Foreign Policy Blogs

Slavery and Forced Labor in Brazil


“Departure for the coffee harvest by ox cart, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1885” (image courtesy of Instituto Moreira Salles)

Of all of the countries in the Americas, Brazil imported the most slaves from Africa and was the last to officially abolish slavery. While slavery may have been abolished officially with the signing of the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) by Princesa Isabel on May 13, 1888, forced labor, or “trabalho escravo”, took its place.  

Forced labor, which the International Labor Organization (ILO) defines as involving “degrading work conditions and the impossibility of leaving the employer owing to fraudulent debts and the presence of armed guards,” was officially acknowledged by the State in 1995.  That same year, Brazil’s Ministry of Labor initiated a Special Mobile Enforcement Group to track down companies suspected of using slave workers.

In 2002, the ILO and the Brazilian government initiated a technical cooperation project called “Combating Forced Labour”. Since then, around 50,000 workers have been freed from slave-like conditions in Brazil.

Yet there is more work to be done as the practice continues to this day. This month saw the publication of a “dirty list” by the human rights group Reporter Brazil, which named and shamed 340 Brazilian companies caught employing people in slave-like conditions between May 2013 and May 2015. The companies had previously been identified and fined by Brazil’s Ministry of Labor, which accused them of using slave labor, forced labor, and employing workers for little or no pay in degrading conditions.

Companies were associated with clothing sweatshops, farming and cattle ranching, timber and charcoal production, and construction. More than 1,500 adults and 5,500 children were released during 2014.

While Reporter Brazil used the country’s Freedom of Information Act to reveal the names of companies and individuals found by government inspectors to use slave labor, the practice of tracking down forced labor in Brazil is a dangerous one. Three Brazilian judicial officials were murdered in January 2004 while looking into allegations of slavery on ranches near the nation’s capital, Brasília.

The following month, government inspectors discovered 32 slave workers on the ranch of right-wing Senator João Ribeiro in the northern state of Pará. The officials said the captives worked seven days a week without pay and had no running water or toilets.

In 2009, the ILO estimated that between 25,000-40,000 people were being exploited in Brazil, primarily in the states of Pará and Mato Grosso. Other organizations such as The Global Slavery Index put the number much higher in 2015, at around 155,000. These workers are primarily recruited from the cities of Brazil’s impoverished Nordeste region.

Recruiters, often referred to as “gatos” (cats), lure the poor with promises of good pay for hard work, and some are told the cost of their transportation will be deducted from future wages. The workers are then transported hundreds of kilometers away to work in logging camps, or on ranches raising cattle or tending to crops. Many workers are only told once they arrive at the camp or ranch that they will now be responsible for paying the costs of their transportation, which are often inflated.

In addition, if they are held in collection points for days or weeks, all food, housing and other expenses they incur are deducted from their future wages—usually at inflated prices. And the price-gouging does not end there. Since the camp or ranch is typically isolated from nearby cities or towns and transportation is limited, employers often charge a premium for bringing such provisions as food, drink, and other essentials to the site.

When you add the inflated upfront costs to the ongoing necessities of food, drink and shelter, it is little wonder the typical worker quickly becomes trapped economically. Why does the typical worker stay when he or she realizes his predicament? Isolation, threats, violence and sometimes homicide can make it a difficult and dangerous choice.

What can be done to curb the practice of slavery and forced labor in Brazil? The government has already developed a database of offenders, yet the aforementioned mobile inspection group could be strengthened, as could the rehabilitation program for former slaves which grants them three months pay, builds job skills and offers them legal assistance.  

A national pact has also been initiated with the help of ILO. It has been signed by almost 200 hundred private and public companies since 2005, obliging them to remove from their supply chains any inputs produced with the involvement of forced labor.

The efforts of the Brazilian government to combat forced labor, 120 years after the abolishment of slavery, have to date been laudatory, but must continue and intensify.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666