Last week the local papers reminded Brazilians of the signing of the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) by Princesa Isabel on May 13th, 1888, a law effectively abolishing slavery in Brazil.
Of all of the countries in the Americas, Brazil imported the most slaves from Africa and was the last country to officially abolish slavery.
While slavery may have been abolished officially, forced labor, or “trabalho escravo”, took its place and was officially recognized by the State in 1995.
The problem of forced labor in Brazil made international headlines in January 2004, when three Brazilian judicial officials were murdered while looking into allegations of slavery on ranches near the nation’s capital, Brasília.
The following month government officials discovered 32 slave-workers on the ranch of right-wing Senator João Ribeiro in the northern state of Pará. The officials said the captives worked seven days a week without pay and had no running water or toilets.
This month, the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva released a report entitled “A Global Alliance against Forced Labor”. The ILO defines forced labor as involving “degrading work conditions and the impossibility of leaving the employer owing to fraudulent debts and the presence of armed guards”.
While examining conditions in several countries, including Myanmar and China, the report also focuses a good deal of attention to the characteristics of slavery in Brazil.
ILO estimates there are as many as 25,000 forced-labor slaves in Brazil, primarily in the Amazonian states of Pará and Mato Grosso. These workers are primarily recruited from the poor cities of the Brazil’s Nordeste region.
Recruiters, often referred to as “gatos” (cats), lure the poor with promises of good pay for hard work, and some are told the cost of their transportation will be deducted from future wages. The workers are then transported hundreds of kilometers away to work in logging camps, or on ranches raising cattle or tending to crops.
Many workers are only told once they arrive at the camp or ranch that they will now be responsible for paying the costs of their transportation, which are often inflated.
In addition, if they are held in collection points for days or weeks, all food, housing and other expenses they incur are deducted from their future wages – usually at inflated prices.
And the price-gouging does not end there. Since the camp or ranch is typically isolated from nearby cities or towns and transportation is limited, employers often charge a premium for bringing such provisions as food, drink, and other essentials to the site.
When you add the inflated upfront costs to the ongoing necessities of food, drink and shelter, it is little wonder how the typical worker quickly becomes trapped economically.
Why doesn’t the typical worker just leave when he realizes his predicament? Isolation, threats, violence and sometimes homicide can make it difficult choice.
What is currently being done by Brazil to fight forced labor? A high profile advocacy campaign was launched in October 2003 by Brazil’s Congress, and the results are so far promising.
Voluntary contributions from communications and publicity agencies have so far totaled $7.3 million, and are being used to display material in 20 of the largest airports.
The killings of the judicial investigators prompted state-level campaigns to increase efforts, and media attention has likewise increased exponentially.
In addition, a database of offenders has been developed, a mobile inspection group has been formed and strengthened, and a program for the rehabilitation of former slaves has been set up, mainly through income generation, capacity building and legal assistance.
The efforts of the Brazilian government to combat forced labor are laudatory, but must continue and intensify. Many countries, as part of a prevention strategy, have turned to microfinance as a way to combat forced labor.
Microfinance lends small amounts ($50-100) to individuals or small groups of people who wish to set up their own micro-business. With repayment rates exceeding 90%, it has been an extremely effective strategy in combating poverty throughout the world.
The concept is not new to Brazil – President Lula da Silva announced in late March that government-owned Banco do Brasil had earmarked more than 18 billion reais (US$ 7.2 billion) for micro-lending in calendar 2004.
The microcredits will be made available at an interest rate of 6% per annum, with a four-year grace period and 12 year repayment term.
Lula also noted that the state-owned savings bank, Caixa Econômica Federal (CEF), had initiated operations to lend to the poor, and had already attracted more than one million new clients.
While the efforts of Lula’s government to combat poverty through microlending should be praised, more effort is needed to target these microcredits at the poor cities and towns of the Nordeste, where most of gatos actively recruit.
Only by concentrating efforts in these hard-to-reach, and previously “unbankable” areas can Lula’s government effectively stem the tide of forced labor.
Gary Sands is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Gary also publishes a humorous weblog called Everything I Know about Foreign Policy I Learned as a Kid, found on Blogger.com -http://foreignpolicyforum.blogspot.com.