Forced labour practices in Brazil occur in rural and urban areas mainly through debt bondage schemes. In rural areas workers are immobilised in estates until they can pay off debts often fraudulently incurred; their identity documents and work permits are frequently retained; they are often physically threatened and punished by armed guards and some have been killed while attempting to flee. Debt bondage involves abusive labour contracting schemes operated by contractors known locally as empreiteiros or gatos, often engaged in other types of seasonal labour contracts. The typical debt bondage cycle occurs as follows: given the seasonality of rural demand for labour, the gatos recruit workers from poverty stricken areas marked by seasonal unemployment or drought. They are ferried in trucks or buses to destination sites hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from their origin. Even before they start working they will have incurred debts in initial transport and food payment at prices beyond their control. Once working they will then incur additional debts in tools, housing and other services often through abusive charges.
In urban areas, the majority of the victims of forced labour are illegal immigrants (mostly from Bolivia) who have their identity documents retained by sweatshop owners in São Paulo. It is reported that employers engaged in such practices are foreigners themselves (and mostly from the Republic of Korea).
Slavery is illegal but hard to combat because it is largely concentrated in remote areas with precarious access roads and communications. Other constraints include limited labour inspection as well as legal and institutional loopholes, which often impede or minimise punishment.
The Government of Brazil has launched some efforts since 1996 to combat forced labour as reflected in the National Human Rights Plan and specific initiatives of the Human Rights Bureau of the Ministry of Justice and the Labour Inspection Bureau of the Ministry of Labour. In addition, other government and non-governmental entities comprising the Executive Group for the Abolition of Forced Labour (GERTRAF) was created by the Ministry of Labour and Employment to enforce labour law. These efforts have been recognised by the ILO in its Global Report 2001 (Stop Forced Labour) and in several recommendations and conclusions of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Standards.
The Project has two immediate objectives: to strengthen and co-ordinate actions of the National Council to Eradicate Forced Labour (CONATRAE) members and other key partners to combat forced labour and to rehabilitate and prevent rescued workers from falling-back into forced labour in Brazil by:
- developing an integrated database and monitoring system to reliably assess forced labour and the efforts to combat it;
- developing campaigns for raising general public awareness, mobilising society and preventing forced labour among rural workers;
- developing a national workplan integrating efforts among CONATRAE’s members and at federal, state and municipal levels;
- training of governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to enhance the effectiveness of actions to combat forced labour;
- institutional building of Mobile Labour Inspection Units (MIU) and its key partners to enhance law enforcement;
- designing and implementing pilot action programmes to provide assistance and promote income generation for rescued workers.
In spite of recent progress, forced labour in Brazil remains a serious problem to be given top priority. The Project has already produced indicators of relative success, which have been further enhanced by the new Government's recent launch of the National Plan to Abolish Forced Labour aimed at amplifying partners, engaging important stakeholders, and defining responsibilities.
As awareness of forced labour has become more widespread and it is continuously being seen as a violation of human rights, new partners have been incorporated in the eradication and prevention effort.