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Leon Kaye headshot

Brazil’s Political Turmoil Endangers 20 Years of Progress on Forced Labor

By Leon Kaye

Brazil’s economic and global leadership prospects seemed boundless a decade ago, as more citizens were lifted out of poverty and the nation of 200 million people transformed from a debtor nation to a creditor nation.

Over the last few years, however, several crises roiled Latin America’s most populous nation. Bloated World Cup and Olympics budgets, the Zika crisis, last year’s presidential impeachment, and its worst recession in almost a century have shaken the country’s confidence.

The political and economic chaos has been so discombobulating that it threatens much of the progress made in the country since the turn of the century, including reforms that fought the indignities of human slavery in any form, as in forced and bonded labor.

To gain some perspective on how Brazil’s struggles have affected workers’ and human rights, TriplePundit spoke with Mércia Silva, executive director of the NGO InPacto (Nation Pact Against Slavery), while she was attending meetings in Amsterdam.

Background on forced labor in Brazil

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888. But the practice never completely disappeared and can be found in farms and mines across the country – especially in remote regions such as the Amazon.

As Al Jazeera profiled in 2015, workers desperate for any kind of work would be recruited only to find themselves in the most nightmarish scenarios. “People will work for any reason because they need food on the table,” sighed Silva.

In 1995, the Brazilian government officially recognized the existence of forced labor in Brazil; two years later, the country’s Ministry of Labor and Employment launched “mobile inspection groups” to monitor and stop the spread of forced labor.

Those steps were a start, as raids across Brazil resulted at first a few and eventually several thousand slaves rescued annually. Nevertheless, the exploitation has continued as slavery in industries as diverse as coffee, coal, construction and apparel still posed stubborn problems.

Brazil also amended its constitution in order to redefine modern slavery and defined the practice within the federal government’s civil code. As the federal code’s Article 149 states, slavery is defined by four pillars: subjecting a person to arduous working days; forcing that person to work in degrading conditions; isolating or restricting that person’s movement; and entrapping people to work in order to pay off debts, as in payments promised to a job broker.

Eventually, as former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took power in 2003, Brazil’s federal government took an even more aggressive approach with a national registry of employers that were fined and blacklisted for exploiting slave labor, commonly known as the “dirty list.”

Companies that were exposed and proven to have used any form of bonded or forced labor were publicly disclosed on this list. The results were that large companies in sectors such as retail, energy and meatpacking refused to sign contracts with these business. Banks also refrained from issuing loans to these companies, many of which had profited by being within larger corporations’ supply chains. Once on this list, companies had two years to pay all of their fines and prove to authorities that they improved their operations’ working conditions.

The “dirty list” under attack

To assume Brazil’s forced labor problem is tied to corporate greed is a far too simplistic view. “Companies such as Carrefour, Walmart, JBS and Cargill are actually doing very well” when it comes to rooting out labor abuses in their supply chains, Silva said. After all, no international brand wants to be associated with forced labor of any nature, especially during this age of social media.

Silva recounted a time when one of the world’s largest multinational food companies was accused by several NGOs of having products with ties to slave labor. “I could call retailers, such as Walmart and Carrefour, explain that we have a problem with that food company, ask them to take those products off of their shelves, and action would follow,” Silva recalled. For once, with the "dirty list," the Brazilian government had an initiative that actually was transparent and had impact.

But in late 2014, the Supreme Court of Brazil ordered the nation’s Ministry of Labor to suspend any disclosure of the dirty list. One of Brazil’s leading construction industry associations filed a lawsuit in order stop the practice of revealing the hundreds of companies and individual employers inspectors proved were profiting from forced labor.

In response, the labor rights advocacy group Reporter Brasil and its president, Leonardo Sakamoto, pressured the federal government to continue to make this list public -- arguing that it is in the public’s best interest to know who has profited off slave labor.

The Supreme Court reversed that suspension in March 2016. But activists including Sakamoto say the Labor Ministry has not updated the list since the suspension was put in place. And what Reporter Brasil and other organizations have been able to extract from freedom of information requests shows that the list is far less comprehensive than what has been released in the past.

Meanwhile, the quest to stop slavery in any form across Brazil has plenty of opponents, such as several of the country’s leading business organizations and most powerful politicians – and include interests that were also in alignment to impeach former President Dilma Rousseff.

Now politicians are chipping away at labor laws

As Silva explained, politicians in Brasília are also scheming to work around federal labor laws by introducing new sets of laws that would make the burden of proof in cases involving slave labor much more difficult. Business owners and managers accused of using forced labor would have to be caught literally having employees in chains or locked in rooms. “They want to remove stipulations including degrading conditions and exhausting work hours,” Silva explained.

Rousseff’s impeachment last summer emboldened the nation’s senate, itself notorious for rife corruption, to weaken Brazil’s labor laws, Silva said. “Dilma was the goalkeeper who could prevent any changes to our laws, including those related to civil society, education and labor,” mused Silva. “Her removal from office was a coup against the population.” And, apparently, a blow to laborers.

The tragedy is that Brazil’s labor laws were largely successful in fighting back against slavery, which had emerged in more industries during the late 20th century. Brazil’s government, to its credit, for once had actually responded relatively quickly; and Brazil’s success on this front was a model for other nations as slavery in industries as diverse as seafood and apparel have been exposed in recent months. Now, the country is going backward.

“We had been the best in the world at showing how we can fight slavery,” Silva told 3p. “The dirty list allowed businesses, and organizations like ours, to smell the smoke before there was a fire. Now transparency is gone, and there you have the threats to too many workers.”

Image credit: André Campos/Reporter Brasil

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye