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Regional Meeting for the Americas 2-5 May - Forced labour in Latin America: Fighting impunity

In Latin America, 1.3 million people are victims of forced labour, representing more than 10 per cent of forced labourers worldwide. According to the report prepared for the ILO Regional Meeting for the Americas, despite this high number it is possible to drastically reduce forced labour over the next 10 years if there is a will to do so. ILO Online reports from Brazil.

Article | 02 May 2006

MARANHAO STATE, Brazil (ILO Online) - Last month, police and government officials freed 318 rural workers held in slave-like conditions in north-eastern Brazil, the poorest region of the country. In an eight-day search, police and Labour Ministry workers had discovered 121 workers held without pay at three ranches in Maranhao state.

As a result, the ranch owners were required to pay each worker two monthly minimum salaries, or 700 reals (US$330), plus a fine of 100,000 reals (US$46,420) or the equivalent in computers or cameras to the State. The audiovisual equipment is used by local authorities to check on ranches.

That same month in the neighbouring state of Tocantins, a routine inspection of labour conditions revealed another 197 farm workers forced to live in tents without water, electricity or pay. The ranch owner was required to pay compensation of 130,000 reals (US$60,345) to the workers.

Since their release, these workers are being enrolled in government aid programs and returned to their native states. The Brazilian Ministry of Labour says that some 18,000 workers have been freed from slave-like living conditions since 1995.

According to Brazilian law, forced labour comprises degrading work obtained by coercion, debt slavery or threats to family members. The penalty is up to six years in prison and fines of at least 250 reals (US$116) for each worker maintained.

In its report prepared for the Regional Meeting for the Americas, the ILO said it aims to significantly reduce forced labour in Latin America.

"We can achieve this goal if there is a strong will to resolve the problem", says ILO forced labour expert Roger Plant. "Governments and the social partners in countries with forced labour have to become aware of the situation of those workers and take legal action, particularly against impunity of those who perpetuate forced labour."

The ILO report also identifies a need for special programmes for the rural economy, national awareness-raising campaigns and stronger labour inspection systems. Countries like Bolivia, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru with a strong indigenous population should be priority targets, the report says.

Brazil takes the lead in the fight against forced labour

"Brazil has not only enshrined the fight against slave labour in its institutional structures but also succeeded in committing civil society to the eradication of forced labour. The experiences we made over the last years show that it is possible to eradicate forced labour in Latin America if workers, employers and local and national government get involved in social dialogue", says Plant.

"Following Brazil's leadership", he adds, "We are now seeing significant steps in other Latin American countries to intensify action against forced labour. Peru has established an Interministerial Committee for the Eradication of Forced Labour to formulate policies and an action plan against it. In Bolivia, the National Commission against Forced Labour was created in December 2004 and has since identified measures to tackle debt bondage in different regions. In Paraguay, the Government recently strengthened its labour inspection in an area with a documented incidence of forced labour and debt bondage. These are all signs of a renewed Latin American determination to come to grips with forced labour and establish new structures to tackle the problem."

A national campaign against forced labour in Brazil, launched in October 2003, has received US$11 million so far. The Government established a National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour (CONATRAE) and launched a national action plan against forced labour. As a result of these activities and greater media coverage between 2002 and 2005, the number of news reports on the issue increased by 1,900 per cent.

Furthermore, the Government established a "laundry list" of companies using slave labour which are no longer entitled to receive public support. The list originally contained 65 transgressors, but now totals 188. As of 2003, victims saved from forced labour automatically receive three months of unemployment benefits and as of December 2005 those who have children are also eligible to receive benefits from the "Every child in school" programme (Bolsa Familia).

In May 2005, a National Pact against Forced Labour, coordinated by the ILO and the Ethos Institute for Social Responsibility, was signed by a large number of public and private enterprises in which they agreed not to buy products made from slave labour. In December 2005 the Federation of Brazilian Banks (FEBRABAN) decided to suspend credits to companies included on the Government's "laundry list".

Furthermore, Brazilian courts have set unprecedented benchmarks in the fight against impunity in the country this year: a judge in the state of Pará sentenced a farmer to a 1.3 million reals (US$481,500) fine for moral damages resulting from forced labour. The Regional Labour Court in Pará ordered a farmer who held 180 people, including nine youth and one child, in slave-like conditions to pay 5 million reals (US$2.1 million).

In December 2005, in the presence of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the ILO and its CONATRAE partners launched the second phase of the campaign to eradicate forced labour in Brazil.

"Now it will be necessary to consolidate these efforts to eradicate forced labour in Brazil and free the 25,000 to 40,000 Brazilians working in slave-like conditions", concludes Plant. "The biggest challenge will be to reinforce prevention, rescue the victims of forced labour and punish the perpetrators. Access of the population to education and basic health services, decent work and income opportunities are equally important."

Note 1 - Decent work in the Americas: An agenda for the Hemisphere, 2006-2015, Report of the Director-General, Sixteenth American Regional Meeting, Brasilia, May 2006.