Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Brasilian Slavery

In Brazil the word "slavery" has a particular resonance. Millions of enslaved Africans arrived here rather than in the ports of North America, and Brazil was the last nation in the Americas to emancipate slaves. Now under Brazilian law, the definition of slavery does not necessarily include coercion or force. Degrading or humiliating conditions alone are reason enough to prosecute employers. But local landowners don't believe harsh working conditions constitute slavery. "Slave labour doesn't exist here," says Jailton Alves de Oliveira, who has a ranch near Acailandia. Cases of "inhumane treatment" may arise on some farms, he says, but that's not quite the same thing. "Slave labour is when a person is forced to do something. Our labourers are completely free to come and go as they please."

"To subjugate somebody, you don't have to deny them their formal freedom. You may do it through other means," Xavier Plassat, a French Dominican friar who works for a Brazilian Catholic charity, the Pastoral Land Commission says. "You may isolate him on a farm in the forest - if he has no means to leave, he's your prisoner. And if a person at work has no minimum living conditions - water, food, housing, protection against the risks of the job, these amount to more than an abuse of labour rights."

Congressmen Claudio Puty from the governing Workers' Party explains "When we talk about degrading conditions we are talking about work that causes death, about factory conditions in 19th Century England - things that are completely unacceptable," he says. Coercion comes in different forms, he says, overt and hidden. "I visited a farm where the workers had been offered a minimum wage, but in three months they had only been paid 10 Reals (£2.60, $4.25). They couldn't leave because they had no means to leave. This is coercion."

The National Congress in Brasilia is due to debate an amendment that would allow the government to take away land from employers deemed to be using slave labour. But the talk is that this measure will only pass if there is an agreement to change the definition of slavery - which could mean that the clause referring to "degrading or humiliating conditions" would disappear.

One man rescued from a ranch by an anti-slavery mobile unit surprisingly said the ranch was a good place to work - compared to his previous jobs. "I've gone hungry. Sometimes the landowners didn't want to pay me," he says. "I've seen violence - I've passed many nights without sleeping, afraid that something would happen." In the tumble-down shack in Acailandia, where he lives with his wife and children, his wife sighs. "His whole life he's worked as a slave," she says.

Members of the working class has indeed worked their whole lives as slaves.

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