Inter-American Court Rules Against Slave Work in Brazil

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has welcomed a call from the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Brazil office for land redistribution to combat forced labor in the country, following a landmark ruling by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights holding the government responsible for providing compensation to 125 slaves held at a ranch in Pará State.

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said: “Powerful landholders are responsible for slavery in Brazil, and this judgement makes the authorities accountable for protecting workers from forced labor. With the government of Michel Temer rolling back labor laws and enforcement, even more people risk being trapped in forced labor.

“Meanwhile the perpetrators, including actual members of parliament, are escaping justice. Fair distribution of land and the full application of the rule of law are crucial to ending slavery in Brazil.”

For decades, Brazilian workers, frequently indigenous or of African descent, have been victimized and kept in extreme poverty by landholders in the country’s Northeast.

During the presidencies of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, more than 44,000 people were freed from slave-like conditions. However, since Rousseff was deposed, political will to end forced labor has been absent.

In 2014, the agribusiness lobby succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to strike down the publication of a “dirty list” of companies profiting from slavery, and members of Brazil’s Congress who were prominent in the deposing of Rousseff face credible allegations of responsibility for slavery themselves.

Congress member Beto Mansur, a strong opponent of Rousseff, faces charges of keeping 46 people including several children in slave-like conditions in a case which is being reviewed by the Supreme Court on procedural grounds, while newly-appointed member of Congress Nelson Nahim was recently released from prison after serving just four months of a 12-year sentence for involvement in sex slavery involving victims as young as 8 years old.

Altogether, 30 out of Brazil’s 81 senators and 130 of the lower house’s 513 members are involved in investigations under the authority of the Supreme Court.

Corruption investigations into politicians close to Michel Temer, and possibly into Temer himself, are expected to be scaled back after the death on 19 January of Supreme Court judge Teori Zavascki, who was overseeing the investigations. Zavascki died when the light aircraft in which he was traveling crashed.

“The work of institutions like the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is indispensable when the judicial and political systems are failing to uphold the rule of law, as is the case today in Brazil. The ITUC will continue its engagement with these bodies to promote and defend the rights of all workers,” said Burrow.

The ruling in the case known as Fazenda Brasil Verde, published by the Court on December 15, is the first to apply Article 6 of the American Convention of Human Rights prohibiting forced labor. The ITUC filed an amicus curiae brief with the Court in March 2016, and the Court adopted the arguments in the ITUC brief.

The ITUC represents 181 million workers in 163 countries and territories and has 340 national affiliates.

Over 1,000 Rescued

Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security rescued 1,010 people working under slavery conditions in 2015. According to a ministry statement released to mark the National Day Against Forced Labor, which is observed on January 28, l40 operations were carried out in 2005 to curb degrading labor.

According to the ministry, most of the slave-like labor practices in Brazil were found in urban areas, where 61% of the cases were concentrated (607 workers found in 85 inspection operations). In the 55 inspection visits carried out in rural areas, 403 workers were found in these conditions.

According to the chair of the National Labor Inspectors’ Union, Carlos Silva, textiles and construction were the industries in which cases were most common. “More recently, we have also identified the problem in maritime activities, with degrading labor conditions found on cruise ships, which also use foreign labor,” he added.

For Silva, one of the modern challenges to addressing slavery is the strong political and economic influence of businesses.

“The anti-slavery struggles reached urban areas, prompting a strong response from the capital, to the point of threatening two important tools available to us.”

One of the threats, he said, is a bill that “narrows down the definition of slave labor, excluding all degrading labor and exhausting work hours. This is a serious setback.”

The other threat is the non-disclosure of a blacklist of businesses that exploit slave labor. “[Ricardo] Lewandowski, then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, claimed that there is no sufficient legal and constitutional basis to disclose the blacklist, a tool that has been internationally recognized by the UN as a best practice to be emulated by all countries in the fight to eradicate slavery,” the labor inspector said.

The most important advance in recent years according to Silva was the enactment of a constitutional amendment introducing forfeiture of properties where slavery has been proven to exist.

Carlos Silva thinks Brazil needs to subject the practice of exacting forced labor to heavier financial consequences, “up to a level that makes the risk of exploiting it for profit seriously unattractive to employers.”

“The existing fines on the practice are too mild, and the shortage of labor inspectors encourages many employers to take a chance on impunity,” he said.

According to the Ministry of Labor, the mining business concentrated 31.05% of the workers rescued last year, 313 workers. Construction accounted for 18.55% of the total (187 workers). Next were agriculture and livestock farming, with respectively 15.18% and 14.29% of the total number of people found working under slave-like conditions.

The 28th of January was chosen as Brazil’s National Labor Inspection Auditors’ Day and National Day Against Forced Labor in memory of two labor inspectors and a driver who were murdered in 2004 while investigating reports of forced labor in Unaí, in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.

