Abolition in Brazil: 131 years on, still no cause for celebration

. May 13, 2019
modern slavery brazil

In 1888, 131 years ago today, Brazil became the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery. However, instead of being a day to commemorate, Afro-Brazilian advocacy groups find no reason for celebration. They criticize what was a half-baked abolition process, which, instead of pushing Brazil toward a freer and more equal society, actually institutionalized a deep cleavage among the country’s population that can still be felt today.

What’s more, recent years have seen Brazil backslide in its fight against modern slavery, which remains a persistent problem in the country.

</span></p> <h2>The farce of Brazilian abolition</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Slavery in Brazil was a huge business. With its expansive territory, precious metals and huge sugarcane and coffee plantations, Brazil imported some 4.9 million slaves from Africa—more than any other country in the world.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As the global abolition movement gained steam, Brazil&#8217;s farmers and landowners—deeply influential in national politics—felt insecure. As a bid to save face with countries around the world, Brazil passed some legislation in the 19th century which was sold as a move towards ending slavery, but had very little practical effect.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil began developing trade relations with Great Britain in 1825. The British had outlawed slavery decades before and were set on eradicating the trading of slaves around the world. In response, Brazil sanctioned the Feijó Law in 1831, establishing that all slaves arriving in Brazil from abroad would be freed.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The rule, however, was rarely enforced, giving rise to the famous phrase: </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;lei pra inglês ver,&#8221; </span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">or, a law for the English to see. This expression is now used for any rule or intention that looks good on paper, but is never put into practice.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In 1871, Brazil sanctioned the Free Womb Law—another &#8220;law for the English to see,&#8221; promising that children of slaves would be born free, but in fact, limiting this liberty up until the child turned 8 years old.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Sexagenarian Law followed some years after, pledging that all slaves over 60 years old would be automatically freed. Considering that the life expectancy of Brazilian slaves hovered around 30 years old, very few people were benefitted by the measure.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On May 13, 1888, the Golden Law was sanctioned by Brazil&#8217;s Princess Isabel, effectively outlawing slavery. The legislation itself, however, was extremely weak. In only two articles and two sentences, the bill stated that &#8220;slavery was now illegal in Brazil,&#8221; and that &#8220;all laws saying otherwise must be repealed.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">There was no provision for reparations, either for freed slaves or slave owners, and no indications towards integrating this newly freed population into productive society.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As a result, a big slice of the population was left unemployed, illiterate, and homeless. Whereas they could have been integrated into the paid labor market, Brazil went about inviting immigrants from Europe to come over and work on their farms, paying for their travel and giving them places to live.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This led to the newly freed former slave population being overtaken by European immigrants, creating a vast, destitute underclass in Brazil.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While the gap is clearly much smaller now than it was in the 1880s, the poorest segments of Brazil&#8217;s population remains overwhelmingly black. Furthermore, black adults earn lower salaries on average and are </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">more likely to be victims of urban violence</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. A study from the University of São Paulo even pointed out that black children with the same school performance are </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">more likely to receive lower grades</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> than their white classmates.</span></p> <h2>Slavery in 2019</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Even now, 131 years on from the Golden Law, slavery is still a reality for a small portion of Brazilians. For them, it is so-called &#8220;modern slavery,&#8221; a legal concept involving forced labor and debt bondage, where people are coerced into working to repay debts. In Brazil, this is most often seen in rural regions, </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Investigations from Repórter Brasil in 2017 found </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">suppliers of Walmart and Lowe&#8217;s were involved in slave labor practices</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> in Brazil&#8217;s northern region—a situation which is repeated more often than one might expect.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In modern-day Brazil, this form of slavery is reportedly <a href="">on the rise</a> in the country despite vast efforts made to combat it in the 2000s and early 2010s.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Among the measures blamed for this backslide was 2017&#8217;s labor reform, which established that collective bargaining agreements take precedence over existing labor legislation. In a country with vast unemployment and a struggling economy, there is a fear that this legal framework could see Brazilians accepting slave-like working conditions as opposed to being left without any employment whatsoever.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Also worth mentioning in this struggle against modern slavery is the current government&#8217;s decision to abolish the country&#8217;s labor ministry in Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s January cabinet reshuffle. While on the one hand showing that the fight against modern slavery is not among the administration&#8217;s priorities, extinguishing the Labor Ministry will make it physically much harder to carry out inspections and to enforce slave labor laws.

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