Celebrating 25 Years of Scoop
Special: Up To 25% Off Scoop Pro Learn More



Cablegate: Forced Labor in Brazil: Urban Myth or Rural Reality?

DE RUEHSO #0958/01 3381724
P 041724Z DEC 07








1. (SBU) Recent reports in the Brazilian media have focused on the
question of forced labor in Brazil and whether or not the GOB is
doing enough to combat poor labor conditions in the country. Some
observers question whether forced labor exists in Brazil at all but
harsh working conditions are clearly widespread in some elements of
agriculture and some types of manufacturing such as textiles. While
the Ministry of Labor created inspection teams in 1995 to look into
alleged cases of forced labor, their overall efficacy is difficult
to assess as the problem persists at comparable levels to when these
teams were instituted. Regardless of GOB efforts to combat forced
labor, vested interests, public apathy, and a lack of reliable
information have impeded progress on this issue. End Summary.

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading

Are you getting our free newsletter?

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.

Agricultural Forced Labor

2. (SBU) Leonardo Sakamoto, Coordinator of Reporter Brasil, the
largest organization combating forced labor in Brazil, told Poloff
that out of approximately 17 million farmers and rural workers in
Brazil, there are more than 100,000 forced laborers. Sakamoto
admitted that the number of forced workers involved in agriculture
is hard to pin down, highlighting that an organization with which he
cooperates closely, the Pastoral Land Commission, cited a figure of
25,000 "slave laborers" in the Amazon region alone. (Note: The GOB
and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have cited this
number as well but in reference to the whole of Brazil. In short,
there are no reliable figures available. End Note.) He added that
Brazil's forced labor is largely manifested through debt bondage.
Workers are forced to repay inflated debts for transportation,
lodging, and food costs. Sakamoto explained that the conditions for
forced labor in Brazil are similar to those found throughout the
world. Forced laborers work in miserable and unsanitary conditions
with little or no food and shelter for minimal, if any,
remuneration. However, though uncommon, Reporter Brasil has found
some rare cases in which workers were actually held in physical
bondage which might constitute true slave labor. Sakamoto cited the
case of an individual who was "enslaved" for 17 years, though he
added that "slave labor" such as this is not a common phenomenon in

3. (SBU) Sakamoto said that small farmers do not normally employ
forced labor; it is more commonly found in larger family-run farms
or agricultural companies. He discussed a large research program
funded with the help of the USG, ILO, and private industry that
found that 62 percent of forced laborers work in cattle-raising,
(Note: The Ministry of Labor claims 80 percent. End Note.), 12
percent in coal mining, and another 13 percent in agriculture such
as soy (5.2 percent), cotton (4.7 percent), and corn (3.1 percent)
production. While admitting that forced labor occurs within cities
and on the periphery of metropolitan areas as well, Sakamoto
emphasized that it is most commonly found in remote locations that
are on the edge of the economic frontier. Sakamoto further
explained that the reason forced labor is not often seen in the
interior of the Amazon is due to the low level of organized economic
activity there. When looking at the Amazon's periphery, where
economic activity is increasing due to illegal logging and
cattle-ranching, forced labor is a more common trend. Reporter
Brasil's investigations have also found that many of the large
corporations that have employed forced laborers export their
products, including to the United States.

4. (SBU) Caio Magri, Partnership Manager for the Ethos Institute,
which brings together businesses and civil society to research and
promote social development, emphasized that there should be no doubt
about the existence of slave labor in Brazil. According to Magri,
who coordinates the institute's efforts on Brazil's National Plan
for the Eradication of Slave Labor, serious violations of human
rights and labor laws are widespread throughout Brazil. Magri said
that rural employers isolate their laborers in areas not accessible

SAO PAULO 00000958 002 OF 005

to public transportation and surround enclaves with armed security.
Since this prevents laborers from escaping, they are in fact slaves,
even if they are not an owner's legal property. Similar to when
slavery was actually legal in Brazil, today's slaves receive only
enough food and shelter to keep them alive and working, he said.

Agriculture Working Conditions

5. (SBU) Sao Paulo State Federation of Workers in Agriculture
(FETAESP) President Braz Albertini said that while working
conditions in the countryside are extremely difficult, he would not
characterize agricultural labor, at least in Sao Paulo State, as
"forced" or "slave." According to Albertini, it is possible that
"slave labor" exists in some parts of Brazil but that he would
relegate it to the northeastern and poorer regions of the country.
The Sao Paulo State Government is actively engaged in inspecting
farms across the state in order to make sure forced labor is not
occurring, he said. He stated that there is no doubt that
agricultural work, as exemplified by sugar cane production, is
tiresome, strenuous and exhausting, but that this is the case in
rural labor all over the world. Many migrants come from Brazil's
northeast to work in Sao Paulo State because as hard as life is in
Sao Paulo, the conditions are significantly better than in the
northeast. Albertini further stated that most of the complaints
regarding forced labor come from what he characterized as radical
leftists or disenchanted groups whose members have not experienced
even a day working in the countryside. Admitting that some of these
organizations' calls for better living conditions, health insurance
and educational opportunities for agricultural workers are valid,
Albertini noted that FETAESP is working hard to increase farmers'
wages, find employment for displaced agricultural workers and
develop vocational courses for field hands during fallow periods.