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It seems the future never arrives in Brazil What Lies Ahead in Brazil? Brazil Has No Exemplary Past or Present. But What Lies Ahead for the Country? Europeans, US, developed country, developing country. Bolsonaro, future B. Michael Rubin For years, experts have debated what separates a developing country from a developed one. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of a country is one simple way to measure its economic development. Another way to measure a country's progress is the extent of public education, e.g. how many citizens complete high school. A country's health may be measured by the effectiveness of its healthcare system, for example, life expectancy and infant mortality. With these measurement tools, it's easier to gauge the difference between a country like Brazil and one like the U.S. What's not easy to gauge is how these two countries developed so differently when they were both "discovered" at the same time. In 1492 and 1500 respectively, the U.S. and Brazil fell under the spell of white Europeans for the first time. While the British and Portuguese had the same modus operandi, namely, to exploit their discoveries for whatever they had to offer, not to mention extinguishing the native Americans already living there if they got in the way, the end result turned out significantly different in the U.S. than in Brazil. There are several theories on how/why the U.S. developed at a faster pace than Brazil. The theories originate via contrasting perspectives – from psychology to economics to geography. One of the most popular theories suggests the divergence between the two countries is linked to politics, i.e. the U.S. established a democratic government in 1776, while Brazil's democracy it could be said began only in earnest in the 1980s. This theory states that the Portuguese monarchy, as well as the 19th and 20th century oligarchies that followed it, had no motivation to invest in industrial development or education of the masses. Rather, Brazil was prized for its cheap and plentiful labor to mine the rich soil of its vast land. There is another theory based on collective psychology that says the first U.S. colonizers from England were workaholic Puritans, who avoided dancing and music in place of work and religious devotion. They labored six days a week then spent all of Sunday in church. Meanwhile, the white settlers in Brazil were unambitious criminals who had been freed from prison in Portugal in exchange for settling in Brazil. The Marxist interpretation of why Brazil lags behind the U.S. was best summarized by Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, in 1970. Galeano said five hundred years ago the U.S. had the good fortune of bad fortune. What he meant was the natural riches of Brazil – gold, silver, and diamonds – made it ripe for exploitation by western Europe. Whereas in the U.S., lacking such riches, the thirteen colonies were economically insignificant to the British. Instead, U.S. industrialization had official encouragement from England, resulting in early diversification of its exports and rapid development of manufacturing. II Leaving this debate to the historians, let us turn our focus to the future. According to global projections by several economic strategists, what lies ahead for Brazil, the U.S., and the rest of the world is startling. Projections forecast that based on GDP growth, in 2050 the world's largest economy will be China, not the U.S. In third place will be India, and in fourth – Brazil. With the ascendency of three-fourths of the BRIC countries over the next decades, it will be important to reevaluate the terms developed and developing. In thirty years, it may no longer be necessary to accept the label characterized by Nelson Rodrigues's famous phrase "complexo de vira-lata," for Brazil's national inferiority complex. For Brazilians, this future scenario presents glistening hope. A country with stronger economic power would mean the government has greater wealth to expend on infrastructure, crime control, education, healthcare, etc. What many Brazilians are not cognizant of are the pitfalls of economic prosperity. While Brazilians today may be envious of their wealthier northern neighbors, there are some aspects of a developed country's profile that are not worth envying. For example, the U.S. today far exceeds Brazil in the number of suicides, prescription drug overdoses, and mass shootings. GDP growth and economic projections depend on multiple variables, chief among them the global economic situation and worldwide political stability. A war in the Middle East, for example, can affect oil production and have global ramifications. Political stability within a country is also essential to its economic health. Elected presidents play a crucial role in a country's progress, especially as presidents may differ radically in their worldview. The political paths of the U.S. and Brazil are parallel today. In both countries, we've seen a left-wing regime (Obama/PT) followed by a far-right populist one (Trump/Bolsonaro), surprising many outside observers, and in the U.S. contradicting every political pollster, all of whom predicted a Trump loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Brazil, although Bolsonaro was elected by a clear majority, his triumph has created a powerful emotional polarization in the country similar to what is happening in the U.S. Families, friends, and colleagues have split in a love/hate relationship toward the current presidents in the U.S. and Brazil, leaving broken friendships and family ties. Both presidents face enormous challenges to keep their campaign promises. In Brazil, a sluggish economy just recovering from a recession shows no signs of robust GDP growth for at least the next two years. High unemployment continues to devastate the consumer confidence index in Brazil, and Bolsonaro is suffering under his campaign boasts that his Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, has all the answers to fix Brazil's slump. Additionally, there is no end to the destruction caused by corruption in Brazil. Some experts believe corruption to be the main reason why Brazil has one of the world's largest wealth inequality gaps. Political