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Fighting forced labour in Latin America

The ILO estimate of the number of victims of forced labour in Latin America and the Caribbean is 1.3 million. Brazil has taken the lead in addressing the problem through its 2003 National Action Plan for the Eradication of Slavery, including the liberation of workers and measures to fight impunity. In 2004, countries like Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay also made important commitments against forced labour.

Article | 18 May 2005

BRASILIA - Guilherme Pedro Neto, once a slave worker, has now become a union leader fighting to eradicate forced labour.

When he was in his twenties, his family lost the land they owned due to debt, and he had to look for work elsewhere in Brazil. On three occasions he was taken to farms to work, but at the end of the job he was told that he would get no salary - the employer claimed he had broken even due to the food he consumed.

"At the time when I was working as a slave, police rescues of workers hadn't been set up yet and there were no institutions that helped slave workers so we had no hope of being rescued. In this third farm where I worked and where the job was supposed to last five months, the conditions were so unbearable and we were suffering so much that 80 of us workers got together and tried to flee but we were held back by force", Guilherme says.

An important source of vulnerability for workers like Guilherme is the lack of official identity documents, rendering them "invisible" to national authorities and making it virtually impossible for them to denounce forced labour abuse and seek remedial action. With poor literacy and numeracy, they are usually ill equipped to deal with outsiders, who can easily deceive them into debt bondage.

"The typical profile of these workers is that of a young, strong, illiterate man who has no real documentation, so often they do not exist in the government's records", explains Patricia Audi, coordinator of the ILO forced labour project in Brazil.

Many of these workers, mostly men, are trafficked by intermediaries called "gatos" who recruit workers in urban centres in north-eastern Brazil, where poverty and unemployment are most acute. The gatos promise good pay for hard work. Workers who sign up are usually transported hundreds of kilometres away to remote places where they are expected to work in ranches or logging camps.

On reaching their destination, workers find themselves trapped in debt bondage. They are usually told that wage deductions will be made to repay transport costs. In other cases, workers are first brought to collection points where they wait several days or even weeks before being transferred to the workplace, and where additional debts are accumulated for the costs of lodging, food, and drink, often at vastly inflated prices.

Latin America's indigenous people living in remote areas are particularly susceptible to coercive recruitment and debt bondage. A weak state presence, together with low investment in education and other facilities, discrimination, and poverty mean that they are usually in a weak position to deal with unscrupulous recruitment agents.

But a series of ILO workshops held in Latin America indicate that contemporary forced labour also affects employees in privatized mines, the maquiladora assembly industries in export processing zones, domestic work, and even includes cases of abuse during the compulsory military service. The most acute forms of forced labour have been documented in the Chaco region of Bolivia, but debt bondage also exists in other parts of the country, and in traditional farming activities in Paraguay.

In Peru, forced labour in the Amazon basin is the result of the illegal enganche system of labour contracting. Subcontractors establish their labour camps in the forest and recruit between ten and 40 workers from distant cities, who receive wage advances of 10 - 20 per cent of their total pay. Once at the camp, they incur a continuous stream of expenses. When workers become aware of the deception, the armed subcontractors use a variety of means to retain the workforce, including death threats.

Action against forced labour in Latin America

Brazil has taken the lead in addressing the problem of forced labour through the adoption of its National Action Plan for the Eradication of Slavery, in March 2003. When the roots of forced labour lie deep in a continent's social, economic and ethnic structure, however, multiple strategies are needed to eradicate the problem.

Brazil's multiple strategy to combat forced labour includes massive awareness raising, coordination of government activities, promotion of a new law with stronger sanctions against offenders, interventions of mobile police units, and a steady increase in prosecutions. The achievements of the campaign against slave labour in Brazil are reflected in the remarkable increase in workers freed from forced labour over recent years.

In November 2003, a federal law created 269 new labour courts in areas with a high incidence of slave labour. The government issued a "dirty list" of 101 companies associated with slave labour, which would henceforth be denied access to public finance. In August 2004, an agreement was signed between major steel companies and their workers' union, under which these companies commit not to buy charcoal from any enterprise that has subjected its workers to slave labour conditions.

This month, just after the presentation of the ILO global report on forced labour, a major company was fined more than a million dollars (3 million Brazilian reais) for keeping 180 workers under slave like conditions. It was the highest sum ever in a forced labour case judged by a Brazilian court.

"Brazil is a model. Some people may argue that the main cause for forced labour is poverty, but we say that the real problem is impunity. We have to combat impunity…", comments Roger Plant, head of the ILO's Special Plan of Action to Combat Forced Labour.

The challenge in Brazil is now to complement law enforcement efforts by effective strategies for prevention and rehabilitation of forced labourers. A start has been made with legislation ensuring payment of the Government's share of unemployment insurance contributions to workers rescued from slave labour. Employers' and workers' organizations are encouraged to work closely with local authorities and civil society groups to help victims and to provide for a truly sustainable livelihood.

Since its start in April 2002, an ILO project in Brazil aims to combat abusive recruitment practices leading to slave labour, particularly in cattle raising and agriculture, and to coordinate action by members of the National Commission to Eradicate Slave Labour (CONATRAE), trade unions, and the private sector.

Although action is less advanced in Bolivia and Peru, both Governments made important commitments against forced labour last year. In September 2004, Bolivia's Minister of Labour announced the elaboration of a strategy to eliminate forced labour with the assistance of the ILO. In Peru, the Government confirmed its readiness to develop a specific policy to eradicate forced labour. Recently, the Government of Paraguay announced the opening of a regional office of the Labour Ministry in the Chaco region to deal with forced labour issues.

Note 1 - A global alliance against forced labour, Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work 2005, International Labour Office, Geneva. ISBN 92-2-115360-6. Price: 35 Swiss Francs.