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English Report

Slave workers, distant from their places of origin, from family and friends, find themselves more vulnerable. They are afraid of the gunmen, the bosses, of illness, and have little space in which they can resist. Some run away; others go beyond that, and inform the authorities or human rights organizations.

Slave Labor and the Creation of Citizenship

Ricardo Rezende*

Slaves, as if they were commodities

Slave workers cannot exercise their rights as citizens. Slaves are, as the Greek philosopher Aristotle defined them, people reduced to living commodities. Studying slave labor in both rich and poor countries in the modern world, Professor Kevin Bales of the University of Surrey, England, affirmed that they are still commodities in the 21st century, even if under-the-counter ones for whom no receipts are issued.

In fact, the phenomenon of indebted slave labor calls the very concepts of development and progress into question. Develop what, and what for? At what cost? Who benefits from development and in what way? Supplying products at the lowest prices through slave labor is unacceptable. The cost to keep these modern-day slaves amounts only to transporting them to their place of work, feeding and repressing them.

In 2003, the number of official reports on slave labor rose considerably, and the government began to change expressions such as "forced labor" or "semi-slavery" to "slave labor". The Minister for Human Rights, Nilmário Miranda, in a meeting with members of Movimento Humanos Direitos (Human Rights Movement)2 , in Rio de Janeiro, declared that eradicating slave labor was a priority for the government. He recognized that eliminating this problem was a basic requirement for the establishment of a democratic State. In March 2003, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, launched the National Project to Eradicate Slave Labor, and reaffirmed this decision.

Is the number of slaves on the rise?

After Lula took office, the number of known cases of indebted slavery in rural areas rose, reaching, as of August 2003, more than 7000 people in at least ten states3 involving especially cattle-ranching centers, fruit plantations, sugar and alcohol production plants. The increasing number of reports can be explained by the greater national awareness of the problem, and by the efficiency of the investigations carried out by the government.

These investigations are now revealing crimes that used to go unnoticed, but they don't correspond to the real number of victims, and to all the companies that use slave labor. It remains cheaper for a company to keep slaves, even taking the risk of receiving fines, than to comply with labor laws.

Who are the slave owners?

In rural areas, several plantations accused this year belong to business groups or individuals that wield considerable economic4 or political power. In 2003, quite a stir was caused by the indictment brought jointly by the Attorney General's office and the Federal Tribunal against State Representative Jorge Picciani, president of the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro, for keeping slaves in his Mato Grosso plantation.

A similar charge was brought by the Attorney General and the Federal Tribunal against the vice president of the Federal Chamber, Representative Inocêncio Oliveira. In February 2003, Augusto Faria, another nationally recognized politician, was indicted along with his sister. In the last few years, accusations have been leveled at less well-known politicians such as the then-representative Vavá Mutran and a former mayor, Elviro Arantes, both from Pará, and the state representative of the PPS, Francisco Nonato de Araœjo, acting as Agriculture Secretary in Piauí, but with land in Pará.

Where are the slaves taken from?

In Brazil, this workforce can be found across poor areas of the Northeast -- Maranhão, Piauí and Bahia, for example - and the Midwest -- Goiás and Tocantins -- and spill over into other regions such as Vale de Jequitinhonha, in Minas Gerais . Being far from home, the slave workers are less able to defend themselves. In the case of the Amazon region, the workers usually are more vulnerable. They are afraid of the gunmen, the bosses, of illness, and have little space to resist. Some run away; others, beyond that, inform the authorities or human rights organizations.

Ongoing issues

Between a report and its investigation

There is still a delay between the issuing of a report and the beginning of an investigation, not to mention the various plantations reported that remain to be investigated. This calls into question the efficiency of the Special Group for Mobile Investigation, and of the Ministry of Labor. At the end of September, of 204 reports filed on plantations across the country, barely 110 had been looked into (Jornal do Brasil, Sep 28, 2003).

In a document dated September 4, 2002, signed by Xavier Plassat, director of the CPT's Campaign Against Slave Labor, a similar complaint was made: in that year, of 67 plantations cited, only 35 had been investigated. On January 26, 2003, at the Third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brother Henri Burin des Rozierz presented a report whose findings confirmed Xavier's document: "The investigative teams, for lack of human and material resources, despite their exemplary dedication, are not able to investigate all plantations. In 2002, the Group investigated only 38% of the plantations cited (42 of 111) in Pará, and freed only 31% of the workers (1346 out of 4333)".

