Monitoring slave labour is still a challenge in the country's value chains

18.05.2021 • News

According to Heidi Buzato, the coordinator of Imaflora's social area, the inclusion of social issues would be a great step forward in the monitoring of production chains in the country. Currently, however, the commitments undertaken by companies in the soy and cattle sectors are mostly focused on environmental issues. As such, programs such as Soy on Track and Beef on Track could become an opportunity for an industry discussion in the Amazon and Cerrado aimed at encouraging dignified work in these productive chains. In 2020, 936 people in a situation of slave labour or slave-like labour were released from a total of 276 inspected establishments, according to SIT Radar of the federal government's Labour Inspection Portal. In 2019, a total of 1,131 workers were released from a total of 281 establishments inspected.

Monitoring slave labour is still a challenge in the country's value chains
Crédito: MartinFredy/iStock

The drop in the number, however, may not mean fewer cases but rather less enforcement. According to Mércia Silva, executive director of InPACTO, a non-profit organization that has brought together different sectors to ensure dignified work for 15 years, since the creation of the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour, the violation of one, two or 100 people is still a violation, so it is not right to compare the number of people released with the number of inspection actions. "What we need to compare is the percentage of the total places inspected that used slave labour in the past and then we can assess the numbers."

Silva explained that, even though the scope of work has been expanded in recent years, the fact that cases in rural areas have been inspected for longer means that they are still more numerous (42,000) than urban cases (12,000), since these only began to be inspected recently.

The most people released was in the livestock breeding sector. "Since 1995, when the inspection began, almost 56,000 people were found in slave-like conditions, of which about one third - or 18,000 people - worked in the sector. This happens because of the clearing of new areas, mostly through illegal deforestation. That is why there are so many cases in Pará state", pointed out Marcel Gomes, executive secretary of NGO Repórter Brasil, whose aim is to encourage reflection and action on the violation of the fundamental rights of people and workers in Brazil.

According to him, there has been less and less enforcement since the 2017 labour reform and the extinction of the Labour Ministry, in addition to the weakening of trade unions and social movements, which are the places that receive the reports," he pointed out.  "Moreover, the reports are not all looked into because of the lack of funds and inspectors. It is probably even greater now with the pandemic because people are more vulnerable," added Gomes. "There are cases of slave labour in all areas of the country, in small, medium and large cities and in various economic sectors, from industry to service."

How to explain

According to the Repórter Brasil executive, there are three points that explain why there are still frequent cases of slave labour in the country. The first is the laws themselves, which are tougher than in other nations. "Since this was the last country to officially abolish slavery, it had to be more comprehensive. Therefore, Brazilian law considers the excessive daily work day of 15 to 18 hours and unfulfilled dignity, such as living with animals, without food or basic needs."

The Black List of Slave Labour published by the Economy Ministry, which is updated every six months, names the companies convicted of crimes of slave and child labour and has come to improve the production chain of companies but has undergone constant attacks that have weakened it. "There are lawsuits to take names off the list, parliamentarians from the rural caucus who are fighting to change the concept of slave labour, in addition to this agenda not being a priority for the State," said Gomes.

The second reason is the history of breaches in the recognition of workers' rights. Many live on the margins of society, without knowledge, and accept these conditions because they are vulnerable. "Most of the people released are from Maranhão, the poorest state in Brazil," he stated.

The third reason why we still have cases of slave labour is the immigration of vulnerable people from other countries. "Most of those rescued are still Brazilians but there are also Bolivians (especially in the textile industry), Paraguayans, Venezuelans and Haitians (especially in construction)."

Mércia Silva, from InPACTO, has also raised issues related to the national productive sector, which has a very high level of informality, and high levels of poverty and unemployment that make the population vulnerable. "The concentration of jobs in the south and southeast regions, in contrast to pockets of poverty and land concentration in the north and northeast regions, creates a group of people in need of employment and favours the grooming of large groups without work opportunities."

In addition, there are companies that have not developed tracking and social protection control mechanisms throughout their production chains. "They are not concerned with working conditions, processes that guarantee a minimum to these workers. No one looks any deeper into it," says the expert.


To Silva, the first step towards coming with a solution is to recognise the problem. "Many sectors still deny the problem." After changing the narrative, she adds, you need to take an objective look at the challenge and invest in a simple, robust solution.

"Business and State can work together. There are successful experiences in which the business recognises that its connections/partners have an economic weakness and it create funds to help productively improve infrastructure, such as low interests, in partnership with the State", says the executive. "But always with oversight and transparency to ensure the resource is properly used."

Silva adds that it is also important to put pressure on multinationals to show them that they are benefiting from very fragile production chains, which do not protect workers from slave and child labour exploitation. "We need to look at it in a fractal manner, even those who are at the top. The chemical industry, for example, produces petroleum but its uniform was made in the textile industry. And the textile sector began in agriculture, with cotton. Things are interconnected and vigilance is needed throughout the production chain," she explained.

Gomes, from Brasil Repórter, claimed that there are NGOs, public entities and various fronts thinking of a way to solve the problem. In his opinion, it is necessary to: inspect and repress state-run agencies; increase the enforcement of the Black List in São Paulo, for instance, companies may lose their CNPJ corporate taxpayer ID number, which enables them to operate in the state, if they are included in the crime; educate, raise awareness of companies, workers, state agencies and consumers (the App Moda Livre, for instance, assesses shopkeepers in this aspect); punishment of economic players; besides targeted policies, such as banks refusing to lend money to companies in the Black List or even not buying from companies that use slave labour.

Soy on Track Team