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English Report

While, as the ILO has recognized, there have been positive movements in the fight against slave labor, old obstacles persist, such as impunity, and the non-approval of Proposed Constitutional Amendment 438-2001, which relates to confiscation of property in cases where slave labor occurs. There is a lack of preventive measures in place to generate income for those workers most vulnerable to abuse and measures designed to implement effective land reform.

Slavery in Brazil: New and Persistent Issues

Ricardo Rezende Figueira[1]

In some Brazilian airports, passengers may encounter a surprising advertisement campaign:  signs denouncing slavery.  Dozens of advertisements on the same theme have been distributed across rural and urban areas, and films have been made about the subject. 

Sergio Buarque de Holanda wrote in 1936[1] that the 1888 abolition of slavery was the dividing line in national evolution, the beginning of the end of the rural oligarchy’s power.  In the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, large landowners remain powerful and have strong influence over legislators, and slavery continues to occur. Inspections reveal new centers of the crime, detailed in Article 149 of the Brazilian Penal Code as “reduction to a condition analogous to slavery,” in rural properties. Occasionally, agents of the Ministry of Labor and Employment, the Justice Department, and the Public Ministry of Labor liberate groups of workers from conditions of slavery.  Behind the label of slave labor there are an enormous variety of hidden situations, due in part to the changes introduced in Article 149.  “Degrading work” itself is now regarded as slave labor by investigators and by legal professionals.

With this introduction complete, we can discuss some observations about the contemporary characteristics of the problem.  The order in which they are presented here does not reflect their order of precedence or importance.

The first observation concerns rural property owners who have been denounced in Brazil this year or in recent years.  Those suspected of the crime of slavery are predominantly involved in agribusiness.  They combine the technology of an informationalized and globalized world with degrading and coercive forms of labor.  They are “modern” business people, and some among them hold or have held public office, especially in the state and federal legislature, including the Senate.  There are also others in positions of power, such as mayors, government ministers, secretaries of state, and judges – even the head of a private university was recently implicated in using slave labor.

The next observation has to do with conclusions that can be taken from an examination of those authority figures involved in accusations.  Some maintain residency outside of the state in which the crime was committed.  Authorities from Pernambuco and Pará states committed crimes in properties in Maranhão state; a Pará official was involved in a crime in another municipality of the same state; other officials from Alagoas, Minas Gerais, Maranhão, Tocantins, Paraná, Rio Grande do Norte, and Paraíba have been accused of committing offenses in Pará; city officials from Rio de Janeiro in a Mato Grosso property; from Minas Gerais, in a plantation in Tocantins and Goiás; from Sao Paulo, in a Goiás plantation.  As in the past, victims typically are not from the same state or municipality where the violation is committed.

Another observation has to do with the international dimension of slave labor.  In September 2006, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that nine Poles had gone to work in an Italian tomato harvest.  They were detained by two of their fellow countrymen and principally by a Ukrainian who, armed, threatened them by asserting that “here I am the Law; you are my slaves”.  He warned that it would not help them to attempt to flee, for he would return.  Finally, police freed them and 113 other Polish workers who were being exploited in “inhumane conditions”.  Police detained 27 people – Poles, Ukrainians, an Algerian and an Italian – accused of “human trafficking” and the crime of “reduction to slavery”.

As noted above, slavery simultaneously affects countries on various continents and of differing economic situations, such as Italy and Brazil.  The report “A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor”, published by the ILO in 2005, on the occasion of its 93rd meeting, reveals the existence of 12.3 million victims of forced labor across all continents[2].  Slave labor has repercussions beyond state and national borders; it involves both national and foreign workers.  Meat produced in Brazil under conditions of slave labor can end up marketed and sold in Great Britain; clothing made in São Paulo by Bolivians may be sold to suppliers of the Dutch multinational C&A, as the Public Ministry of Labor warned[3]; a portion of Mato-Grosso’s sugarcane, the product of slave laborers recruited from four Northeastern states, was sold to an alcohol distillery and thus entered into the gasoline market.

The businesses accused of using slave labor are diverse.  In the rural sector, the best-known cases are related to cattle ranchers, but there have also been accusations against producers of cotton, soy, lumber, sugarcane, coffee, black pepper, and even plant-based charcoal. In urban areas, the cases that appeared in 2006 were in the textile business and the selling of hammocks and cloaks. 

