Is contemporary slavery a contemporary issue in Brazil?

By Fernando Haddad Moura, Editor and Writer at Brazil Talk

[5 min read]

In the late 19th century Ed Morel discovered how Belgian companies were exploring Congolese natives forcing them to collect thousands of pounds of rubber to enrich their European colonial powers. Those that didn’t obey were beaten and had their hands cut off to be set as an example for anyone who’d dare defy their leaders.

In a country set thousands of miles from the Congo, the Belgians had no idea of what was going on, and if it weren’t for Morel and his team of missionaries and other informants, the exploitation might have continued up to present days. This sad account of Congo’s history, told by Adam Hochschild in the globally acclaimed novel King Leopold’s Ghost gives an excellent example of how companies can act if they aren’t held accountable and if no one is looking. It reflects how, in the search of maximizing their profits, unethical corporations and their suppliers might be willing to ignore international treaties and submit people to terrible conditions.

But why talk about an issue that seems to be something of the past, found only in history books? Despite being the last country of the western world to abolish slavery, Brazil signed the Aurea Law and slavery was abolished in 1888, 129 years ago. Unfortunately (and fortunately) since 1995, 50 thousand people have been rescued from conditions that configure what is called contemporary slavery – when people are subject to forced labor, servitude by debt, degrading working conditions and long, exhausting work hours. Thanks to former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, mobile inspection groups were created in the Ministry of Labor and set the foundations for fighting contemporary slavery conditions in the country.  

If there are laws and mechanisms being implemented by the federal government to guarantee that business and landowners don’t exploit of people, why is it still important to talk about this issue? On October 20th, interim president of Brazil Michel Temer modified an ordinance that alters what can be classified as slavery working conditions and diminishes the authority of labor inspectorates, which are responsible for monitoring and investigating reports on contemporary slavery. Ceding to pressure from his agribusiness allies in Congress in exchange for his salvation against a second corruption denunciation, Temer throws Brazil back 129 years; when society thought it was normal to restrict people’s liberties and force them to work without any pay. Besides altering the ordinance, the most disapproved president since the dictatorship period, fired André Roston, national coordinator of slavery conditions, after he prepared a list of the employers that were found to have violated the working laws. The list, frequently updated and made public since 2003, allows for international companies and investors to assess the risks of doing business with a Brazilian organization due to their work conditions practices and was recognized by the United Nations as an effective way to fight contemporary slavery. Temer seems to want to please the private sector regardless of any social, moral or ethical concerns and all in the name of “solving the economic crisis.” In July of this year, he had already approved a controversial Labor Reform that gave more power to employers with the excuse that these laws needed to be updated since they were from the 40’s and is being pressured to approve a pension reform that will most certainly hurt the more vulnerable  populations. The president, powerful as he may be, is not alone in this. Several associations and people have backed him up on the decision of altering the ordinance, including the Mayor of São Paulo João Doria and the Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes. Probably never having done much manual labor, the latter made a joke about the issue saying he worked a lot, but it didn’t configure slavery and that society must be careful while addressing the issue. Statements like these show a disrespect to the population, especially coming from high-rank government officials. In the country that most traded and stripped African natives from their homeland, most of the people suffering from these conditions are black. A study from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro shows that of the forty thousand people rescued from slavery work conditions in the period between 2003 and 2009, three in every four were black.

Fortunately, another Supreme Court judge, Rosa Weber, annulled Temer’s ordinance, stating its alteration goes against fundamental  constitutional principles. The annulment is, however, provisional. Since his allies in Congress met with their end of the bargaining deal last week, saving him from further investigation by the Supreme Court, Temer will continue to be pressured to push for this alteration.

Slavery has left a huge scar in Brazil, and we avoid talking about it, especially when it relates to important issues such as structural racism. We condemn those that perpetrated this atrocity and pay homage to the black population with holidays, Carnival parades and other elements of our cultural, searching for a historical redemption. This is not enough anymore. By changing the ordinance on contemporary slavery working conditions, Temer and his fellow Congressmen will test what type of society we are.  Do we live in a country where one of humanity’s worse doings is still accepted or will we fight back to guarantee the rights of those whose ancestors have built this country with blood and sweat? Unlike the Belgians, we won’t be able to say we didn’t know.

Cover Image Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images Assignment for Al Jazeera America