6. (SBU) Luiz Bassegio and Luciane Udovic, two forced labor experts
from the Brazilian human rights organization, Cry of the Excluded,
noted in a recent press interview that due to high unemployment
rates in the northeast, many people from the region are forced to
pursue any employment available, even if it means horrible working
conditions. According to their studies the northeastern and
northern states of Maranhao, Piaui and Tocantins are the three
principal sources of forced labor, and the states of Para and Mato
Grosso are the largest receiving states.

Not Just a Labor Issue

7. (SBU) Sakamoto stated that forced labor in Brazil is an
"interdisciplinary crime" because not only does it directly impact
workers' rights but also violates other laws. For example, since
workers are made to cut down trees in protected areas, they are
forced to break environmental regulations. Employers do not pay
their subordinates, thereby violating social security protections
and the requirement to provide health coverage. Labor bosses do not
allow forced laborers to express their demands or organize in
contravention of constitutional freedoms of association, assembly,
and expression. Father Ricardo Rezende Figueira, a member of the
slave labor research group at the Federal University of Rio de
Janeiro, noted that forced labor has international commercial and
trade law implications because goods produced, planted or harvested
with forced labor in one country are often sold in another.

Bolivian Textile Workers in Sao Paulo

8. (SBU) While the focus of efforts against forced labor is largely
carried out in agricultural areas, the issue is of potentially
serious concern in the cities as well. In Sao Paulo, there is some
evidence that forced labor is taking place in the textile industry,
where many illegal Bolivian immigrants find employment in garment
sweatshops, Sakamoto said. Bassegio and Udovic estimate that
between 150,000-200,000 undocumented Bolivians are living in Sao
Paulo. The Sao Paulo mayor's office generally uses the 200,000
figure, and claims that many work as unlicensed street vendors of

SAO PAULO 00000958 003 OF 005

pirated merchandise. According to labor specialists, more than 90
percent of these Bolivians work in small textile factories and are
paid less than minimum wage for piece work in these factories.
Bassegio and Udovic believe that these Bolivians, who work up to
eighteen hours a day in dark and totally unsanitary conditions, do
not denounce their employers or complain about their working
situation out of fear that they will be forced to return to

9. (SBU) Father Mario Geremia, Coordinator of the Pastoral Center
of the Migrant, presented an opposing view of the situation. Father
Geremia defined Bolivian working conditions as the "exploitation of
labor" instead of "slave" or even "forced" labor. According to
Father Geremia, who directs a church and shelter for hundreds of
Bolivians and other South Americans who seek employment in Sao
Paulo, the textile workers are not slaves because they can leave
whenever they wish. They choose to stay because conditions under
which they work in Sao Paulo are significantly better than those
they would have in Bolivia. He mentioned that trafficking in
persons does become an issue because "coyotes" work across the
border to bring in Bolivians and other South American workers.
(Comment: Caio Magri from the Ethos Institute also raised the issue
of trafficking in persons and highlighted that not only are poor
work conditions unlawful under labor laws, but that the practice of
forced labor promotes illegal immigration. End Comment.)
Describing his visits to dozens of small textile producers, Father
Geremia said that while not "slave labor," the work is in
"slave-like" environments in which the employees work and live in
the same facilities. Father Geremia lamented that these small sweat
shops produce piece work for large Brazilian companies and that
these businesses are disinterested in knowing the working conditions
of the employees of their subcontractors.

So What is the Government Doing?

10. (SBU) According to Sakamoto, Brazil began taking action against
forced labor during Fernando Henrique Cardoso's (FHC) presidency
(1995-2002). FHC issued an executive order banning forced labor and
creating a unit within the Ministry of Labor (MOL) to monitor and
fight against slave labor. Cardoso's successor and a former union
leader, President Lula, moved further, launching the National Plan
for the Eradication of Slave Labor and taking concrete steps to
maintain an active dialogue with activists fighting against forced
labor. Lula declared combat against forced labor a state priority
and allocated funding to fight against the practice. Sakamoto added
that FHC was limited in taking large-scale action during his
administration because his principal supporters came from the
business community and some of these included major violators of
labor rights.

