Slave labour in Brazil has traditionally been linked to agricultural work, including cattle, crops and plantation farming – such as cotton, coffee, maize, rice, cocoa, soya and beans – in rural areas. In 2013 and 2014, however, the number of workers found to be working in conditions analogous to slavery in the urban sector–particularly in construction and garment manufacturing–was greater than in the rural sector.
Forced and slave labour are intricately related to poverty and the issue of concentrated landownership in Brazil. Forced labour is prevalent in the agricultural sector of Brazil, where men particularly are lured by deceptive promises of a good salary and working conditions, only to become entrapped in debt bondage. They are required to pay excessive prices for lodging, food, transportation, and the use of their working tools, in addition to enduring appalling working and living conditions. This practice is known as the ‘truck system’ or ‘politica de barracão’. Frequently, the practice of subjecting workers to conditions analogous to slavery is associated with the degradation of the environment, bearing in mind this type of manual labour is used in activities such as illegal deforestation, logging for timber and the production of charcoal.
Concept of “slave labour” in Brazil
The legal framework for the criminal prosecution of forced labour and ‘slave labour’ in Brazil is provided by Article 149 of the Criminal Code, as amended by Act No. 10,803 of 11 December 2003. Article 149 provides the definition of the Brazilian concept of ‘labour analogous to slavery’ by criminalizing the various practices which cause workers to work:
- in degrading working conditions;
- excessive working hours;
- in conditions of forced labour; or
- in situations whereby their freedom is restricted through debt, isolation, the confiscation of their personal documents or by maintaining manifest surveillance.
Under this definition of slave labour, it is sufficient for one of these elements to be present for the crime of using slave labour to be fulfilled. The Brazilian concept of slavery-like labour goes further than the international definition of ‘forced labour’ as set out in the ILO Conventions, as it does not necessarily require an element of coercion and specifically includes debt bondage.
The Brazilian Criminal Code contains specific provisions on forced labour and fraudulent enticement for employment. Article 149 punishes the offence of ‘reducing someone to conditions analogous to slavery’ with two to eight years of imprisonment and a monetary fine. The Criminal Code also penalizes fraudulent enticement with the promise of employment in another part of the Brazilian territory or overseas.
Furthermore, Article 203 complements Art. 149 in addressing slave labour in the Brazilian context, insofar as it criminalizes the use of fraud or violence to violate any rights guaranteed by labour legislation. This article directly addresses the practice of debt bondage through the ‘truck system’ or ‘política do barracão’, by outlawing the use of force or coercion and the retention of documents in order to prevent a worker from quitting his or her employment, and compelling someone into using products from a specific establishment in order to keep them trapped in a cycle of debt that forces them to stay in the service of their employer.
We must note that these provisions are not applicable to corporate entities, as Brazilian legislation only provides for the criminal responsibility of corporations for environmental crimes and corruption. However, the Brazilian Civil Code provides for objective civil liability of corporations, which establishes the obligation to pay for damages caused to others, independent of guilt. Therefore, civil liability may arise from any crime. Accordingly, while only the company’s executives can be charged with the crimes of forced labour, slavery and human trafficking, corporations themselves can be held civilly liable for such crimes.
Enforcement of labour standards
The Labour Law provides a number protections for workers, including provisions regarding the right to a minimum wage, limits on maximum working hours, minimum working age, and employment contracts. Furthermore, under Brazilian labour legislation, workers rescued from a condition analogous to slavery are entitled to receive a payment of three instalments of unemployment insurance, each in the amount of one minimum wage. The law also establishes the services to be provided to the rescued worker by the Ministry of Labour and Employment. In particular, the Ministry, through the National Employment System (SINE) must provide the worker with vocational training and assist him or her in securing employment.
The creation of the Special Mobile Inspection Group (GEFM) in 1995, under the Ministry of Labour, is one of the key measures adopted in Brazil against slave and forced labour. The GEFM’s mobile inspection teams combine the efforts of specially trained and equipped labour inspectors, labour prosecutors and federal police officers; and constitute the main enforcement bodies in the investigation of complaints and identification of victims of forced and slave labour. According to the Ministry of Labour, since its inception in 1995 and until the end of 2014, the Special Group has conducted 1,820 operations and rescued a total of 48,068 workers.
According to the ILO, the activities of the GEFM have promoted significant changes in the behaviour of employers and their relations with workers. Moreover, the presence of the mobile inspection groups has expanded the reach of the State to remote areas, and has served to inform employers of their obligations and victims of slave labour of their rights.
In 2003 the Brazilian Ministry of Labour approved the first national plan to combat slave labour, which provided the basis for cooperation and coordination across different ministries, government agencies and civil society through the creation of the National Commission to Eradicate Slave Labour (CONATRAE). The Second National Plan was developed by CONATRAE and adopted in 2008. It included new measures such as heavier economic sanctions against employers using slave labour, increasing the powers of the mobile inspection unit, and prevention and reintegration measures. It also included a proposed constitutional amendment to allow for the expropriation of property of employers found to be using slave labour, which was finally adopted six years later, in June 2014.
Administrative sanctions – the ‘dirty list’
The ‘dirty list’ (lista suja) has become an important deterrent measure for the eradication of slave labour in Brazil due to the economic consequences of being included on the list. Established in 2004, the so-called ‘dirty list’ is a registry of names of employers, including persons and legal entities, which have been found guilty of exploiting workers in conditions analogous to slavery. The list is updated every six months and made public through the websites of the Ministry of Labour and the NGO Repórter Brasil. The companies and individuals that are on the register cannot receive public financing, and their access to private financing is limited, due to the fact that many financial institutions refuse to provide credit and other banking benefits to employers included on the list. Furthermore, members of the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour, a multi-stakeholder initiative launched in 2005 by which major companies pledge to prevent and eradicate slave labour from their supply chains, use the ‘dirty list’ to identify suppliers who have been found to use slave labour in their supply chains. By early 2014, over 400 corporations, accounting for over 35% of Brazil’s GDP, had signed onto this pact.
Throughout the years the list has been subjected to a number of constitutional challenges from employers, and in 2014 it was suspended by a Supreme Court decision. However, in March 2014 the Ministry of Labour issued a new ordinance reinstating the ‘dirty list’, with a basis in the Freedom of Information Act. The new system will provide more legal guarantees for those being investigated by the labor authorities, in order to address some of issues highlighted by the Supreme Court’s decision.
Finally, a number of legislative measures have been adopted at the State level to impose corporate accountability for the use of forced and slave labour in supply chains. In the States of Sao Paulo, Piauí and Bahia, State legislation provides for the temporary de-registration of any company found to have made direct or indirect use of slave labour or labour in conditions akin to slavery at any stage in their supply chains. This means that the company will be prevented from performing any economic activity in the State. Furthermore, such measures have the potential to reach the entire supply chain, as they apply both to those involved directly and to those who benefit indirectly from the use of slave labour, reaching the business partners of the business or corporation involved, who are prevented from applying to re-register for 10 years.
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