President Temer takes Brazil back to the 19th century

. Oct 19, 2017
slave labor brazil michel temer Photo: Cícero R. C. Omena/Commons

In 1997, under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Brazilian Ministry of Labor created a special unit to monitor slave labor across the country. Over 52,000 workers subjected to inhumane conditions have been freed since then. Cardoso’s successor, Lula, went further, and started to publish a “blacklist” of companies profiting from slave labor. They were not only publicly shamed, but were also not able to contract loans from public banks for two years. Brazil started to receive international praise for its policies against the modern exploitation of people.

Sitting President Michel Temer, however, has set us back 20 years with a single piece of legislation. On October 16, Temer issued a decree changing the very definition of modern slavery, adopting the definition used in the 19th century. In essence, the new rules establish that slavery exists only when the boss keeps his employees in captivity. Degrading labor conditions that violate human rights, or forcing workers into debt to control them, for example, no longer fall under the definition.

And if that weren’t enough, companies can now only be sanctioned after approval from the Minister of Labor himself – regardless of what auditors find in work environments. And, as we know, cabinet positions are politically appointed, which creates an additional hurdle.

Temer’s decision was meant to please the rural caucus, an infantry group to defend landowners’ interests in Congress.

They amount to 195 congressmen (out of 513 members of the lower house) and are arguably the most powerful caucus in Brazilian politics, alongside the evangelicals. For decades, ruralists pledged for the loosening of labor laws, as most cases of modern slavery are found on cattle ranches and in the timber industry. By pandering to landowners, Temer hopes to secure their support to block an indictment request presented by Brazil’s former prosecutor general (the president is accused of leading a criminal gang and obstructing justice).</p> <p>To protest the government’s decree, auditors <a href="">staged a strike</a> across 13 Brazilian states.</p> <h3>Slave labor is a reality – but punishing it is not</h3> <p>Brazil has an <a href="">estimated 161,000 modern slaves</a>. Although over 52,000 people have been rescued since 1995, no employer was in prison by 2016. Of the few convicted for using slave labor, not one has served his or her full sentence in prison.</p> <p>According to <em>Repórter Brasil</em>, an NGO that fights modern slavery, the typical victim of this system is in a situation of extreme socioeconomic vulnerability. They are often illiterate or have very little education. In the last few years, a wave of immigration from Haiti and Venezuela – especially those who don’t speak fluent Portuguese and are unfamiliar with Brazilian labor laws – have become easy targets.</p> <div id="attachment_781" style="width: 2240px" class="wp-caption aligncenter"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-781" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-781" src="" alt="president michel temer slave labor" width="2230" height="1390" srcset=" 2048w, 560w, 300w, 768w, 1024w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 2230px) 100vw, 2230px" /><p id="caption-attachment-781" class="wp-caption-text">Michel Temer, a president for big business. Photo: Lula Marques/AGPT</p></div> <p>But President Temer isn’t the only one neglecting the fight against modern slavery. Since 2013, the number of rescued workers has declined drastically – a byproduct of successive budget cuts. This year, the budget that should have gone to monitoring suspect companies was cut in half. In August, the Labor Prosecution Office – which regulates labor relations in Brazil – sued the federal government to insure the financing of anti-slavery operations.</p> <p>With no money, fewer places are being scrutinized. “Auditors are not being able to perform their duties, as they have no budget for logistics,” said Xavier Plassat, a French Dominican friar who works at the Pastoral Land Commission. In a recent study, Matheus Magalhães, of the non-profit Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (Inesc) wrote:</p> <blockquote><p><em>By not putting enough effort into fighting slave labor, Brazil disrespects international agreements. Moreover, it shows how government authorities are viciously compromised by society’s most cruel sectors</em>.</p></blockquote> <h3>Big business against the “blacklist”</h3> <p>Temer’s recent decree was by no means the only setback in the fight against modern slavery. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the “blacklist” shaming companies that benefit from modern slavery was unconstitutional. The ruling indulges the lobby of an association of real estate developers, several of which have been accused of using slave labor. That list includes Odebrecht, Latin America’s largest construction firm. Earlier this year, Odebrecht settled to pay BRL 30 million in compensation for its role in a human trafficking scheme that victimized 400 Brazilian workers in an Angolan sugar mill.</p> <p>The ruling was lifted in May 2016, though the federal government refused to publish the “blacklist” until March 2017. But, according to <em>Repórter Brasil</em>, the list has not been publicized correctly – and the companies still have access to credit with public banks.</p> <p>Last year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Brazil had to pay almost USD 5 million to 128 workers kept as slaves in a farm located in the northern state of Pará. At the time, the court recognized that while Brazil had problems enforcing its labor legislation, the country had a solid framework to prevent modern slavery. Now, we don’t even have that.

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