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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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

The Mogi-Guaçu case is not isolated and Brazilian bloggers have been reporting regularly on the incidence of slave labor in São Paulo, in both rural and urban areas. This year, the Anjos e Guerreiros [pt] blog posted an article about flagrant slave labor and the exploitation of child-labor on a lemon farm in Cabreúva Municipality, 70 kilometers from São Paulo City.

A complaint led the police to the farm. A rural worker had been on the property for four months and told how he had not received any payment. Those responsible for his hiring should also be accountable for the exploitation of child labor.
"Sometimes they give us a little bit of food. Sometimes we don't eat, don't have lunch or dinner."
The workers told the police there were children working on the lemon harvest.
The Tutorial Council was called and witnessed six minors working in the farm. One of them was a 12-year old boy.
"There are no gloves and there was no equipment, not even water. I earn 2 reais said the boy [around $ 1]."
One adolescent tells that the employers told them all to run away as soon as they heard that the police were going to arrive.
"We told them we would not run away," he stated.

In São Paulo City, in the heart of the urban area, the incidence of slave labor has other characteristics to which the Verdefato blog [pt] draws our attention:

Urban slave labor is less than that in rural areas. The Federal Policy, the Regional Labor Delegacies, the Labor Public Ministry and the Federal Public Ministry already act upon the problem. It is worth remembering that urban slavery is of another nature, with distinct characteristics"the main case of urban slavery in Brazil is that of the illegal Latin-American migrants mainly Bolivians in the sewing workshops of the metropolitan region of São Paulo. The solution depends on the regularization of these immigrants and the decriminalization of their work in Brazil.

A hooded informant who succeeded in escaping from the estate (in the background) takes the Brazilian Federal Police to a site where workers are kept imprisoned. Photo: Ricardo Funari

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The same blog reports this case of a Bolivian immigrant, one of many working on these conditions:

Having sat for more than 16 hours in front of the sewing machine, Ramón's mother is in a rush. Maria Diaz sews one piece of clothing after another, intensely. She has a target to meet. She only stops when she needs to eat or go to the toilet. The mother of little Ramón is an exhausted woman.
Since she arrived in Brazil, in 2003, she has worked from early to late. She does not have a work permit, protective equipment or medical assistance. She does not exist in the immigration registry. Officially, the Brazilian Government does not know of her presence. Her departure from Bolivia, in 2003, was not registered either. Maria was brought to São Paulo by intermediaries known as "coyotes", who earn money smuggling people from one country to another. In São Paulo, at least 100,000 Bolivians are in this condition.

A man found imprisoned inside an estate shaves before being photographed for the first work permit he has ever had in his life. Photo by Ricardo Funari.

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