National Day To Combat Slave Labour, 28th January. Photo: Verena Glass in Brasil Atual (CC BY 3.0)

Among other efforts to fight slave labour is the Proposal for Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 438/2001, which foresees that ranches where slave labour has been used will be expropriated and subject to land reform. The ‘PEC for Slave Labour’ was approved by the Brazilian senate in 2001 and forwarded to the House of Representatives, where it faces pressure for change from the “rural bench”.

André Alves Fernandes, a student of Public Administration, says on the blog “Direito em Questão” [“Law in Question”] that expropriation – in combination with other punishments – is the best way of preventing [pt] the exploitation of slave labour:

A expropriação das terras onde ocorre o uso de trabalho escravo é perfeitamente cabível como forma de fazer o agente criminoso pagar pelos danos infligidos aos trabalhadores. […] No caso de crimes contra a liberdade, como é o caso de reduzir alguém à condição análoga à de escravo, a multa deve ser aplicada sem prejuízo das medidas penais cabíveis, em vista do tratamento degradante aos quais os trabalhadores estão submetidos.

The expropriation of land on which slave labour is used is perfectly reasonable as a way of making the criminal agent pay for the damage inflicted on the workers. […] In the case of crimes against liberty, such as is the case of reducing someone to a condition similar to that of a slave, the fine must be applied without prejudice in view of the degrading treatment suffered by workers.
Image by Francisco Mendes (@metalogis) on Tumblr, related with denouncements of slave work in Zara (August 2011)

Image by Francisco Mendes (@metalogis) on Tumblr, related with denouncements of slave work in Zara (August 2011)

But it is not only in the countryside that people in slave-like conditions can be found. Large cities also provide fertile ground for those seeking to exploit the vulnerability of individuals who have no alternative but to accept jobs which are degrading to human dignity. Amongst these individuals are Brazilians who have migrated from poorer regions or irregular migrants from countries experiencing severe poverty or armed conflict.

In his blog, Washington Araújo recalls the work of the Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, “‘The Masters and the Slaves’”, when talking [pt] about the treatment received by some domestic workers:

[…] muitas dessas moças são praticamente forçadas a realizarem trabalhos domésticos, sem qualquer contrapartida financeira, vivendo em celas improvisadas, aqueles cubículos de apartamentos, geralmente conhecidos como “dependência da empregada”. É triste constatar que ainda temos –e muito– a transferência da Casa Grande e Senzala dos campos para os centros urbanos.

[…] many of these girls are practically forced to carry out domestic chores, with no financial recompense, living in shabby cells, those cupboard-like apartments commonly known as “the maid's outhouse”. It is sad to note that the Masters and Slaves of the countryside have been transferred to our urban centres.

The fight against slave labour is being led on various fronts, including the economic and social development of the populations at risk and government monitoring and control. But this alone is not enough: the involvement of the Brazilian population in eradicating this degrading practice from the country is essential. One of the ways to help is to keep up to date, as it is through the indifference of ‘free’ men and women that the criminals enslave vulnerable individuals. Keeping up to date also means boycotting companies who use slave labour, and to this end, the Ministery of Work and Employment has made available a list [pt] of employers caught using slaves, who once prosecuted lose their right to loans from public banks and find the commercialisation of their products restricted. Finally, it is important to put pressure on politicians to make the punishments for this offence as exemplary as those which exist for crimes such as drug trafficking and kidnap-murders.


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