Another report published this month by Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States, in collaboration with the NGO Repórter Brasil, denounces situations of forced labor and slavery in 15 farms that produce coffee. The Brazilian inspectors found agricultural workers "subjected to forced and strenuous labor, in degrading conditions, in addition to debt bondage", which the government of the tropical country considers "conditions analogous to slavery." In some cases, the workers endured 11-hour shifts and lived in houses without a bathroom, with a water supply unfit for human consumption.
“For many years, the Brazilian government's audits have been focused on the livestock sector and in the area of coal extraction. With the passage of time, other rural areas began to be investigated, such as the production of sugar cane or reforestation. For this reason, we only now have access to data on slavery in the coffee sector, ”explains André Micalli Campos, a researcher at the NGO Repórter Brasil, an organization founded in 2001 by journalists, social scientists and educators to denounce violations. of the fundamental rights of workers.
Brazil was the first country in the world that, in 1995, recognized the existence of slave labor. Between 1996 and 2014, some 48,700 slaves have been freed. In theory, article 149 of the Brazilian penal code considers it a crime to subject the worker to degrading conditions, exhausting hours, debt bondage or any type of forced labor. Despite the public policies implemented in the tropical country to combat slave labor, which have even been recognized internationally, many specialists fear that Brazil is embarking on a path that will take it backwards. “The current situation is very worrying. Those of us who work in this area do not even dream of conquering new rights. The main objective is not to lose what we have already achieved ”, says Micalli.
Curiously, some parliamentarians are responsible for implementing slavery practices, almost always protected by impunity. The latest case came to the fore on April 3, amidst pre ‘impeachment’ hysteria. Beto Mansur, a federal deputy for the Brazilian Republican Party, has been sentenced by the Superior Labor Court to pay a fine of 200,000 reais (50,000 euros) for "collective moral damage." His crime: having employed slave and child labor on his farm in Bonópolis, in the state of Goiás. The inspection has detected the presence of workers in precarious conditions, housed in barracks with a plastic and straw roof, who slept on the ground, without a bathroom and without access to drinking water.
Mansur's case is no exception. "There have been many cases of inspection in recent years involving deputies and senators," says Micalli. In 2009, Antônio Cabrera, former Minister of Agriculture with President Fernando Collor, was accused of keeping 1,884 slave laborers on his sugar cane farm in Limeira do Oeste, in the state of Minas Gerais. Another deputy, Urzeni Rocha, from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, was denounced for subjecting 26 workers to conditions analogous to slavery on his farm dedicated to raising cattle in the northern state of Roraima.
The vote on the 'impeachment' against Dilma Rousseff on April 17 made it clear to the world that the Brazilian Parliament is made up of 513 deputies at least bizarre, who voted in favor of the fall of Rousseff in the name of God and their respective churches. Most of these parliamentarians belong to the Bancada do Bói, da Bíblia e da Bala, a group made up of the country's large landowners, businessmen in the agricultural sector, followers of Christian churches and defenders of the strong hand against crime. . Together, they control 40% of the votes in the House.
"On the one hand, the Government supervises, and at the same time finances discovered companies employing slaves, as shown by the case of the Minha Casa, Minha Vida program" "Many Brazilian politicians are linked to the agricultural and livestock sector, which historically is where they occur more cases of slavery ”, clarifies Micalli. "Many are 'fazendeiros', owners of farms, or represent the interests of the so-called Bancada ruralista, the most powerful group in our Parliament," he adds. These deputies are trying to change the legislation on slave labor to achieve softer regulations. In 2015, the Agriculture Commission approved a bill by deputy Moreira Mendes (Social Democratic Party) that calls for a change in the definition of slave labor, eliminating the terms of “exhaustive work hours” and “degrading working conditions”. The project, which is still pending, has the support of former Agriculture Minister Katia Abreu, who was just "fired" after the approval of Rousseff's "impeachment" by the Senate.
The interim government of Michel Temer, much more conservative than the previous one, can open the way for the approval of this bill, with the consequent reduction in workers' rights and greater impunity for employers. "All the blame would fall on the middle man, known as a 'cat.' He is the one who hires people who live in poor and isolated rural areas to work on farms that are often hundreds of kilometers from their homes, ”explains Micalli. "With the new law, all the blame for slave labor would end up falling on this intermediary, freeing the owner of the farm from his criminal responsibility," adds the spokesperson for Repórter Brasil.
