Juliana Mello

Juliana Mello

The Brazil Business


Contemporary Slavery in Brazil

Juliana Mello

Juliana Mello

The Brazil Business


Despite of its clear advances in Labor Laws, Brazil still presents serious irregularities in the matter. Contemporary slavery is the most concerning of them, affecting thousands of people and involving our international trade relations into a net of crime.

A Past of Slavery

Even before the Portuguese moored in Brazilian lands, the still crawling nation experienced slavery, as it was part of the natives' culture to bondage the ones from enemy tribes. But focusing in the period after the Europeans' arrival, we can say that, like in many other countries throughout History, Brazil was built, century after century, from forced work.

First, indigenous natives were turned into slaves, especially the hostile ones, who were captured and led to work in the pau-brasil extraction, precious metals mining and farms. As the monoculture latifundium plantation system became to settle down in Brazil, a very lucrative market of African slaves started to be organized to supply the demand of labor force.

From sugar cane to coffee beans economic periods, African slaves were the base for almost all working activities, in homes, plantations and cities. For more than 300 years (from 1530 to 1888), people were sold and purchased as goods, all in accordance to the Law. Until there was a moment when it became no longer interesting for the national economy to keep slavery. The industry was coming to Brazil. The country needed salaried labor to enhance internal market.

Official slavery had come to an end, but can we really talk about the end of something that lasted 300 years?

It is said by many historians that legal slavery in Brazil fell by itself, because it simply did not correspond to the country's reality anymore. Of course, other reasons contributed to the end of slavery, such as: diplomatic issues with England (that prohibited African traffic through the Atlantic Ocean) and the Abolitionist Movement.

Did Slavery really finish?

Not by far. Although slavery was officially prohibited in 1888, with the signing of Lei Áurea, Brazil still suffers with what we call of contemporary slavery. The concept can be defined as “any degrading work and working relations that involves restriction of freedom”.

According to the Ministry of Labor, what characterizes a slave work is the existence of four factors: seizure of documents, presence of armed supervisors who threaten lives, debt bondage or a remote geographical work location from which the enslave person cannot escape.

In spite of what legislation says, it is estimated the existence of 25 to 40 thousand enslave people in Brazil. About 40% of them are in the state of Maranhão, known for its political corruption and parallel power exercised by a few enriched families.

Amazon also faces alarming statistics. The region known as “arco do desmatamento” (arc of deforestation), where the forest daily goes down to give way to pastures, plantations and charcoals, has the largest occurrence of slavery in the country.

The Debt Bondage

The most common slaving working relation is the “sistema de barracão”, or the debt bondage. Some farmers that need labor force to clean the woods, produce coal, plow the land to plantation, among other rural activities, “contract” labor force through intermediate contractors, the so-called “gatos” (cats, in English). Those contractors are responsible for seducing the workers, so the farmers will not get busted for the crime.

The “gatos” recruit people to work in distant places from their homes. They come with job offers in farms, promising salary, housing and meals all included. But once the workers get to their new workplace, they are surprised with total different conditions.

First the “gato” informs that they are already in debt: for transportation, food and working instruments as well as the clothes are to be paid by the employees. Everything gets written down in a notebook, with prices way too high in comparison to the market's.

Sinking into debts, unaware of their legal rights and constantly threatened by armed foremen that make impossible any attempt of escape, enslaved workers have no choice but to remain in that situation.

Contemporary Slave and Agribusiness: a net of crime

The most shocking thing about contemporary slavery in Brazil is how far it reflects. Government reports showed that people who enslave in Brazil are not uninformed owners, hidden in delayed farmers and surrounded by ignorant henchmen, as we would imagine. On the contrary, the people that most enslave are the agribusiness entrepreneurs that operate with the highest technology. Even some multinationals were proved to be involved in those schemes.

Considering that Brazil occupies a leadership position in meat export, for example, what are the odds for an European or American company to buy Brazilian meat from a slavery farm? Let me think... Very significant.

Even unaware, this consumer is responsible for sustaining a very lucrative illegal activity. And let us clarify that slavery is only advantageous for the criminal businessmen and farmers, as the prices of clean products and products from slavery farms are the same.

As an attempt to break this net, Brazilian Ministry of Labor implemented the “Lista Suja” (Dirty List), which currently contains 294 employers' names responsible for urban or rural slavery. The company responsible for the irregular contraction remains in the List for at least two years. If its situation is regularized the name is withdrawn. The List is updated every six months.

The listed ones are unable to receive credit from public funding agencies like Banco do Brasil and from some private national and international banks, like Rabo Bank, Santander and ABN Amro.

Corporations with foreign participation in its shareholding, like Carrefour and Pão de Açucar supermarket chains joined strongly the fight against slave labor. Both companies were second clients of farms named in the Dirty List. After knowing it, they signed the National Agreement to Eradicate Slave Labor and announced the end of commercial relations with irregular suppliers. That attitude has been followed by several other companies, what reveals the importance of the List.

Slavery and Brazilian Commodities

  • Soya: Brazil is the largest exporter in the world. Slave workers are used in the cleaning of the woods for the planting of the seeds. Recently, the Amaggi Corporation (one of the biggest soya exporters of Brazil) compromised to not buy the grain from a dirty farm. But other huge companies in the segment still remain quiet, such as ADM, Bunge and Cargill, who remain buying from dirty farms.

  • Alcohol: Produced from sugar cane it is one of the most used fuels in Brazil. Slaves are highly explored in the moment of harvest. Huge fuel distributors, such as Petrobrás, Shell, Texaco and Ipiranga broke commercial relations with slavery farms, even suffering from some politicians pressure.

  • Steel: The region of Carajás, located in the Pará state, has the planet's biggest iron reservoir. Because of it, several steel companies were installed in the surrounding areas, composing the Carajás Complex. The great amount of iron demands an equally amount of coal. Workers are enslaved in the charcoals that supply those plants.

  • Cotton: Brazil is also one of the most important cotton producers. Slaves are used in the cleaning of the wood for planting.

Other Governmental actions

From 1995 to 2006, around 18 thousand people were released in government's inspection operations accomplished in about 1500 rural properties throughout Brazil.

About Urban Slavery

Although the number of contemporary slaves is higher in the fields, this type of working relation occurs in urban places as well. The most common areas are the civil construction and textile industry.

In 2004, the Ministry of Labor discovered a clothing confection in the Bom Retiro neighborhood, in São Paulo, where illegal immigrants (Paraguayans, Bolivian and Uruguayans) were submitted to a 16-hour working journey, in very degrading conditions and even monitored by the owners through closed circuit TV systems.

It has also been reported that seamstresses working in the Brás neighborhood, located in São Paulo too, are paid BRL 0,50 for sewing a pair of pants. Those very same pants will be sold after for hundreds of Reais in expensive shops. The only thing to add is a piece of tissue in the waistband with a glamorous name. Rather lucrative, no?

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