Scarcity of resources and will

The Federal Police still do not have the resources to carry out investigations. In addition, many organizations are finding it necessary to define the legal jurisdiction of federal courts with greater clarity. If this does not happen, federal judges will be able to refuse to hear cases, and at the state level, this kind of case has less chance of success. Local judges are more subject to external pressures, and this reduces their freedom to perform their duties as they see fit. The president of the Labor Court of Justice (TST, in Portuguese), Francisco Fausto, on the other hand, claims that these cases also fall under his jurisdiction.

Delays in acting on proposed legislation

There have been excessive delays in implementing some pieces of legislation, as can be seen in the following examples:

- In 1996, federal representative Eduardo Jorge presented a bill (02/022/96) making it unlawful for public institutions to maintain contracts with companies if they were found to employ slave labor, directly or indirectly.
- Jaques Wagner, a Federal Representative, presented a bill three years later (4/29/99) that would prohibit "contracts between Brazilian companies, or those located on Brazilian territory, and companies that employ demeaning labor practices in other countries".
- In February 2003, Jaques Wagner, now holding the office of Labor Minister, proposed the creation of a Slave Labor Registry, making it impossible for anyone involved to obtain credit from financial institutions, and urging the confiscation of their land.
- Despite all this, at the end of October 2003, the International Labor Organization reported that companies that employed slave labor were receiving public resources through banks and public institutions. In response, the Ministry of National Integration declared that companies tried and convicted for this crime would see their fiscal benefits from institutions such as Sudene and Sudam suspended, and their access to constitutional financing funds blocked. Patrícia Audi of the OIT also took the opportunity to state that the government was putting together a list of 100 companies involved in slave labor, so that they would stop receiving public money. According to Nilmário Miranda, National Secretary of Human Rights, the list would be "a mortal blow to slave labor" (O Globo, Oct 29, 2003: Economia 21).

Since 1995, when Representative Paulo Rocha first proposed the Constitutional Amendment (PEC 232), attempts have been made to alter article 243 of the Federal Constitution, to include the crime described in article 149 of the Brazilian Penal Code (CPB) as a reason for confiscating land. Attached to PEC 438/2001 of Senator Ademir Andrade, the proposal was approved by the Senate, but as of October 2003, it hadn't been voted on by the House of Representatives (Câmara dos Deputados).


Various organizations -- Movimento Humanos Direitos , Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, Grupos Rio Maria e Expedito, Tortura Nunca Mais, among others -- visited the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro to request that the Human Rights and Labor Commissions call a public hearing on the reports of slave labor in Rio de Janeiro and at the Mato Grosso plantation filed in 2003 against Representatives Jorge and Leonardo Picciani. However, they were not successful. The president of the Human Rights commission, Alessandro Molon, cast the only vote in favor of the requested hearing.

Slander and threats

In the south of Pará there is an ongoing slander campaign directed against members of the CPT, and against authorities fighting to eradicate slave labor in the region. In Tocantins, two workers from Ananás also had their lives threatened, as well as two agents of the CPT in Araguaína - Brother Xavier Plassat and Silvano Rezende - and the Attorney General, Mário Lúcio de Avelar de Palmas. In Pará, the labor judge in Parauapebas, Jorge Vieira, also received death threats. The judge asked the Federal Police for protection, but it was refused, so he was forced to move out of the area.

Positive Developments

The Executive Branch

In the effort to eliminate slave labor, the executive branch of the government voiced a strong opposition to this practice. It demonstrates the desire to take on the issue, as well as to prevent it. In February 2003, President Lula promised there would be no cutbacks in resources budgeted for the slave labor eradication program. To prevent workers from becoming victims a second time, the federal government created support programs for the freed worker: payment of unemployment insurance in three installments, linked to professional development of workers or members of their families, as well as financing programs through official banks. Various counties that have slave labor were specifically targeted by the federal government as part of the program to combat hunger. In September, the Brazilian State finally recognized its responsibility in the case of José Pereira, and agreed on a settlement to pay R$52,000 to this young man who had survived slave labor at the Espirito Santo plantation. This was the result of a petition to the OAS, submitted by the CPT, CEJIL and Human Rights Watch.