The solutions for this problem are still far from being reached.  Among the organizations that stand out in addressing this issue are the International Labor Organization (ILO) the Pastoral Land Commission, the Research Group on Contemporary Slave Labor of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the NGO Repórter Brasil, the Ethos Institute, and the Center of Defense of Life and Human Rights.  In one form or another, they have organized meetings, seminars, courses, publications and research.  Some activities that had positive results in 2006 were:

  • - The inspections undertaken by the Special Group of Mobile Inspection[4] and by some Regional Labor Delegations, such as those from Rio de Janeiro and Pará, grew and became more efficient;
  • - The Actions on Collective Moral Harm, petitioned by the Public Ministry of Labor, were frequently welcomed on the part of the Labor Justice Department;
  • - The National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labor (CONATRAE), a department attached to the Special Secretary of Human Rights, was created to monitor the execution of the National Plan for the Eradication of Slave Labor, and has been functioning regularly since 2003;
  • - Plans for the eradication of slavery were developed in some states, such as Maranhão and Piauí, by the Ministry of Agricultural Development;
  • - The regular publishing, since 2003, of the Ministry of Labor and Employment’s list of businesses involved in slave labor;
  • - The launch of the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor occurred in May 2005 with the support of civil society organizations, and dozens of national and international businesses;
  • - Some landowners have become concerned with the possible consequences of accusations of slave labor being used in their production chains, such as boycotts, suspension of public financing, fines, etc., and signed the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor, promising not to acquire products sourced from properties on the list of businesses involved in the use of slave labor;
  • - Business owners created the Social Cotton Institute (IAS)[5] in Mato Grosso, and the Citizens’ Institute on Coal (ICC)[6] in Maranhão.  The ICC was born of the initiative of seven steel producers in the state to “direct and investigate all activities related to the plant production chain (…) with the goal of complying with labor legislation and other norms of protection of the security and health of workers and preservation of the work environment”.  Furthermore, the ICC intends to “develop a program of social integration for those workers rescued from slave labor, offering them employment in the area of reforestation by the associated steel producers.”  The IAS, based in Cuiabá, was created in the end of 2005 to regularize the relations between labor and the security of workers.  With the support of the Mato Grosso Association of Cotton Producers (AMPA), it utilizes resources obtained from The Support Fund for Cotton Growers (FACUAL) and seeks to follow “the requirements of the international market, with products that recognize and respect social and human relations in their production processes.  The IAS created “five mobile teams with experts on labor security and human resources, which visit farms and propose changes to make their labor more socially responsible.”
  • - It is also important to emphasize moments of tension, such as in the case of Mato Grosso, when there was a confrontation between state police and federal officials during an investigation coordinated by the Special Group for Mobile Investigation. 
  • - Of the governors elected this year, only four have officially committed to Repórter Brasil’s proposal that they implement measures to eradicate slave labor.[7]
While, as the ILO has recognized, there have been positive movements in the fight against slave labor, old obstacles persist, such as impunity, and the non-approval of Proposed Constitutional Amendment 438-2001, which relates to confiscation of property in cases where slave labor occurs.  Finally, as the CPT (Pastoral Land Commission) and CEJIL (Center for Justice and International Law) charged against the Brazilian government in October 2006 at the Organization of American States, there is a lack of bold preventive measures in place to generate income for those most vulnerable to abuse and measures designed to implement effective land reform.

[1] Sergio Buarque de Holanda, The Roots of Brazil, 26th ed., São Paulo, Cia. das Letras, 1995.

[2] The distribution of those forced to work, according to the ILO document (A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor.  Geneva, ILO, 2005: 14), is as follows: Asia and the Pacific: 9,490,000; industrialized countries: 360,000; Latin America and the Caribbean: 1,320,000; the Middle East and Northern Africa: 260,000; countries in transition: 210,000; Sub-Saharan Africa: 660,000.

[3] Iberê Thenório writes, “In a public forum, the Public Ministry of Labor (MPT) of the 2nd Region (Metropolitan Sao Paulo and Lower Santos) alerted 80 vendors of the clothing store chain C&A of the possibility that they are buying from shops that exploit illegal immigrants from other parts of Latin America to make their clothes.”  When asked by Repórter Brasil, the business responded: “C&A maintains contractual clauses with its vendors prohibiting the use of slave or illegal labor, and as such hopes that its vendors adhere to the contractual stipulations.  In the case that we become aware of non-adherence to these clauses, we will immediately solicit explanations and clarifications from the vendor, stipulating a period of time in which it must resolve the situation and informing it of C&A’s position.  We re-emphasize that all of our vendors, by C&A’s insistence, have formalized their commitment to non-use of illegal labor.” (June 6, 2006, Repórter Brasil)

[4] According to documents of the CPT and CEJIL presented in the OAS, an increase of 178.2% in the last three years and the number of persons rescued from farms increased 196.6% during the same period. (See Repórter Brasil, October 24, 2006).



[7] Ana Júlia Carepa (PA), Jackson Lago (MA), Jaques Wagner (BA), and Wellington Dias (PI) ratified a letter of commitment; President Lula, reelected, sent his own document explaining how he will continue to fight slave labor.  With the exception of Gov. Lago, from the Democratic Workers’ Party (PDT), the signatories belong to the Workers’ Party (PT) (Repórter Brasil, October 29, 2006).

[1] Ricardo Rezende Figueira is a Catholic priest, Assistant Professor in the DSS of PUC-Rio, member of the Research Group on Contemporary Slave Labor IFCH/UFRJ and of the Deliberative Council of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights.


Marcio Seidenberg*