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Brazil’s slave labour law still not approved

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Intro: Landowner and business lobbies have forced another delay in the approval of the Constitutional amendment allowing the confiscation of properties where slave-like labour is discovered. They want the definition of ‘slave-like labour’ re-examined.

The scandal ranges from Amazonas in the north of Brazil to the centre of São Paulo, where fashion chain Zara faces charges.By Francis McDonagh for LABSlave labour in modern Brazil, the sixth largest economy in the world, the ‘B’ in the BRICS, that group of emerging economies that symbolises  escape from poverty and underdevelopment? How is it that an amendment to the Brazilian constitution that will provide for the confiscation of properties where slave labour is used has been blocked in the Brazilian Congress for over seven years and is being delayed yet again by procedural manoeuvres?

Meet the landowner lobby. Only three weeks ago, Deputy Nelson Marquezelli from São Paulo – isn’t that modern Brazil? – argued in Congress: ‘If I, on my property, kill someone, I have a right to defence. If I have a good lawyer, I won’t even go to gaol. But if I give one of my staff work that is regarded as slave labour, my wife and my heirs will be left without property. That’s a much more severe penalty than taking someone’s life.The backbone of the Brazilian Constitution is the right to property.’

What is regarded as slave labour in Brazil?Article 149 of the Brazilian Penal Code talks about ‘reducing someone to a slave-like condition, whether by subjecting them to forced labour or exhausting hours, or by subjecting them to degrading working conditions, or by restricting, by any means, their movement on account of a debt contracted with the employer or supervisor’.

Leonardo Sakamoto, of NGO Repórter Brasil, argues in his recent blog that the real problem people like Marquezelli have with this law is that it’s based on human dignity. Workers’ human dignity is violated by situations like the one illustrated in this photo: this person has lost a finger, suffered skin damage from pesticides, and shows the dirty water they were given to drink, all this in the sugar-cane industry that produces Brazil’s ‘clean, green’ ethanol fuel.

The fact that using slave labour is a thoroughly modern practice is illustrated by a report from Repórter Brasil about slave labour discovered in 2011 in suppliers to the Zara fashion chain. In the city of São Paulo 15 women, mainly Bolivian, one a girl of 14, were discovered working 16-hour days, living on the premises of the sweatshop and forced to buy food and other necessities from their employers.

Children were also present in the workshops, at risk from machinery lacking the required safety guards. In a previous investigation in Americana, a city in the state of São Paulo, 52 people were freed from slave labour. The Ministry of Labour and Employment brought 48 charges against Zara as a result of these investigations. Also in 2011 the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), reported freeing 63 people from slave labour in the state of Amazonas in 2011. This included four Chinese nationals who were working in a factory in Manaus, but had not been paid since April 2008.

Sakamoto says that since 1995 42,000 people were freed from slave labour, and explains its relation to modern Brazil: ‘If the vast majority, in the country and in the city, follow the law and don’t use slave labour, in whose interest is it to weaken the legislation? Those who engage in unfair competition or social dumping by trying to cut costs illegally, gaining competitiveness through the exploitation of human beings. No-one uses slaves because they are bad – this isn’t a moral discussion. As Bill Clinton’s adviser said, “It’s the economy, stupid!”‘

The seven-year journey of the Constitutional amendment is not over yet. On Tuesday 22 May, the Chamber of Deputies passed it. This vote should have taken place on 9 May, but was postponed after pressure from the landowner lobby, which argued that the definition of slave labour needed re-examination, and they have secured a further delay through an agreement with the government to return the bill to the Senate to review the definition of slavery. Supporters of the amendment fear that the landowners want to make slave labour more difficult to identify. This amendment has been blocked in the Chamber of Deputies for over seven years, an eloquent testimony to the political power of the landowners.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the situation in Congress, says Sakamoto, is that leading PT deputies and senators yield to the arguments of the landowner lobby. ‘They have never read a word of what their own governments did to combat slave labour,’ he says.

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