Brazilian lawmakers approved this week a constitutional amendment that strengthens the punishment for people convicted of practicing slave labor. The measure, the strongest legal instrument ever passed in Brazil for combating slave labor, allows the government to confiscate the property of people who use slave labor and to impose fines and jail terms already in the country’s penal code.
Slave labor—a form of indentured servitude in which poor Brazilians are lured to remote ranches and farms only to find themselves living in squalor and working to pay off their debts—is relatively common in the Brazilian Amazon.
There’s a strong link to the United States in forced labor of this sort. It is the dark side of two major Brazilian industries: the production of charcoal, a basic ingredient in the manufacture of pig iron, which is turned into steel; and the agriculture sector, in which laborers are used to clear land for cattle and crop cultivation (including sugarcane crops that produce the ethanol that has brought Brazil such a high level of fuel self-sufficiency). The steel made from pig iron makes its way into a variety of items such as automobiles, refrigerators, air conditioners – practically anything made from steel. Brazil is one of the world’s largest exporters of pig iron. Brazil also is one of the world’s largest exporters of grass-fed beef and beef products from cattle that demand more and more land for grazing.
The Brazilian government has made strides in confronting the issue. It formed an inspection service to investigate reported abuses, supports mobile units to rescue workers and publishes a “Dirty List” of businesses using slave labor, denying such businesses access to bank loans and government contracts. Still, few employers have been severely punished.
“Approval of the constitutional amendment (PEC 438), is a great victory in the effort to bring an end to slave labor in Brazil. This advance, more than a decade in the making, comes with serious economic and legal sanctions long needed to tackle this crime,” said Mary DeLorey, CRS regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean.
CRS and our partners in Brazil, the Catholic Church’s National Pastoral Land Commission and Reporter Brazil (the first news agency specializing in coverage of slavery issues), lobbied for several years to get this landmark measure passed.