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Brazil’s economy—Latin America’s largest—is booming and on track for another year of above-average growth in 2012. Job seekers from across the nation are flocking to jobs in the farming, charcoal and logging industries. But the national prosperity has not managed to eliminate a social ill that has long plagued the region: slave labor.
Brazil’s Labor Ministry announced Jan. 3, 2012, that 52 employers were added to its anti-slavery blacklist in 2011, raising the total to 294 employers that were found to have submitted workers to slave-like conditions.
It is the highest number since officials began compiling the list in 2004.
Brazil’s definition of slave-like labor includes cases in which a person is subjected to exhausting hours, is forbidden to leave because of a debt with the employer and earns less than the minimum wage.
The government announced that 2,270 people working “under degrading conditions” were freed by authorities in 2011 and that 5.4 million reals ($2.9 million) was paid in labor compensation.
Between 1995 and 2011, nearly 41,500 workers were freed from slave-like conditions, the ministry said.
Alexandre Teixeira da Cunha Lyra, the Labor Ministry official in charge of eradicating slave labor, said the additions to the blacklist were not attributable to an increase in the number of workers found to be working under slave-like conditions but to increased surveillance by government inspectors.
Usually, government officials act after getting a tip or if one of the enslaved workers manages to escape and alerts authorities, Teixeira da Cunha Lyra said.
In most of the cases, the rescued workers are found in extremely poor sanitary conditions, are watched over by security guards and have suffered physical assault.
Many workers are victims of debt slavery, particularly in the Amazon region, where poor workers are lured to plantations where they incur debts to employers they can never pay off, the government said.
Although most of the victims defined as working under slave-like conditions are found in rural areas working on farms and ranches, the Labor Ministry said it was finding slave-like conditions in supermarkets, shopping malls and construction firms.
“We are acting against urban slave labor as there are also infractors in that environment,” said Teixeira da Cunha Lyra. “In 2012 we are committed to intensifying our actions,” he said.
Fighting Forced Labor
Brazil launched its anti-slavery blacklist in 2004 as part of a nationwide campaign to eradicate slave labor conditions in the country.
The list is updated twice annually. Employers put on the list are denied loans from government banks, and the sale of their products is restricted. Their products are boycotted by companies that have signed a national pact to eradicate slave labor. To be taken off the list, an employer must pay a series of fines and unpaid-labor-related taxes.
Reporter Brasil, a nongovernmental organization that monitors slave labor in Brazil and efforts to combat it, praised the government’s drive to eradicate slave-like working conditions but said much remains to be done to eradicate the practice.
“We still have a long way to go, especially in terms of eradicating poverty, which is the main reason why slave-like conditions survive,” Reporter Brasil stated on its website. “We still haven’t succeeded in improving things like education, health, housing and transportation, which are important to reduce poverty even more.”
Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.
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