Brazil: Increasing the risk of slave labour in illegal logging and construction

24 October 2017 08:24

After becoming known globally as one of few countries to recognize and combat working conditions comparable to slavery, Brazil is now taking a profound step backwards. A recent government ordinance has altered labour inspection standards making it more difficult to characterize and punish employers that keep workers in such conditions.

Until this ordinance, a labour inspectors' report was considered sufficient to demonstrate and confirm the existence of forced labour, exhaustive working hours, degrading and unhygienic working and/or living conditions, and restriction of freedom of movement for reasons of debt. Typically, labour inspection reports are accompanied by abundant photographic records and testimonial evidence, including evidence from federal police officers who make up part of inspection teams in often dangerous and remote forests.

This legal change requires documentary evidence including workers' submissions stating that they are under threat of punishment, being coerced and are working involuntarily in order to meet the legal criteria necessary to characterize working conditions as analogous to slavery. Evidence of restriction of freedom of movement such as armed guards or electrified fences must also be demonstrated. Both of which are completely unnecessary and irrelevant in isolated workplaces in the middle of forests where the most important restriction of movement is the impossibility of simply walking safely through the forest.

Slave labour is typically associated with illegal and clandestine activities of deforestation including the cutting and transport of unregistered and uncertified timber that is often smuggled to other countries.

An additional disgraceful legal change is the removal of labour inspectors’ capacity to add company names to the so-called public "dirty list" of infringing companies. Adding a name to this list now depends on the political decision of the Minister of Labour; in this case the author of the Ordinance.

Leading up to these changes, inspection operations in the field had already been significantly reduced by the current government, falling from 106 actions in 2016 to only 30 so far this. In the last 20 years almost 50,000 workers have been rescued from conditions analogous to slavery.

The measure has caused extensive negative repercussions in Brazil and has been the target of widespread opposition. Labour inspectors themselves held strikes in 21 of the 27 Brazilian states to publicly repudiate the measure. The International Labour Organization – ILO itself stated that, "Brazil risks interrupting the successful trajectory that has made it a model of leadership in combating slave labour for the region and the world."

In addition to the clear, direct negative consequences for human and labour rights, the measure will also contribute to expanding deforestation and illegal trafficking of timber and to worsening working conditions in the construction industry, where the number of workers rescued had also increased in recent years. In 2015 alone, 452 workers were liberated.

The ILO estimates that close to 21 million people working under conditions analogous to slavery around the world. The BWI maintains its fight against illegal logging and for the respect for human and fundamental rights at work as a global priority. The BWI is considering organising a global campaign against the Brazilian government demanding that these recent changes be overturned.