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Fighting Contemporary Slavery in Brazil

By Deborah Goldemberg, Global Voices  Posted by Jason Paz (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Contemporary slave labor is a remnant of the times of officially-sanctioned slavery in Brazil, particularly in the northern and northeastern States. As the last country in the world to abolish slavery, only in 1888, temporary slavery due to indebtedness and forced labor has continued and been combated regularly by the Government in isolated regions, where the arms of the justice system face a demographic challenge.

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However, every time there is this type of incident in the State of São Paulo, particularly in Greater São Paulo, the news makes the front pages of the main Brazilian newspapers. That's what happened last week, when labor auditors from São Paulo, accompanied by labor prosecutors, freed 20 people from slavery (two of them under-age, at only 17 years old) in Mogi Guaçu Municipality (SP). Sakamoto's Blog [pt], specializing on slave labor news and a partner of the prize winning Reporter Brasil website [pt], reported the incident, drawing attention to the irony of there being adolescent slaves living in an abandoned state school.

This has happened hundreds of times in Brazil, unfortunately. The absurd thing about this case is that the employer housed the slaves in an abandoned school, with exposed electricity wires and open, running sewers. Despite the bad conditions, he said he charges for the accommodations.

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The town hall had set up a contract with Pimenta for him to use the house behind the Municipal School in exchange for carrying out the maintenance of the place. Graminha Farm School was assigned to the Municipality, by the State, nine years ago. Now, the contract will be canceled and the town hall is analyzing whether to sue the employer. The building was closed off and the secretariat will carry out a study on the possibility of reopening the school. Incredible! They are still discussing the "possibility""

The incidence of slave labor in São Paulo evokes the issue as discussed in the past by the independent journalist and intellectual from Para'State Lucio Fla'vio Costa: Is slave labour an Amazonic anomaly? [pt]

Since 2003, 192 people have been reported by the Ministry of Labor and Employment for forcing their employees to work under conditions analogous to slavery. More than two thirds of these companies (147) operate in the Legal Amazon. The national "champion' of slave labor is Para'State, with almost one fourth of the total reports, 52. The next two places in this notorious rank are also occupied by Amazon States: Tocantins (43) and Maranhão (32).
What leads to a high concentration of labor exploitation is not an Amazonian anomaly, but the fact that the region is an area of the expansion on the economic frontier of Brazil. There is a tacit assumption that the pioneer does not necessarily bring with him contemporary habits.

What Lucio Fla'vio Pinto means is that despite the higher incidence of slave labor in the frontier States, due to favorable conditions (besides geographical ones, according to him, also the absence of contemporary practices, justice, education etc.), it is carried out by economic agents, farmers and businessmen, from all parts of Brazil, always aligned with local agents. That is to say: "the circumstances make the thief" (a Brazilian popular saying) and in various favorable contexts for the exploitation of labor, the Brazilian heritage of slavery manifests itself again. Outside the frontier, other factors contribute to the incidence of the phenomena, such as: bad local administration, scarce auditing, weak trade unions, migrant labor, a more vulnerable and misinformed population.

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Sugarcane cutters in the lodgement: no potable water, no beds, no electrical light, no kitchen facilities or restrooms. Photo by Ricardo Funari.

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