[Translation of an article from Carta Maior for May 13. See original here.]
By Najla Passos
Brasilia – On the 124th anniversary of the Lei Áurea [the "Golden Law" of May 13, 1888, that abolished slavery in Brazil], the commemoration has lost its splendor. Once again, the Chamber of Deputies has postponed a vote on the Proposta de Emenda Constitucional (PEC – Proposal to Amend the Constitution) No. 438, the so-called Slave Labor PEC, which has been in the works in the house for 11 years. The intense mobilization of civil society, the efforts of the administration and the commitment of the more progressive parliamentarians were not enough. It was the ruralista caucus [legislators representing the interests of large landowners], which holds the majority of votes in the house, which had the last word, following the example of what happened with the new Código Florestal [Forest Code].
The vote was scheduled to occur in an extraordinary session on Tuesday evening, May 8. All day long, campesino organizations, human rights activists, union representatives, artists, intellectuals and politicians participated in activities and demonstrations favoring the legislation, which calls for strengthening punishment of landowners where the practice has been found, including expropriating land and using it for agrarian reform.
Although no parliamentarian dared rise to defend the practice, moments before the scheduled vote, attendance in the chamber was still short of a quorum. At 4:30pm, only 208 of the 513 representatives had signed in as present. The approval of a constitutional change requires at least 308 votes in favor. Representative Amauri Teixeira (Partido dos Trabalhadores, Bahia state), who followed the mobilization in the plenary session closely, declared, “There are large parties, some of them allied with the administration, that have few representatives in the plenary.”
In a meeting of the caucus leaders, representatives of opposition parties and those allied with the administration explained why they would not approve the measure. According to the administration leader in the chamber, Representative Arlindo Chinalgi (Partido dos Trabalhadores, São Paulo), the ruralistas were claiming that the PEC did not make it clear what slave labor is and did not detail under what circumstances expropriation would be carried out.
The president of the chamber, representative Marco Maia (Partido dos Trabalhadores, Rio Grande do Sul), still attempted to reach an agreement: the parliamentarians would approve the PEC as it was and he would speak with the president of the senate, José Sarney, so the house could pass a complementary law, addressing the points of disagreement. The ruralistas agreed. The president announced a vote for the next day and began negotiations with the senate. The social mobilizations dispersed.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, May 9, the ruralistas met and decided to break the agreement. In a document released later, they criticized not only the points raised the previous day in the meeting of leaders, but several others as well. According to them, the PEC would generate judiciary insecurity, which would bring about the flight of investors from the country.
“The arguments are dishonest. The concept of slave labor, for example, is already spelled out in the Penal Code and it is well known, even common sense. But they would have to settle accounts with history,” declared the president of the Human Rights Committee of the chamber, representative Domingos Dutra (Partido dos Trabalhadores, Maranhão).
He also criticized the claim by ruralistas that expropriation could damage a land owner who by chance leases land to someone who engages in the practice of slave labor. “The landowner’s duty to know who he is leasing land to is an obligation stipulated in the constitution,” he replied.
By night, attendance in the plenary session stood at 338 representatives. However, without being able to negotiate with the ruralistas, the president of the house made a count and, certain he would not manage to pass the measure, he postponed the vote until May 22.
An open wound
Data from the report “Conflitos no Campo Brasil 2011,” [“Conflicts in the Countryside, Brazil, 2011”] distributed by the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) on Monday, May 7, reveal the current dimensions of the problem. In 2011 alone, 230 cases of slave labor were reported in 19 of the 27 states of the country, involving 3,929 workers, including 66 children. Of these, 2,095 were found in fact to involve conditions analogous to slavery and the workers were liberated.
The occurrences are found principally in activities related to ranching (21%), sugar cane harvesting (19%), civil construction (18%), other labor (14%), the production of charcoal (11%), land clearing and reforestation (9%), mineral extraction (3%) and manufacturing (3%).
“Slave labor is mostly a rural phenomenon, along the agricultural border, invisible except for the rare exceptions when it occurs in the cities, with the exploitation of illegal aliens. Brazilian agribusiness, said to be strong, modern and highly technological, does not need to be linked to this practice. I believe therefore that the position of the ruralista caucus reflects the ideological question of the intransigent defense of property,” sums up former Minister of Human Rights for the Lula administration, Nilmário Miranda.