Exploitation Aids Brazil's Economic Boom

Brazil's economy is among Latin America's strongest, but success comes at a cost. Rights groups estimate that more than 25,000 Brazilians work in brutal conditions in industries such as mining and farming.

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By some estimates, 25,000 men and women in Brazil continued to work in conditions similar to slave labor. It's been more than a century since Brazil became the last in the Americas to outlaw slavery. The victims are lured by middlemen to toil in cattle ranches and logging ventures.

NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to one of the hot spots of slave labor on the Amazon frontier. She reports on the fear that permeates the lives of Brazil's slave laborers and the efforts to liberate them.

JULIE MCCARTHY: President Inacio Lula de Silva's campaign to eradicate slave labor has rescued more than 16,000 men and women. Andrew Vaught Rosa Dos Santos(ph) wasn't that lucky. Last Friday night, he and his wife escaped from the ranch where they have toiled for the past 14 months. The owner paid Del Santos just $380 for more than a year's worth of work. The farm owes him over $14,000. But Dos Santos says he had to flee for his life.

Mr. ANDREW VAUGHT ROSA DOS SANTOS (Slave Laborer, Brazil): (Through translator) I was humiliated. People were chasing me; threatening to kill me and saying they wouldn't pay me. The owner ordered his guards go after my dogs. They call us dogs. Last Wednesday, I joined another worker who escaped, who left everything behind and we came here.

MCCARTHY: Dos Santos sought refuge at the Center for the Defense of Life and Human Rights, in the poverty-stricken city of Acailandia. The 11-year-old organization, funded in part by the U.S. Catholic Relief Services, is one of the most active groups to combat slave labor in the impoverished state Maranhao on the edge of the Amazon. Dos Santos said his initial visit to the center in February was clandestine but it raised suspicion back at the farm.

Mr. DOS SANTOS: (Through translator): The first time I returned to the farm after coming to the center, they threatened me with a gun. And the farmer accused me of going to find help. I lied. I said I had come to town to buy medicine for my wife.

MCCARTHY: His fellow escapee, 29-year-old Claudio Morira de Silva(ph) also faced violent intimidation when he tried to report the farm to the center.

Mr. CLAUDIO MORIRA DE SILVA (Slave Laborer, Brazil): (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: They threatened me with death, putting a gun to my head, Claudio says. They then burned my identity documents. I kept silent and at midnight decided to escape and fled into the forest with gunmen shooting at me, he says.

Both men had racked up large debts on the farm. It's a form of indentured servitude that often begins with a slick recruiter who is paid by the farm owner to lure workers to remote ranches with the promise of a salary. Allan Cardig(ph) is the regional representative for the National Labor Ministry in Maranhao.

Mr. ALLAN CARDIG (Regional Representative, Ministry of Labor; Maranhao, Brazil): (Through translator) The worker stays at a small hotel. When the recruiter, or gato(ph), arrives, he pays the bill. The gato gives the prospective employee money for his family and takes him to the farm. So the worker already owes money. When he arrives at the job, he's got to pay for his tools, his boots, and his food. By the end of the week, he owes more than he's earned. And he can't climb out of the debt.

MCCARTHY: Men who fit that profile regularly turn up at the Acailandia-based Center for Life and Human Rights.

(Soundbite of chanting)

MCCARTHY: The grass roots organization also engages the local youth with Capoeira classes and this theater troupe. Center president Carmen Bascaran who helped found this clearinghouse for complaints about slave labor, says her defense of workers' rights has earned her death threats. This Spanish native says, in the isolated frontiers of the Amazon, like Maranhao, corrupt farmers operate with impunity.

Ms. CARMEN BASCARAN (President, Center for the Defense of Life and Human Rights): (Through translator) Historically, corruption in politics under the judiciary in Brazil, has maintained the dominant, constant power through the buying and selling of influence. It's a system that prevents judging criminals. And the big farmers and corporations work hand in hand with this system.

MCCARTHY: Under Brazilian law, labor that involves physical, psychological, or moral coercion - such as forcing workers into debt - constitutes modern-day slavery.

Ms. SINGY ALLOSILVA (Lawyer): (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: But Attorney Singy Allosilva says the law prohibiting slave labor was recently broadened to include degrading conditions that she says stripped all dignity from a human being.

Singy is part of the government's mobile squads that investigate farms suspected of slave labor, and that last year, forced guilty employers to pay out some $3 million in back pay.

Friar Xavier Plassat, a French Dominican who's battled the practice of slave labor here the past 18 years, says the mightier weapon of criminal prosecution is not being used. He says there's been years of indecision over whether federal judges or local judges are competent to hear slave labor cases.

Friar FREI XAVIER PLASSAT (French Dominican, Worker's rights advocate): So nobody has been punished in the criminal way in the last 15 years - about slave labor - because essentially of this.

MCCARTHY: Nor has any farm been shut down. Officials and activists blame the powerful rural lobby. But this workshop last weekend in the tiny village of Ananas(ph) demonstrates that ordinary citizens are mobilizing against slave labor.

Friar PLASSAT: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Led by the jean-clad Friar Xavier, 25 local leaders from the state of Tocantins, another slave-labor hotspot, read in unison the law defining slave labor. A slideshow presents them basic facts.

(Soundbite of background music)

Friar PLASSAT: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: That 90 percent of modern slaves are illiterate, that 90 percent worked as children, that 80 percent have no legal documents, that only one in two claims gets investigated, that three-quarters of slave laborers are involved in cattle ranching and deforestation.

Xavier says Brazil's long colonial experience with slavery continues to influence cultural attitudes about worker's rights even today.

Friar PLASSAT: They consider that they are a second-class population, which has no right, that is living subordinated to them, to their power, to their generosity. And so the fact that they are giving a job to them gives them all the rights over them.

MCCARTHY: He says while Brazil's expanding agro-business develops the country, it also covers over what he calls the sad reality of exploitation.

(Soundbite of machine noise)

MCCARTHY: The ordeal of slave labor often leaves its mark. Former slave worker Jose Alvis DeSousa(ph) now works at this cooperative, making environmentally friendly charcoal. But recalling the time when he had to drink the same water as the cattle and sleep in a plastic tent exposed to the night animals, he breaks down.

Mr. JOSE ALVIS DESOUSA (Former slave worker): (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Sometimes I feel a bit scared, Jose says. When we were rescued, the farm owner had to sign a pledge not to harm us. But he adds, no one ever really knows what another man may be thinking.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Sao Paolo.

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