11. (SBU) Sakamoto noted that one government entity that has
remained cool on forced labor issues regardless of who governs is
Itamaraty, Brazil's Foreign Ministry. Sakamoto charged that
Itamaraty believes his organization exaggerates the problem in
Brazil and tarnishes the country's overseas image. While Sakamoto's
comments about Itamaraty rang true until very recently, there are
indications that the Foreign Ministry's approach to the issue, if
not its attitude, may be changing. Recently, Itamaraty organized
and hosted a major national conference on trafficking in persons
(TIP), an issue closely connected to forced labor. Representatives
from the 14 GOB ministries and agencies involved in combating TIP,
their counterparts from international organizations (the ILO and
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) and civil society gathered
at the meeting, where Sakamoto was one of the NGO presenters.
Foreign Minister Celso Amorim opened the conference and was joined
on the dais by the Minister of Justice, the Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court, and the cabinet level Secretaries for Human Rights
and Women's Issues. The two-day conference, which was open to the
press, was meant to demonstrate the GOB's commitment to combating
TIP in all its forms and its efforts to comply with international
agreements such as the Palermo Protocol, which it ratified in 2004.
While Itamaraty remains sensitive to outside scrutiny of the slave
labor situation in Brazil, it is now at least willing to admit to

SAO PAULO 00000958 004 OF 005

other governments that the problem exists and to fulfill its role
within the framework of the recently drafted National Plan to Combat

12. (SBU) The National Plan to Eradicate Slave Labor has had many
successes and the ILO sees the 2004 creation of a "dirty list" of
companies and individuals that employ "slave labor" as a major
achievement in getting Brazil to admit the reality of the problem.
Each year, the GOB publishes a list of companies and individuals
that the MOL alleges employ some form of forced labor. Should a
company or individual appear on the list, the Ministry of National
Integration must suspend their access to all public lines of credit,
private lenders are encouraged to review the list online and deny
credit to the violator, and the business faces heavy fines. If a
company improves its performance over a two-year period based on MOL
requirements and pays all government-imposed fines and labor and
welfare debts to the workers, the GOB will remove it from the list.
However, according to Father Figueira, one of the main obstacles in
punishing perpetrators of forced labor is the public standing of
many of the employers. Father Figueira said that prominent
politicians ranging from mayors of small towns to Members of
Congress are either directly involved in or have a personal
commercial interest in maintaining forced labor. One of the ways
they avoid being held accountable for the crime is by residing in
locales far from the work sites.

Additional Challenges to Government Efforts

13. (SBU) The MOL task forces created by the National Plan to
Eradicate Slave Labor have not always succeeded. For example, a MOL
task force sent to inspect several rural work sites went on strike
because of alleged Senate interference into their work. While the
task force found and released hundreds of slave laborers in northern
Brazil several months ago (1108 laborers in one large ethanol
producer alone in Para State in July), landowners and plant
operators fought back. Accusing the inspectors of interfering in
the farm's work, the owners rallied a group of senators to create a
separate special commission to investigate the case and visit the
farm. The MOL inspectors considered the senators' action to be an
obstruction of their mandate and, in protest, Secretary for Labor
Inspections Ruth Vilela decided to terminate the teams'
investigations in September. The forced labor task force went back
to work in early October after the MOL struck a deal with a
Brasilia-based NGO. (Note: Under the agreement, the NGO would
provide legal support and assistance for the labor task force should
it face Senate accusations and possible legal or legislative action
against the mobile teams. End Note.) Regardless of the deal, the
Senate's special commission is still hearing arguments in the case
of the ethanol producer in Para.

14. (SBU) A lack of movement on legislation is also preventing
progress on combating labor abuses. Proposed Constitutional
Amendment 438-1001, which relates to government confiscation of
property in cases where slave labor occurs, was approved twice in
the Senate in 2003, in the Chamber of Deputies in 2004 on the first
of a necessary two rounds, and is back in the Senate after revisions
in the Chamber bill. However, because Congress has taken no action
since 2004, the bill has now returned to its draft phase and both
chambers must approve it again. According to Reporter Brasil,
politicians linked to businesses that employ forced labor have
blocked the amendment and will continue to prevent its passage.
Caio Magri accused farmers who employ slave labor of financing
outright the campaigns of friendly politicians, or at least giving
large amounts of money to "buy off" legislators to vote against
anti-slave labor legislation. Whether true or not, members of the
Bancada Rural, an informal, but powerful caucus composed of members
of Congress representing the large agricultural states, have shown
no inclination to pass anti-slave labor legislation.


15. (SBU) Regardless of how forced labor is defined and whether or

SAO PAULO 00000958 005 OF 005

not slavery indeed exists in modern Brazil, serious issues
pertaining to workers' rights and conditions remain cause for
concern. Many of our contacts told us that the Brazilian media is
doing its best to highlight the existence of forced labor in order
to raise public awareness of the issue. The near-exponential
increase in the number of articles appearing on the issue in the
last couple of years tends to support their contention. These
activists add, however, that until better-informed communities take
action as a whole, workers' conditions across the country will not
improve. Post will continue to monitor GOB efforts to combat forced
labor as part of efforts towards the Human Rights and Trafficking in
Persons Reports. End Comment.

16. (U) This cable was cleared by Embassy Brasilia.


© Scoop Media

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading
World Headlines


Join Our Free Newsletter

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.