Brazil: Slave Labor: Prevention Is The Best Approach

Last Updated: 23 October 2017
Article by Vanessa Mello

With the worldwide evolution of labor laws, the concept 'slave labor' also changed – or got expanded – and it now applies to all types of forced labor, even to persons in situations analogous to slavery. Would a duly implemented and operated complaint channel help companies avoid slave labor problems?

When addressing the issue of slave labor, many people recall the stories taught in History books, which concluded with the 1888 Lei Áurea ("Golden Act"). The fact is that, with the worldwide evolution of labor laws, the concept 'slave labor' also changed, and it now applies to all types of forced labor. 

The focus of labor legislation is always to ensure decent working conditions and the workers' well-being and integrity. To the same extent, the further away from the rules, the more prone to slavery a job will be. To avoid any confusion, Brazil – which is a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights, the Pact of San Jose of Costa Rica, and International Labor Organization Conventions 105 and 29, in which it undertakes to abolish all forms of forced or compulsory labor – makes al definitions and sanctions clear in the law.

The Criminal Code, for example, defines slave labor, or a similar condition, as one in which workers are subject to forced labor or strenuous workdays. Under these conditions, penalties range from two to eight years in prison, and this may be doubled if the crime is committed against children and adolescents or because of discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, or origin.

In another article, the Code also defines as a crime to obstruct, based on fraud or violence, any right guaranteed by the labor legislation. In this case, the penalty ranges from one to two years of prison, along with a fine and the penalty corresponding to the violence perpetrated.

Identifying companies connected to slave labor

There are few cases of Brazilian companies punished for having a direct or indirect connection with slave labor. In addition to being accountable for the legal acts, these companies are part of the widely disseminated Dirty List - a registry created by the Inter-Ministerial Ordinance, of the Ministry of Labor and Employment and the Secretariat of Human Rights of the President of the Republic. A review is carried out on a semiannual basis to update the Register of Employers that have subjected workers to conditions analogous to those of slave labor.

Companies added to the list are monitored by the Labor Surveillance Agency for a period of two years. Only after this deadline, and with confirmation that no recurrence has taken place, will the company name be excluded from the registry.

Complaint channel

A connection with slave labor can be indirect – as it may also involve third parties and suppliers of the company – hence the importance of being up-to-date on the activities of the entire production chain.

One of the most efficient ways of doing this is by maintaining an independent complaint channel that allows the company to make sure the suppliers they engage do not incur in slave labor. Most of the complaints today have been made through dedicated channels, which have resulted effective in helping control and manage business relations with third parties, and providing important information so the issue can be managed before it becomes public, avoiding reputational and financial losses.

Cases of slave labor in Brazil

Odebrecht

Between 2011 and 2012, 400 Brazilians were taken to work on the Odebrecht-owned Biocom sugar & ethanol plant in Angola, Africa. In 2013, an investigation started after workers started filing complaints. Many were ill, some with suspected typhoid fever, due to the lack of hygienic conditions. For example, workers claimed that the toilets were far from the work area and were always full and clogged, which forced them to resort to using the outdoors. Also, the water used was not suitable for human consumption, and the food was often spoiled.

The 2nd Labor Court of Araraquara (SP) condemned the construction company Norberto Odebrecht S.A. and both subsidiaries for promoting human trafficking and work in conditions analogous to slavery. The penalty included the payment of R$50 million in compensation for collective moral damages, in addition to a series of fines, in case the company failed to end these practices.

Even though the parties appealed the decision, the case was closed after the Judiciary's analysis, with a conciliation promoted by the Regional Labor Court. It was defined that the companies sentenced in the 1st instance court would pay R$30 million.

Zara

In 2011,15 workers who produced clothing for the brand were rescued from degrading conditions. As a result, Zara signed a Conduct Adjustment Agreement (TAC) offered by the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MPT) in São Paulo, which at the time represented a milestone in eradicating work under conditions analogous to slavery.

During a TAC monitoring, the MPT found noncompliance with some of the clauses, and the chain was ordered to pay R$5 million, which will be reverted to social projects. Also, the MPT considered that it was necessary to revise the clauses of the first TAC to resolve doubts of, as well as to strengthen Zara's legal liability in its production chain.

Proposed in February 2017, the new agreement was ratified on May 10. In addition to increased liability, Zara is required to make a note of the employment agreements in the Work and Social Security Portfolios (CTPS) of the harmed employees. The fines were also increased in the event of a new noncompliance with the TAC.

Rumo Logística Operadora Multimodal – Cosan Group

Rumo Logística Operadora Multimodal - a company of the Cosan Group - was ordered to pay a compensation of R$15 million for collective moral damages, after exposing truck drivers to strenuous workdays of up to 34 hours. The lawsuit arose from two civil investigations held in March 2015. At the time, Prosecutor Rafael de Araújo Gomes reported a driver of the company BNG Transportes transporting sugar to Usina Santa Isabel, had been driving for 17 hours, and only made short stops along the way. 

The Public Prosecutor's Office asked the court to demand Rumo to pay compensation for collective moral damages, based on the severity of the damage caused. According to the legal basis of the action, the unlawful conduct of the company leads to the recognition of labor analogous to slavery in accordance with Article 149 of the Criminal Code.

The judge who delivered the sentence agreed with the arguments of the MPT, stating that the exposure to strenuous work days "as stated in the case records" indeed characterizes labor analogous to slavery.

Fazendas Seco (MG)

Wages, labor contracts, drinking water, beds, mattresses, bathrooms.... None of these fundamental aspects related to human rights were ensured in the labor relationship between the administration of Fazenda Seco and worker José Rodrigues Soares.

Applying agrochemicals on a eucalyptus plantation land, without safety equipment, was his daily task. The compensation for the work came every week in the form of a food basket. José Rodrigues Soares was rescued in June 2016 from the farm by the task force of the Mobile Group for combating slave labor, and received everything for which he was entitled.

Get expert help


TMF Group provides a Complaint Channel service, developed and operated by specialists, with a focus on various sectors, including: Textiles; Construction; Mining companies; Producers of sugarcane and other agricultural products; Eucalyptus producers and other lumber companies; Logistics; Livestock; Charcoal production; among others.

Want to learn more on how to avoid issues of slave labor in your company – or in your relationship with third parties? Contact our experts to discuss how TMF's Complaint Channel service can help.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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