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Temer guts Brazil’s slavery law, to the applause of elite ruralists

  • Brazil has about 155,000 people working in conditions analogous to slavery, many used by elite ruralists who have become wealthy via environmental crime. Slave labor, for example, is often used in the Amazon to keep illegal deforestation and illicit agribusiness hidden and off the books.
  • President Temer has issued a decree — known as a portaria — narrowing the definition of slavery. Holding people in economic servitude, in conditions analogous to slavery, is no longer illegal. Now slaves must be held against their will, and two government officials must catch the slaveholder in the act.
  • The easing of the slavery law, experts say, is Temer’s way of rewarding the bancada ruralista, the agribusiness lobby, which includes about 40 percent of the Congress and continues to support Temer and to reject on-going rounds of corruption charges against the president.
  • Outrage over the weakening of the slavery law is widespread in Brazil and abroad. NOTE: this story was updated on 10-25-17 to report that Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF) has temporarily suspended implementation of Temer’s slavery decree until an STF ruling can be made.
A wealthy Brazilian family in Rio de Janeiro, at home with their slaves, as portrayed in 1839. The severe economic divide between elite ruralists and the slaves they profit from is just as wide today, say experts. Painting by Jean-Baptiste Debret in the public domain

Over the last year the Michel Temer government has rolled back many progressive environmental, indigenous and land policies, achieved over three decades, to please the ruralist lobby in Congress, upon which it is dependent for its political survival. Yet none of these significant setbacks has provoked the furore that erupted after Temer’s recent decision to change the legislation dealing with slave labor.

On 16 October the Labor Ministry issued a decree (Portaria N° 1129/2017) that altered the way slave labor is defined and prosecuted in Brazil. Under the new rules, it is no longer enough for workers to be laboring for many hours in degrading and inhumane conditions or to be paid only in food. From now on, for workers to be considered to be working “in conditions analogous to slavery,” employers must deny them the freedom to come and go.

Moreover, for an employer to be found guilty of slave labor, a police officer, accompanied by a Labor Ministry official, must catch the person in the act of denying workers this freedom — almost an administrative impossibility in remote settings like the Amazon, where much slavery occurs to hide environmental crime.

“It’s a legal absurdity, a monstrosity” exclaimed Luiz Eduardo Bojart, a prosecutor in the Labor Public Ministry (MPT) — an independent branch of government dealing exclusively with labor questions. It is taking the country back, he said, “to the situation two centuries ago when slaves were held without the freedom to come and go, when there were senzalas (slave quarters), neckbands, shackles and whips.”

Since the mid-1990s, Brazil has won considerable praise internationally for its name-and-shame anti-slavery policy. Labor Ministry officials carried out surprise raids, liberating 50,000 people trapped in slavery between 1996 and 2013. While few employers faced prison sentences, their placement on a “dirty list,” making it nearly impossible to obtain bank loans, has proved effective.

However, over the last year under Temer, the implementation of this highly effective strategy has ground to a virtual halt, because of lack of funding. The new legislation will, critics say, now allow ruralists to increase their use of slave labor to cut, and conceal, costs within their illegal logging operations, cattle ranches, soy plantations and other endeavors, especially in remote areas such as the Amazon.

An official from the Brazilian Ministry of Labor investigating a slave labor case. Temer’s slavery decree, which dramatically narrows the definition of slavery, will make it far more difficult to prosecute slavery cases. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Labor

Temer’s easing of slavery laws is extremely galling for many Brazilians, particularly as the problem is still very serious. According to figure published by the Walk Free Foundation, Brazil currently has about 155,000 people working in conditions analogous to slavery. In March, Mongabay and Repórter Brasil reported on how U.S. based companies, such as Walmart and Lowes, bought timber from Brazilian traders that sourced forest products from Amazon sawmills where loggers worked under slave labor conditions.

At times, the very archaic and the very modern are found side-by-side in Brazilian business practices. Some companies utilize high-tech methods in parts of their production chain, while employing slave labor to carry out unskilled and unpleasant tasks. A case in point: a wealthy land thief in the Amazon used sophisticated technology to work out just how much forest he could clear without being detected by monitoring satellites, while simultaneously using slave labor to cut the trees.

The response to Temer’s slavery decree was swift. On 18 October, entities representing labor judges, labor prosecutors, labor inspectors and labor lawyers issued a press release calling the portaria “illegal.” These experts called for the immediate revocation of Temer’s decree, noting that it was “directly violating” international conventions of which Brazil is a signatory. Those signing the press release included Guilherme Guimarães Feliciano, from the National Association of Labor Justice Judges (ANAMATRA) and Angelo Fabiano Farias da Costa, from the National Association of Labor Prosecutors (ANPT).

These experts also warned that Brazil could face “international sanctions.” Indeed, Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Member of the European Parliament, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she and her colleagues could not “accept that products produced by laborers working in slave-like conditions be imported” into the European Union.

