In addition to the abuse of laborers in the Amazon, Americas Watch found that conditions that approximate forced labor persist in other agricultural and industrial endeavors throughout Brazil. Though not new, the use of forced labor in these non-Amazon settings appears to be on the rise. According to the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), a Catholic-church based human rights monitoring group, in 1992 eighteen cases of forced labor were registered in nine states. Apart from the typical Amazon deforestation operations, cases of gross violations of Brazilian labor law were found to occur in distilleries, sugar cane plantations, factories, carvoarias (large charcoal-making enterprises) and lumber mills.
In virtually all these cases certain common elements prevail: poor laborers are brought to estates or other work sites under deceptive circumstances, they are held against their will through acts and threats of violence, and are compelled to live and work in deplorable conditions. And although the use of forced labor is contrary to the laws of Brazil, as well as international law, these cases go unpunished. Violators have gone free even on the rare occasions when the police have raided the offending fazendas to free workers held there at gunpoint.
Because of this impunity, fazendeiros, gatos (labor contractors, literally “cats”) and fiscais (their overseers), pay no criminal price for the use of dirt-cheap labor. As we document below, one case of forced labor reported in 1993 involved a gato who had been denounced in court as a forced labor camp director as early as 1985. Not only was that gato not prosecuted for operating a forced labor camp in which at least one worker was severely beaten and forcibly drugged, but he was elected vereador (councilman) in the municipal assembly. Without doubt, this impunity is a critical element permitting the widespread practice of forced labor in certain regions of Brazil.
Although forced labor has been denounced widely in Brazil and internationally, neither the federal nor the state governments have yet to design a coordinated and effective program designed to eradicate the practice. Not only is the practice not repressed by law enforcement authorities, but even when those engaged in the practice are apprehended they are rarely brought to justice. In some cases, police authorities have been shown to be directly implicated in cases of forced labor.
The judicial response to forced labor can generously be described as indifferent, and more cynically characterized as complicit. Because of the its near total failure to repress this practice, despite notice of the existence and the extent of the practice, the state bears a great responsibility for the crimes. Americas Watch believes that the failure of the Brazilian government to take meaningful steps to end forced labor, as detailed below, constitutes a violation of its duties under international law. It is simply inadequate for governmental authorities to attempt to avert their responsibility in this area by pointing to the private actors who are more directly liable for the practice. The complete lack of a system to enforce laws prohibiting the functional equivalent of slavery – an atrocity abolished by law in Brazil more than a century ago – results in the responsibility of the Brazilian state for the continued practice of forced labor before the international community.
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Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organization, headquartered in New York City, that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.