Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs

Brazil Backtracks on Loosening Slave Labor Rules after International Outcry

Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs

Brazil Backtracks on Loosening Slave Labor Rules after International Outcry

Article excerpt

Three months after the Brazilian Ministry of Labor loosened the definition of what constitutes slavery or slave-like working conditions, the federal government has formally rescinded the changes. The October decree prompted a national and international outcry from campaigners against modern slavery, including the UN Human Rights Council, and the new rules were promptly overturned by the Supreme Court. President Michel Temer (Partido do Movimento Democratico Brasileiro) had vowed to revise the labor law to conform to the judge's ruling, but at year's end decided to drop the issue entirely.

The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates that 161,000 people live in slave-like conditions in Brazil, South America's largest country, mostly in the agricultural sector. A November 2017 report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy called slavery "endemic" in the poultry processing industry. Brazil is the world's largest exporter of chicken.

In November, UN slavery experts singled out Brazil in Geneva. "This order puts Brazil at risk of taking a step backward in the way it regulates businesses," said Urmila Bhoola, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary slavery. "It is essential that Brazil takes decisive action now to avoid undermining the anti-slavery measures that have been implemented over the last decade."

The Temer administration's actions are consistent with a pattern of shielding big agricultural companies from accusations of modern slavery. The government's "dirty list" of companies accused of such labor malpractices was established in 2003, but the Temer administration only published an updated version under court order in March 2017. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery in the 19th century (NotiSur, Sept. 17, 2004, and March 18, 2016).

Backlash

On Oct. 16, the Ministry of Labor issued new definitions of what constitutes slavery or slavery-like working conditions under the Brazilian labor code. The weakened definitions removed terms such as "consent" and references to existing legal standards. There was an immediate outcry from labor activists.

"Before, if a worker is sleeping with the pigs, has no water, and doesn't receive a wage, the labor inspector says this is slave labor, even though the worker can leave the farm," said Leonardo Sakamoto, a trustee of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which helps victims of slavery. …

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