The English cosmetic retailer The Body Shop has been ordered by a Brazilian court to pay more than US$ 431,000 (£218,000) to settle labor claims against it by three former employees of its "Fair Trade" project in the Amazon Rainforest.
They claimed they had been unfairly dismissed and sued the company for back wages and other financial considerations.
Ms Raimunda Gaya, acted as general cleaning helper for the Mebengokre Indians’ Hospital at Redenção City in Pará State; Mr Paulo Miranda was hired as pilot who often ferried Dame Anita Roddick, the founder of the company, on her trips into the Amazon; Mr Saulo Petean acting as consultant for the Body Shop, lived with the Mebengokre* Indigenous Peoples from 1990-1996, before he was fired.
Since 1990 The Body Shop has maintained a controversial commercial relationship with the Indians. The company provided the villages of Aukre, Kapot, Mekrangnoti and Pykany with logistical support and funding to produce Brazil nut oil and beaded wristbands handmade by the Mebengokre women to be sold in Body Shop stores worldwide.
In return, the Body Shop featured the Indians on its brochures, annual reports, and marketing promotions generating extensive media coverage.
Dame Roddick, who sold her company to the L’Oréal Group in March, once called the venture "Trade Not Aid". But a number of human rights groups have charged the company for disrupting the local culture and commercially exploiting the Indians, as relatively little money flowed back to the Mebengokre.
In 1996. the two Brazilian anthropologists, Iara Ferraz and Rubem Almeida, and an English sociologist Pat Stocker, commissioned by Body Shop, wrote a scathing 56-page report documenting the history of tensions between the Body Shop and the Mebengokre Indigenous Peoples.
The Body Shop had denied that Ms Gaya, Mr Miranda and Mr Petean had ever been employed by the company. It hired "Mascaro & Nascimento Advocates," Brazil’s largest labor rights law firm, to defend it. In 1997, however, a Brazilian Court found that they were indeed contracted by the company and were properly due the sums claimed.
Since then, The Body Shop has failed to comply with the Brazilian court’s judgments and orders to pay its former employees’ labor rights damages.
Ms Gaya and Mr Miranda were forced in 2005 to seek recognition of the Brazilian judgments in the United Kingdom with the support of the London based Bar Pro Bono Unit and the law firm Russell, Jones & Walker Solicitors.
The Body Shop disputed the claims and the cases went to trial. In April 2006 the company agreed to settle Ms Gaya’s claim and in September 2006, Mr Miranda’s. The total of the settlement’s amount was £21,750 (US$ 43,000).
Ms Gaya, 54 years old and a widow since 2005, lives in Marabá City in a small hardwood house with four sons and a nephew. From 1995 to 1997 she worked under the supervision of the administrator of the Mebengokre Indians’s health assistance program established by The Body Shop with the Brazilian government through the Indians Protection Service (Funai) and the National Health Foundation.
Instead of putting the employees’ employment contracts down in black and white, The Body Shop’s representatives established verbal contracts with the Brazilian citizens and unfairly withheld certain benefits that would have been supplied if they were regularly employed.
Disappointed with Roddick, whom Ms Gaya met personally in Aukre village in 1992, she said, "Anita made a bad choice when she decided to save money with her attempts, by all available means, to disguise and render our employment contracts as character-less in order to be discharged from her legal responsibilities."
"My house is inundated by the Tocantins River flood’s almost every year. I will use the award to raise the floor of my house to be safe with my children from the floods," said Ms Gaya.
"The Body Shop wasted much more money paying expensive law firms in Brazil and in the United Kingdom than it would have spent if it had decided to settle those claims at the right time in Brazil, ten years ago," said Mr Miranda, 44 years old.
An airplane pilot, he worked transporting Indians from one village to another within the Xingu River basin and carried supplies for the annual Brazil nut harvests organized by the indigenous communities.
Nowadays he flies a crop-dusting plane over the soy and cotton plantations in Mato Grosso and Rondônia States. During four years in the nineties Mr Miranda piloted a single-engine Cessna-150 bought by Roddick in the United States in 1990 and donated to the Aukre indigenous community after her first visit to their village.
Miranda said that the settlement has a special meaning to him that surpasses the value of the money that Body Shop agreed to pay.
"It was a hard fight through the Brazilian and English courts to convince Anita that during four years she disrespected our labor rights in the business she developed for The Body Shop to run with the Mebengokre Indians," said Mr Miranda.
He estimates that The Body Shop spent around three times as much money paying several law firms and advocates to attend the proceedings in Brazil and the United Kingdom than the amount of the award he received through the settlement of his claim.
"Since Anita sold her company to L’Oréal Group, The Body Shop has lost the extra-protection of the company’s invisibility in the eyes of the Brazilian judiciary so that L’Oréal’s subsidiary in Brazil became the successor of The Body Shop and will respond in court for many Body Shop mistakes made in our country," concluded Mr Miranda.
The Brazilian Employment Court ordered the Body Shop’s new owner, the L’Oréal Group to pay £195,000 (US$ 370, 00) in labor rights damages.
The Body Shop also agreed to settle the claims of Ms Gaya and Mr Miranda in the United Kingdom, but their labor rights damages that were not reimbursed by the settlement, plus another labor claim of Mr Saulo Petean, another Brazilian former employee, were executed by the Brazilian Labor Court at Rio de Janeiro against the L’Oréal Group, since that its subsidiary in Brazil became successor of the Body Shop labor debts in the country.
Mr Petean, 54, Brazilian, acts nowadays as an independent organizational consultant in the field of the international cooperation. In the nineties of last century he helped establish the first two Indian export companies in Brazil: the Aukre and Pykany Trading companies.
Before working with the Body Shop, he lived with the Parakateje Indians in the Pará State and the Ashaninca in the Envira River, in Acre State. He also worked with the rubber tappers’ leader Chico Mendes, murdered by farmers in 1988.
Mr Petean was fired by Body Shop in January 1996 after being accused of stirring up trouble. Body Shop’s executive director Gordon Roddick then engineered a police persecution of Mr Petean in an attempt to prevent him from disclosing the contents of a highly critical report on the troubled relationship between the Mebengokre Indians and Body Shop.
* The self-denominated Mebengokre Indians are also called "Kayapó Indians" by the non-Indians, a word inexistent in their vocabulary, but used by Brazilian nationals to denominate the Mebengokre in a pejorative manner. The Mebengokre Indians are approximately 5,000 people living in 20 villages occupying seven indigenous lands covering 120,000 square kilometers in northern Mato Grosso and southern Para States in the Xingu River basin.