corruption robs government coffers of desperately needed funds for education and infrastructure, in addition to creating an atmosphere that encourages everyday citizens to underreport income and engage in the shadow economy, thereby sidestepping tax collectors and regulators. "Why should I be honest about reporting my income when nobody else is? The politicians are only going to steal the tax money anyway," one Brazilian doctor told me. While Bolsonaro has promised a housecleaning of corrupt officials, this is a cry Brazilians have heard from every previous administration. In only the first half-year of his presidency, he has made several missteps, such as nominating one of his sons to be the new ambassador to the U.S., despite the congressman's lack of diplomatic credentials. A June poll found that 51 percent of Brazilians now lack confidence in Bolsonaro's leadership. Just this week, Brazil issued regulations that open a fast-track to deport foreigners who are dangerous or have violated the constitution. The rules published on July 26 by Justice Minister Sérgio Moro define a dangerous person as anyone associated with terrorism or organized crime, in addition to football fans with a violent history. Journalists noted that this new regulation had coincidental timing for an American journalist who has come under fire from Moro for publishing private communications of Moro's. Nevertheless, despite overselling his leadership skills, Bolsonaro has made some economic progress. With the help of congressional leader Rodrigo Maia, a bill is moving forward in congress for the restructuring of Brazil's generous pension system. Most Brazilians recognize the long-term value of such a change, which can save the government billions of dollars over the next decade. At merely the possibility of pension reform, outside investors have responded positively, and the São Paulo stock exchange has performed brilliantly, reaching an all-time high earlier this month. In efforts to boost the economy, Bolsonaro and Paulo Guedes have taken the short-term approach advocated by the Chicago school of economics championed by Milton Friedman, who claimed the key to boosting a slugging economy was to cut government spending. Unfortunately many economists, such as Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, disagree with this approach. They believe the most effective way to revive a slow economy is exactly the opposite, to spend more money not less. They say the government should be investing money in education and infrastructure projects, which can help put people back to work. Bolsonaro/Guedes have also talked about reducing business bureaucracy and revising the absurdly complex Brazilian tax system, which inhibits foreign and domestic business investment. It remains to be seen whether Bolsonaro has the political acumen to tackle this Godzilla-sized issue. Should Bolsonaro find a way to reform the tax system, the pension system, and curb the most egregious villains of political bribery and kickbacks – a tall order – his efforts could indeed show strong economic results in time for the next election in 2022. Meanwhile, some prominent leaders have already lost faith in Bolsonaro's efforts. The veteran of political/economic affairs, Joaquim Levy, has parted company with the president after being appointed head of the government's powerful development bank, BNDES. Levy and Bolsonaro butted heads over an appointment Levy made of a former employee of Lula's. When neither man refused to back down, Levy resigned his position at BNDES. Many observers believe Bolsonaro's biggest misstep has been his short-term approach to fixing the economy by loosening the laws protecting the Amazon rainforest. He and Guedes believe that by opening up more of the Amazon to logging, mining, and farming, we will see immediate economic stimulation. On July 28, the lead article of The New York Times detailed the vastly increased deforestation in the Amazon taking place under Bolsonaro's leadership. Environmental experts argue that the economic benefits of increased logging and mining in the Amazon are microscopic compared to the long-term damage to the environment. After pressure from European leaders at the recent G-20 meeting to do more to protect the world's largest rainforest, Bolsonaro echoed a patriotic response demanding that no one has the right to an opinion about the Amazon except Brazilians. In retaliation to worldwide criticism, Bolsonaro threatened to follow Trump's example and pull out of the Paris climate accord; however, Bolsonaro was persuaded by cooler heads to retract his threat. To prove who was in control of Brazil's Amazon region, he appointed a federal police officer with strong ties to agribusiness as head of FUNAI, the country's indigenous agency. In a further insult to the world's environmental leaders, not to mention common sense, Paulo Guedes held a news conference on July 25 in Manaus, the largest city in the rainforest, where he declared that since the Amazon forest is known for being the "lungs" of the world, Brazil should charge other countries for all the oxygen the forest produces. Bolsonaro/Guedes also have promised to finish paving BR-319, a controversial highway that cuts through the Amazon forest, linking Manaus to the state of Rondônia and the rest of the country. Inaugurated in 1976, BR-319 was abandoned by federal governments in the 1980s and again in the 1990s as far too costly and risky. Environmentalists believe the highway's completion will seal a death knoll on many indigenous populations by vastly facilitating the growth of the logging and mining industries. Several dozen heavily armed miners dressed in military fatigues invaded a Wajãpi village recently in the state of Amapá near the border of French Guiana and fatally stabbed one of the community's leaders. While Brazil's environmental protection policies are desperately lacking these days, not all the news here was bad. On the opening day of the 2019 Pan America Games in Lima, Peru, Brazilian Luisa Baptista, swam, biked, and ran her way to the gold medal in the women's triathlon. The silver medal went to Vittoria Lopes, another Brazilian. B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil.

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