It is believed that most of the estimated 155,000 Brazilian workers, who accept terrible working conditions analogous to slavery, do so not because they cannot leave their work, but because they cannot find better jobs. Therefore, Temer’s new definition of slavery will drastically reduce, with the sweep of a pen, the official slavery statistics. In fact, the MPT told Reuters that the portaria would mean that 506 of the 706 cases of alleged slavery currently under investigation would be halted.

A photo of enslaved Amazon Indians during the rubber boom of the early 1900s. This photo, though taken in the Peruvian Amazon, offers an accurate portrayal of atrocities committed in Brazil during that era. Photo by Walter Hardenberg in the public domain

Despite the outcry, some sectors welcomed the change. The Agricultural Parliamentary Front (FPA), the mouthpiece of the ruralist lobby in Congress, expressed support for the portaria. In a press statement the FPA said that the new legislation would introduce clarity, for at the moment “the lack of specific criteria for forced labor, exhausting days and degrading work conditions, allows government officials to apply different criteria, creating legal uncertainty in the sector.”

Agriculture minister Blairo Maggi also welcomed the new portaria saying that it would help to correct “the current confusion about what is and what isn’t slave labor.”

Senator Cidinho Santos, from the small, right-wing Republic Party, said that the new measure would prevent employers being punished unfairly. “Sometimes the employer provides workers with chemical toilets but they [the workers] prefer to use the forest. Or he provides a canteen but the workers prefer to eat with their hands sitting on a tarpaulin.”

The ruralists have been calling for a change in the legal definition of slave labor for years, if only because some of them are on the ”dirty list,” published every six months by the Ministry of Labor and Employment and the Special Human Rights Secretariat.

Some on the “dirty list” are important donors to Brazil’s political parties. A study carried out by Repórter Brasil found that, of the 490 names that figured on the “dirty list” between 2002 and 2012, 77 had made donations to political parties. The main beneficiaries were the PTB (Brazilian Labour Party) and the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), the largest party in Brazil, to which Temer belongs.

Until now the Ministry of Labor and Employment has used technical criteria to compile this list. Now it will be the Minister of Labor who decides when — or whether — to publish the list at all.

An overseer beats a slave. While Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, an estimated 155,000 people are held in “conditions analogous to slavery” today, many in remote regions such as the Amazon where economic hardship forces laborers to take work offering little reward in heinous conditions that are dangerous and unhealthy in the extreme. Painting by Jean-Baptiste Debret in the public domain

Xavier Plassat, coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission’s Campaign Against Slave Labor, told Mongabay that it was very clear why the government announced the new measure when it did: “This portaria benefits the particular interests of groups for whom modern slavery is a source of profit, and whose support the government needs, particularly at the moment when new legal proceedings against the president [regarding corruption charges] have to be approved or rejected in the Chamber of Deputies.” According to Plassat, the measure is highly inconsistent. For instance, he says, “According to the decree, there’s nothing wrong for a worker to sleep with animals and drink dirty water as long as he isn’t watched over by armed guards.”

Federal deputy Alessando Molon, from the Rede party, will try and have the portaria overthrown by Congress. He told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper: “Temer seems to have gone beyond all limits. To bury the work to combat slave labor in exchange for saving his skin in the Chamber of Deputies is scandalous, apart from the brutal impact it will have on thousands of Brazilians.”

The decree will also make it harder to protect the environment. Illegal forest clearance and illegal logging depend on slave labor, for they occur in a hidden, black market economy. In many cases, it was only possible to stop these activities by arresting those who were using slave labor to cut the trees — a crime that can be more readily demonstrated and does not require long legal proceedings.

Under Temer’s measure these environmental criminals will largely have carte blanche to carry on with their destructive activities.

Time and again, analysts in Brazil have said that Temer has gone too far and now, surely, he will be stopped. In this case, although the situation is still unclear, it seems the strength of the public reaction may be bearing results. Temer told the Poder360 website on 20 October that he would probably introduce changes in the portaria suggested by Attorney General Raquel Dodge. Whether these alterations will satisfy the outraged labor judges and labor inspectors is unknown.

STORY UPDATE 10/25/17: Rosa Weber, a minister in Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF), issued a ruling on 24 October to suspend temporarily the portaria issued by the Labor Ministry that established new, much more restrictive criteria for slave labor. The STF minister was responding to an action brought by Rede Sustentabilidade, a small political party set up by former environment minister Marina Silva. The Supreme Court suspension means that the Labor Ministry will be unable to implement the portaria until a definitive ruling has been made about its legality.

The ruling came after a flurry of protests over the new portaria, including recommendations sent by both the Public Federal Ministry (MPF) and the Public Labor Ministry (MPT) that the portaria should be revoked. In her ruling, the STF minister said that the “extremely restrictive criteria are not coherent with Brazil’s judicial order or with international agreements that the country has signed.”


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