Public Labor Ministry and Labor Court

Since 2002, the Public Labor Ministry has working on cases of collective damages brought against companies that use slave labor. The success of these cases could serve to dissuade others who currently benefit from this crime. Here we look at three examples:

1. On February 20, 2003, the Public Labor Ministry in Pará, ordered an action to block and trace the accounts of plantation owners in Redenção who had kept 361 slave workers. The workers were freed from the Vale do Rio Fresco and Santana plantations that week by a task force (Jornal do Tocantins Feb 21, 2003).
2. The first deposit into the Workers' Assistance Fund (FAT in Portuguese) was made in August 2003, on the orders of the presiding judge of the Labor Jurisdiction of Parauapebas, Jorge Vieira. Ranchers Ézio Gonçalves Montes and Romar Divino Montes, owners of the Vale Paraíso II Ranch, located in Curionópolis, "spontaneously" transferred R$40,000 to the FAT, out of a total of R$ 300,000 blocked by the Labor Court, using the Penhora On-Line system (Notícias do TST, Sep 11, 2003).
3. The Labor Legal office in Pará initiated, on October 22, 2003, a public civil suit against Lima Araújo Agropecuária, in the amount of R$22 million, for repeat offenses in violation of article 149, on two of their plantations: Estrela de Alagoas, in Piçarra, and Estrela de Maceió, in Santana do Araguaia.

The Office of the Attorney General and The Court of Justice

Actions of the Office of the Attorney General gained momentum with the replacement of Geraldo Brindeiro by the new attorney general Cláudio Lemos Fonteles. Cláudio Fonteles has repeatedly shown his desire to contribute to the eradication of slave labor. On October 13, 2003, he brought charges before the Supreme Court against federal representative and vice president of the House Inocêncio de Oliveira and his manager for involvement with slave labor.

In addition, Minister Nilson Naves, president of the Superior Court of Justice, denied a habeas corpus for rancher Joaquim Gonçalves Montes, from Pará (Agência JB Brasilia, Jan 08, 2003).

The House of Representatives (Câmara dos Deputados)

On October 29, 2003, the House Constitutional Commission passed a bill that doubles the penalty for those who maintain workers in a state of slavery. The minimum sentence, which had been two years, will now be four; the maximum increases from four years to eight. The lengthened prison term prevents alternative penalties from being handed down. The bill still must be voted on in a full session.

Meetings, seminars and debates

The issue of slave labor has become part of the national agenda. This can be seen in the interest of the press, and in the fact that several organizations are working on this issue. We might highlight as well the inclusion of the topic in round-table discussions, debates, conferences, seminars and meetings sponsored by the CPT jointly with Rural Workers Unions, its Federations, the Bar Association of Brazil, the National Association of Labor Auditors, and by the Labor and Justice Ministries with support from the ILO.

The mobilization against slave labor has spawned the creation of campaigns for its eradication. The oldest one is the CPT's, on the national level, but there are others, such as the one launched in Campos de Goytacazes, in Rio de Janeiro, in August 2003, with the participation of Cândido Mendes University, the CPT/RJ, the MST/RJ and other organizations. At the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, a study center was set up, which is putting together a database on slave labor.


Finally, it should be noted that the CPT continues to be one of the best organizations at supporting, documenting, reporting, and developing suggestions for resolving the issue of slave labor in rural areas. At the governmental level, the combined efforts of the auditors, the labor investigators and labor courts stand out. The work of the ILO has also been important. But this is not enough. The government needs to implement other policies, primarily through economic penalties.


* Ricardo Rezende participates in a research group about slave labor in CFCH/Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights.

2. NGO created in Rio de Janeiro at the beginnning of 2003, composed of artists, cartoonists, journalists, and intellectuals, having as its priority the eradication of slave labor in Brazil.

3. Pará, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, Maranhão, Tocantins, Bahia, São Paulo, Paraná e Rondônia.

4. The Tabuleiro plantation, belonging to Nenê Constantino of Gol Transportes Aéreos, and the Santa Cruz factory, belonging to the Boa Vista e Morongaba Company, were some of the companies cited in 2003.