The 'Dirty List'
Another controversial aspect concerns the famous ‘Dirty List’, a registry created in 2003 that gathers the names of employers who were discovered using slave labor. In 2014, the Brazilian Supreme Court suspended this list, claiming it is unconstitutional. In 2014, it was made public again through the Access to Information Law. However, today its publication is in danger again. “The idea of this list was to promote transparency and responsible consumption. It has been a very important instrument in the fight against slavery ”, defends Micalli. The fact that eight ministers from the new Temer government are under investigation for corruption portends that this list has its days numbered.
An episode involving the former Minister of Agriculture reveals the fear that businessmen and politicians have of this list. In 2014, when she was still a senator, Katia Abreu appealed to the Supreme Court to try to annul the disclosure of the names of businessmen caught in slavery cases. The reason is that two brothers of the former minister, André Luiz Abreu and Luiz Alfredo de Feresin Abreu, appeared on the ‘Dirty List‘ for crimes of slavery in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Unfortunately, the coffee and agricultural sectors do not represent an exception on the map of slave labor. Episodes of slavery are also recorded in the construction sector. The same federal government was implicated in this crime in 2014, when an investigation by the Ministry of Labor discovered that the construction company MRV, subcontracted for the construction of low-income housing within the Minha Casa program, Minha Vida, kept 118 workers in conditions of slavery in the city of Macaé, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. This company, which is one of the main construction companies in Brazil, had already been sentenced in 2013 to pay a fine of 6.7 million reais (1.6 million euros) for employing 63 slave workers in a work under the same program federal Minha Casa, Minha Vida, this time in Sao Paulo.
“The Brazilian program to combat slavery is considered exemplary by other countries. One of the reasons for its relative success is that it has been a policy of the State and not of the Government, which began with Fernando Henrique Cardoso and had a strong boost with the Government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. However, in recent years, the number of audits has dropped significantly, ”says the spokesperson for Repórter Brasil. “It is a policy that has contradictory aspects. On the one hand, the Government supervises, and at the same time finances companies that have been discovered employing slaves, as shown by the case of the Minha Casa, Minha Vida program ”, he adds.
The textile sector is not safe either. In 2011, a case of slavery in Brazil even affected the Spanish group Inditex, when 15 slave workers were freed, all Peruvian and Bolivian immigrants who worked in a factory subcontracted by Amancio Ortega's company. His workday was 16 hours a day. The workers were crammed with five minors in a tiny space that served as both a workshop and a home, and they received a salary of between 200 and 300 reais per month (50-75 euros). In this case, the Spanish company and the Brazilian Prosecutor's Office reached an agreement to pay a fine.
For the Labor Attorney Renan Kalil, Brazil is efficient in the repression of the practice of slave labor, but needs to improve prevention strategies. “Combat can take place both in the repressive sphere, which means removing the workers from a situation of slavery, and in the preventive sphere, that is, preventing them from finding themselves in this situation again or from entering the slave labor cycle. . In Brazil, we have a strategy of repression that is very successful: almost 50,000 workers have been rescued over 20 years.
However, this issue of prevention must be worked on more ”, says Kalil. Brazil was one of the last countries in the world to abolish slavery, thanks to the Golden Law of 1888. Today, experts attribute the persistence of slave labor to different causes: subcontracting, the low level of education of the workers, an audit insufficient and the absolute impunity of businessmen and farmers. Since 1997, about 2,500 businessmen have been caught committing this crime. However, none of them have served their sentence to the end.
The situation may worsen with the new Outsourcing Law, which was approved in Parliament on April 22. According to the labor lawyer Fabíola Marques, this regulation will reduce the cost of labor for employers, at the same time that it will negatively affect wages and reduce the power of unions. "This law has a potential impact on the issue of slave labor," says Micalli. The law must be approved in the Senate to go into effect.
Now, an international award could reverse this bleak picture. Last February, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States began its first trial against Brazil on slave labor. The case, which is being tried in San José, Costa Rica, refers to the Brasil Verde farm, in the state of Pará, accused of keeping about 340 people in slavery conditions between 1988 and 2000. This Court can convict the Brazilian government to compensate workers and adopt measures and laws to prevent similar cases.
"This is the first time that a case on contemporary slave labor will be tried", highlights Xavier Plassat, coordinator of the campaign against slave labor for the Pastoral de la Tierra. “We do not feel any pleasure in seeing the Brazilian state condemned. But the conquests are being threatened: prosecutors are lacking and they want to dismantle the concept of slave labor. We cannot go back and be the bad students of the international community ”, concludes Plassat.