Labour rights or immigration enforcement? The case of labour inspections in Brazil

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26 October 2017

Written by Renato Bignami, Brazilian Labour Inspectorate

São Paulo’s notorious textile production industry is mostly built on the precarious work of undocumented migrants. Since the 90s, we at the Ministry for Labour and Employment in São Paulo have increased inspections in the textile industry due to growing complaints of migrant labour exploitation. In 2006, for instance, it was estimated that over 300 thousand undocumented Bolivians worked non-stop under intense heat in noisy, disorganised, dirty and tight sweatshops in the metropolis.[1]

Following a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission that identified public and private entities as responsible for the precarious nature of work in the fashion industry of São Paulo, we initiated a series of multi-stakeholder dialogues with government representatives, migrant organisations, unions, NGOs, and employers to better understand the sector. Among the many issues raised, two stood out. First, despite the appalling situation, the sector had barely collaborated to find solutions to improve working conditions. Second, the Federal Police were treating labour exploitation of undocumented workers solely as a violation of immigration policies.

As a result of these meetings, some stakeholders collaborated to form the ‘Pact Against Precarisation and for Decent Employment and Work in São Paulo – Clothing Supply Chain’. The Pact increased resources to intensify labour inspections in order to guarantee workers’ rights, and inspired the understanding that labour inspections cannot serve as a means to enforce immigration policies.

In the following years, under the newly established State Programme for the Eradication of Slave Labour, we increased inspections in textile factories producing clothes for well-known brands, and found trafficked migrants working over 14 hours per day under dangerous health and safety conditions, while being paid below minimum wage.

We also encountered a confusing legal scenario regarding the possibility for workers to stay in Brazil after being identified as victims of labour exploitation. Instead of investigating cases of human trafficking and work analogous to slavery, the Federal Police mainly issued deportation orders to migrants who had entered Brazil on tourist visas but were working in some of the thousand sweatshops in São Paulo. They were being deported without access to justice, compensation, or any kind of support.

We, the labour inspectors who were dealing with undocumented immigrants in the city of São Paulo, understood that by issuing deportation orders, the Federal Police not only violated human rights treaties ratified by Brazil, but also supported the main manipulation tool used by unscrupulous employers to keep migrant workers from seeking assistance: the threat of deportation.

As we believed the separation between labour inspection and immigration enforcement was essential to counter precarity at the workplace and promote better working conditions, we began negotiations with the Secretariat for Labour Inspection to allow all migrant workers to benefit from the same legal mechanisms and instruments already accessible to Brazilian victims of slave-like conditions. However, at first, the Secretariat sided with the Federal Police, choosing deportation over the promotion of rights.

The Secretariat changed its position later in 2010, after we uncovered emblematic cases of exploitation, such as that of two Bolivian women who had been issued deportation orders by the Federal Police but were clearly subjected to conditions analogous to slavery. Yet, the Federal Police continued to focus on immigration enforcement, which led us to avoid collaborating with them at the regional level.

Over time, other regions started to identify cases of labour exploitation of undocumented migrant workers followed by deportation. In light of these cases, we supported the developement of a guideline for inter-institutional use, prepared by the National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour (CONATRAE), which clearly indicated best practices to be implemented by all authorities.

Finally, the National Immigration Council decided that any migrant subjected to trafficking in persons or work analogous to slavery has permission to work and has the right to regularise their immigration status. Last year, this norm was replaced by the law 13.445/17 that ended this ten-year discussion by determining that undocumented migrant victims of human trafficking for labour exploitation are entitled to permanent residence and the same benefits as nationals, irrespective of their collaboration in criminal investigations.

Today, these procedures are relatively solidified, despite constant protest from xenophobic groups who perceive migrants as threats or less deserving of support. The separation of labour inspection and immigration enforcement should be carried forward by other countries, if necessary with the support of international organisations, such as the UN or the ILO. The effective enforcement of labour rights to any worker should be the sole goal of a sound labour inspection system, as expressed in the Convention 81, from ILO. While this was not an easy journey, it is an essential one in the fight against labour exploitation.

Renato Bignami is a Labour Inspector at the State Programme for the Eradication of Slave Labour in São Paulo, Brazil

[1] Câmara Municipal de São Paulo, Relatório Final da Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito para Apurar a Exploração de Trabalho Análogo ao de Escravo – Processo No 0024/2005, February 2006.