[Translation of an article from Brasil de Fato for February 8. See original here.]
by Daniel Santini,
Four adolescents were found among the 52 workers rescued from a situation analogous to slavery during an inspection conducted in late January in a rural area of the municipality of Tailândia, Pará, according to the Ministério do Trabalho e Emprego (MTE – Ministry of Labor and Employment). Two of them, who were 13 and 14 years old, were performing dangerous work, handling axes in the extraction and processing of wood, work that is among the worst forms of the exploitation of children, according to the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182 and Brazilian law. Another, who was 16 years old, was working with a scythe to open a path for the transport of logs. And a 15-year-old girl was working as a cook at one of the work sites. Ronaldo de Araújo Costa, owner of the farm where the offenses occurred, denies having exploited slave or child labor, saying that the adolescents were not working but were “opportunists” who happened across the inspection.
“The work they were doing was ‘trimming,’ they trimmed the trunks until they were in the shape of stakes for fences. Two of the adolescents used axes and one a scythe. They were working at the site, there is not doubt about that,” says MTE inspector Inês Almeida. In the operation the Special Mobile Inspection Group, made up of agents from different organs, including the Federal Highway Police, found 11 guns, which, according to the workers and the owners, were used for hunting. Activities related to wood production are considered to be at risk level three or four, on a scale of one to four, according to Ministry of Labor and Employment Regulation No. 4.
Among those rescued was a pregnant woman, isolated like the others in the forest. “The workers were living in canvas tents with no improvements. There were families and children. The water they drank came from creeks, some was stagnant water. It was dirty water, dark, and the only kind they had to drink. They bathed in basins. They all lived under very limited conditions,” the inspector says.
Ronaldo denies that the water they drank was dirty. “It is creek water that comes from the forest. My family calls it mineral water, we all drink that water. I think it is even better than that from other sources of mineral water in the state,” the farmer declared.
The harvesting of wood was taking place at seven sites on the property known as Fazenda São Gabriel, a group of three farms administered by Hortêncio Pinhoto Costa, the owner and Ronaldo’s father. The rescued workers were living in canvas tents, some more than ten kilometers inside the forest. The stakes being manufactured were taken to headquarters and sold by the owners, who kept 30 percent of the value and gave 70 percent to those in charge of each site, according to Ronaldo. He argues that since he leased out the operation he has no responsibility for the conditions found there.
“Yes, he is responsible. The workers were on his property, they got orders from them on where to cut and even sales were coordinated by the family, who did not supply either transportation or food. The workers bought from a farm store, where there was also tobacco and work tools. Many were left indebted, which characterizes debt peonage,” the inspector, Inês, explained.
Besides submission to forced labor and exhausting work days, modern-day slave labor, according to article 149 of the Brazilian penal code, can be characterized by submission to degrading conditions, restriction of workers’ movement and debt peonage. Punishment, which varies from two to eight years in prison upon conviction, is increased by half if the crime is committed against children or adolescents.
Twenty-four infractions were processed by the inspectors as a result of irregularities found.
When questioned about the conditions in which the employees were found, Ronaldo, the owner of the farm, says that to speak of slave labor at the location is a “grotesque” allegation and stresses the poverty of the region. “The workers were getting something. And now? Before, they were living in tents, they may not even have had a real bathroom but they had something. Now they won’t have anywhere to live. Or even anything to eat,” said the farmer, who lives with his family in one of the most expensive luxury condominiums in Belém, the capital of Pará.
Those rescued will receive in all 168,900 reais (about US$ 108,000) in compensatory funds. “Many of those who were there were visitors who ended up taking advantage. They are opportunists, like the kids who were only visiting or were living with family and were not working. In three months, when the money is all gone, they will all be unemployed and in even worse conditions,” the farmer charges. To avoid precisely that the condition of vulnerability result in a return to slave labor, authorities have discussed programs of reintegration of those freed and also measures to lessen the inequality in regions where the problem is chronic.
Among measures that could result in a significant advance is a proposal for constitutional amendment on slave labor, which would require that land in which slavery is discovered be expropriated and used for agrarian reform. Meanwhile, rescued workers are still vulnerable, subject to being co-opted into schemes of super-exploitation. “They get out of one situation but fall into another,” admits Inês, who argues for training programs to help those rescued. “I asked one of the boys what he would like to do when he grows up. I thought he would talk about some lighter, better work. He said he wanted to work in clearing the jungle,” the inspector says, referring to the activity of clearing fields for pastures, where the use of slave labor is common.