In the absence of government, businesses should lead the way in human rights

. Apr 29, 2019
In the absence of government, businesses should lead the way in human rights Rural workers are extremely vulnerable to slave-like conditions

A paper published by German consultancy Löning has highlighted Brazil’s shortcomings when it comes to human rights violations, drawing attention to the state’s attempts (or lack thereof) to protect the population from abuses. Geared towards business, the report states that the private sector has the duty to strengthen human rights due diligence processes, in light of the government’s inability or unwillingness to fulfill its own human rights obligations.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While speaking highly of Brazil&#8217;s 1988 Constitution, the Bolsa Família cash transfer program, and the labor sector&#8217;s &#8220;Dirty List&#8221; for companies connected to slavery-like conditions, Löning is highly critical of Brazil&#8217;s recent backward steps in reducing poverty and inequality. Here, it mentions the two key pieces of legislation approved in the Michel Temer administration—the 2016 public spending cap and 2017 labor reform—as potential setbacks in human rights issues in the country.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The consultancy takes a broad look at six distinct topics concerning human rights, providing general descriptions of the area and &#8220;recommendations&#8221; for businesses to improve their own due diligence processes.</span></p> <h2>Slavery rears its ugly head</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil was the last country in the western world to abolish slavery, waiting until 1888 to do so. Even then, the abolition process was botched, with the emancipation decree itself providing no provisions for reparations or integration of freed slaves into society. This ended up causing a vast destitute underclass in the country, reflections of which are still seen today in Brazil&#8217;s embarrassing inequality levels.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Löning&#8217;s report signals that modern slavery is on the rise in Brazil, largely due to legislative changes made in 2017. Then-president Michel Temer issued a decree to change the definition of slave labor and make it harder for employers to be punished, though the legislation was suspended by the Supreme Court later that year.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The report also makes a reference to the labor reform, which established a rule giving priority to collective bargaining agreements over the law. This feature of the reform package has been widely criticized by civil society, with the fear that in a country with high unemployment, workers could be coerced into agreeing to slavery-like conditions out of necessity. Löning urges businesses to do their own due diligence on Brazil&#8217;s slavery &#8220;dirty list&#8221; before hiring suppliers.</span></p> <h2>The indigenous question</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In the first four months of the Jair Bolsonaro government, no one area has undergone more changes than the protection for Brazil&#8217;s indigenous peoples. The country&#8217;s indigenous affairs agency, Funai, has been gutted and stripped of many of its most important powers.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The organization was moved from the Ministry of Justice and put under the purview of the Ministry of Human Rights, Women, and Family, a switch lamented by Funai leaders. More importantly, the responsibility for demarcating indigenous lands has been taken away from Funai and given to the Ministry of Agriculture. The Löning report lightly addresses this contradiction, quoting a </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">New York Times </span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">article which pointed out that the department has &#8220;traditionally championed the interests of industries that want greater access to protected lands.&#8221; Reading between the lines, the measure was akin to giving criminals the keys to the prison.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil has long been criticized by international bodies for human rights abuses of indigenous populations, and there is a tendency for this to increase under the current president. To companies, Löning suggests strict risk assessment measures and consulting potentially affected indigenous groups and local NGOs.</span></p> <h2>The President&#8217;s prejudice</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">International observers and many Brazilians were shocked to see Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s meteoric rise in popularity last year, precisely due to his track-record of inflammatory and intolerant statements towards the black, indigenous, and LGBT communities, and women as a whole. Löning highlights Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s public stance against affirmative action to reduce discrimination, and the &#8220;raised anxiety among groups who feel vulnerable given the increase in hate speech by the president’s supporters.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">There is also the question of freedom of speech, particularly considering the current president&#8217;s promise to criminalize activist groups such as the Landless Workers&#8217; Movement, which is politically opposed to Mr. Bolsonaro.

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