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Brazzil - Social Issues - August 2004

A Pact in Brazil to End Slave Labor

It is estimated that there are still at least 25 thousand people working
under slave conditions in Brazil. Workers are recruited in the
country's poorest areas and are taken to work in distant rural
properties. They often are unable to free themselves from debt to
leave. Besides, there are armed thugs to prevent workers from fleeing.

Juliana Andrade


Picture The major steel mills that operate in the North of Brazil signed a commitment to eradicate the use of slave-like labor in charcoal production. Fifteen companies represented by the Carajás Steel Mill Association (Asica) committed themselves to the imposition of commercial restrictions on suppliers who exploit slave-like labor.

Ratification of the agreement is part of the agenda of National Citizenship and Solidarity Week. The document acknowledges that degrading conditions still exist at the bottom of the chain, leaving a large number of workers helpless.

Together with iron ore, charcoal is one of the main raw materials that go into the making of pig iron, used mostly for the production of steel, which is exported to developed countries. The charcoal comes from ovens that burn wood from native forests. This is the stage in the productive chain where slave-like labor is employed.

"Most of the workers have to put in a huge work day, from 10 to 14 hours, without any safety equipment, such as gloves and boots. They work without signed papers, medical care, or social security.

"The food is awful, and the system of transportation from one municipality to another is extremely precarious; it is what is worst in terms of existing forms of labor," observed the director of the Social Observatory Institute, Odilon Faccio.

The organization did a survey of the situation of slave-like labor in the steel production chain.

"This initiative demonstrates a concern and a commitment by this sector to Brazilian society. It is an initiative worthy of total respect," said the coordinator of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Project to Combat Slave Labor, Patrícia Audi.

According to Audi, there are still around 25 thousand people working under slave-like conditions in Brazil. "Contemporary slavery is different from traditional slavery, because slavery nowadays is not based on color or race," she emphasized. She recounted that the workers are recruited in the country's poorest municipalities and are taken to work in distant rural properties. Because they have to pay their employers for their travel, clothing, food, and housing, they are unable to free themselves from debt to leave. Since most of these rural properties are very far away from the municipalities where these workers come from, they cannot escape, because they lack money for the trip. There are also armed thugs to prevent these workers from fleeing.

Rights Hotline

It is now possible to report human rights violations on a toll-free number, just dial 100 anytime; it is a 24/7 service. The announcement of the hotline was made during the IX National Conference on Human Rights which took place in the Chamber of Deputies, in early July.

At the moment the service is available only in the Federal District (Brasilia) but it will soon be extended throughout the country. When it is fully operational, the service will be able to handle up to 60,000 calls daily.

With the Call Human Rights (Disque-Direitos Humanos) the government intends to centralize complaints about torture, slave labor and sexual exploitation of youths.

According to Minister Nilmario Miranda, who heads the Human Rights Secretariat, all complaints received will be dealt with. Miranda says the service will assist victims and protect witnesses.

It will also provide authorities with an overview of violence, permitting them to make plans and formulate policies to promote and protect human rights in Brazil.

Guilty Mayor

At the end of May, the mayor of Unaí (Minas Gerais), José Braz da Silva, owner of an estate in Canaã dos Carajás, in the state of Pará, was convicted of maintaining workers in slave-like conditions on his property. The conviction resulted from a public civil suit filed by the Public Labor Prosecutor's Office (MPT).

The sentence, signed by Judge Tereza Cristina de Almeida Cavalcante Aranha, ordered the mayor's fiscal and bank privacy suspended, his possessions frozen, and US$ 93,000 (280,000 reais) blocked to pay indemnity for collective moral damage.

Aranha judged valid the petitions presented by the MPT in their case and confirmed the preliminary order and anticipated guardianship. In the case of failure to comply with the positive and negative injunctions, a fine of US$ 1,600 (5,000 reais) was stipulated for each infraction and each employee found to be in an irregular situation

The court commanded the mayor to refrain from practicing any act "that amounts to coercion, fraud, misrepresentation, or deceit, in the sense of compelling workers he maintains or comes to maintain on his property to use the warehouse, general store, or services provided by the estate in ways that impose undue burdens."

Silva is also obliged to respect all workers rights determined by law, including the registration of his employees' labor contracts, and to provide adequate conditions of employment, hygiene, safety, and job-related medical care.

During a visit to the Boa Esperança ("Good Hope") estate in December, 2002, the Special Mobile Inspection Group discovered deceitful labor recruiting practices, uninhabitable lodgings, payment of salaries in the form of alcoholic beverages or harmful drugs, and indebtedness on the part of workers, who were required to buy tools and food on the estate for prices higher than those charged in local stores.

Juliana Andrade works for Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government. Comments are welcome at lia@radiobras.gov.br.
Translated from the Portuguese by David Silberstein.

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