Forced Labor in Brazil: An interview with James Cavallaro

Against the Current, No. 59, November/December 1995

Marcelo Irajá de Araújo Hoffman

JAMES CAVALLARO IS Brazil representative of Human Rights Watch/Americas and the Center for International Law and Justice. In this interview, he discusses forced labor in Brazil and the position of Human Rights Watch regarding this practice. Marcelo Iraja de Araujo Hoffman is a graduate student at the American University School of International Service and active in Brazil solidarity work.

Hoffman: According to the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissao Pastoral da Terra (CPT), a Catholic organization which monitors human rights abuses in Brazil’s countryside, cases of slave labor involved over 25,000 people in 1994. To the best of my knowledge, this is the highest figure registered by the CPT. Why is slave labor expanding so rapidly?

Cavallaro: First of all, I guess I would have to say that we prefer the term “forced labor” because we believe it more accurately characterizes the kind of situations that we’ve documented.

Why is forced labor expanding as rapidly as it is? In fact, I think it’s important to recognize that what is increasing rapidly in Brazil is the documentation of forced labor. We can’t be certain that the number of cases is higher now than it was five or eight years ago; which is to say, we can’t be certain that five years ago there also weren’t 30,000 people in forced labor camps in Brazil.

What we can be certain of is that the CPT has documented cases involving between 25,000-30,000 people in 1994. Those are the latest statistics. The year before that the figures were around 19,000. The year before that I think they were in the order of 14,000.

I have the precise statistics; but certainly there has been an increase in the number of people involved in the cases and there has also been an increase in the number of incidents of forced labor.

One reason why there has been an increase in the number of reported cases is that forced labor has expanded, apparently, or at least the documentation of it has expanded beyond the traditional context of clear-cutting in the Amazon.

From the early to mid-seventies until the early nineties, most of the cases of forced labor that were reported and documented by the CPT were in the Amazon region. They involved clear-cutting areas of the Amazon so that cattle could be set out to graze; so that land could be considered productively used; so that INCRA (Agrarian Reform Institute) would not repossess the land, etc . . . .

In recent years, the CPT has documented cases of forced labor in other contexts: in usinas (factories), in distilleries, in carbon burning operations. And in those operations, particularly the carbon burning operations, the number of employees involved is significantly higher. And so the number of persons involved in forced labor as a whole increases to the extent that those cases are documented.

Hoffman: According to sociologist José de Souza Martins, multinationals are involved in forced labor in Brazil. Is there any information about which ones?

Cavallaro: Dating back ten or fifteen years, there were cases of forced labor involving well known transnationals such as Volkswagen and others. I can see that others focus on the international or transnational corporations involved, but our focus has been, as it has to be, on the action or inaction of the government.

We oversee, in accordance with our mandate, compliance or non-compliance with international human rights norms. To that extent, the government is the relevant actor; so we don’t have statistics about which enterprises or companies are involved.

Whatever company or individual is involved in the use or practice of forced labor, our position is that the Brazilian government’s responsibility is to investigate thoroughly each case and to prosecute vigorously those involved in that super-exploitation of human labor. So, for us it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a multinational corporation.

What the Brazilian government needs to do when it receives a denunciation of forced labor, which it often receives, is to immediately dispatch the relevant authorities, from the Ministry of Labor, from the federal police, from other appropriate federal or state authorities to investigate the cases, while the information (is fresh) and while the practice is likely to be encountered and not a week later or a month later or two months later, as has happened in some of the cases that we’ve documented.

Hoffman: Does Brazilian law prohibit forced labor ?

Cavallaro: Brazilian law clearly prohibits the practice of forced labor in a number of regards. First, Brazilian labor legislation requires that certain hours be worked; that the employee have signed an employee work card; that a minimum wage be paid; that social benefits be paid, etc…. A whole slew of regulations are violated in the practice of forced labor.

In addition, the Brazilian penal code has a particular section, Article 149, which prohibits the reduction of a person to a condition analogous to slavery. We are unaware of a single prosecution for the commission of that crime.

Hoffman: Why has Brazil failed to adhere to these laws?

Cavallaro: Why is Brazilian law not applied? That’s a far more complex matter. Across the board, unfortunately, much of what we document indicates the extent of the gulf between Brazilian law or legal theory and the practice thereof.

Forced labor is a particularly glaring cases in which labor legislation is more or less adequate. There have been groups such as the CPT and the Permanent Forum on Rural Violence that have called for a clearer definition of the terms of forced labor and that might be helpful.

We don’t oppose those efforts. We think, however, the main problem, and the reason the cases continue, lies in the lack of enforcement of existing legislation.

There need to be greater efforts, particularly by federal authorities, to investigate these cases. (State authorities should be investigating these cases as well, but because most of the cases involve laborers who were brought from one state to another, there is federal jurisdiction. Also, it’s the federal government that, under international law, has to respond to violations of treaties.)

The next big question is why does this lack of enforcement exist? Well, for years we’ve believed that it’s the result of lack of political will. There’s just not sufficient interest in ending this problem.

That may be changing now with this administration, but the biggest problem is lack of political will. The problem could be eradicated if the local authorities decided that they wanted to eradicate it.

Hoffman: What treaties has Brazil signed and ratified that prohibit forced labor?

Cavallaro: There are several treaties that are relevant. The International Labor Organization has treaties on the suppression of forced and slave labor, to which Brazil is a party, that clearly prohibit debt bondage, which is the ordinary context in which forced labor is practiced.

The government’s responsibility to take all necessary steps to end debt bondage, even when the actors involved are not state actors, is a clear treaty obligation. Brazil is also liable under other treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Hoffman: What policies have been enacted by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s new government to combat forced labor?

Cavallaro: Probably the most important step President Cardoso has taken with regard to the issue of forced labor is that he has directly confronted it. In a weekly address that he give, Palavra do Presidente (Word of the President), he recognized the gravity of the problem.

He cited the CPT, which is the most reliable source documenting the practice of forced labor in Brazil, and he promised concrete steps. The first concrete step that he’s taken is the creation of an inter-ministerial commission. As far as I know and I have not had this confirmed, additional funding was also provided to the Ministry of Labor to investigate cases.

It’s still far too early to know whether or not these steps have produced any concrete results. What’s going to have to happen is what we’ve said before: Federal authorities are going to have to go on-site, investigate denunciations, and then the criminal justice system is going to have to work in a way that, to date, it has not shown itself capable.

In other words, it’s going to have to swiftly investigate and prosecute the responsible parties. That’s something that the Brazilian criminal system, in general, has difficulty accomplishing–and more so in these kinds of cases where you have victims from one state, gatos (labor contractors, literally cats) who are recruiters from another state, fazendeiros (landowners) from a third state, etc . . . .

You have all sorts of obstacles to the effectuation of justice. That’s going to be the true test. I would say that we are concerned that the solution will not be as easy as the recognition of the problem.

Suggested Readings

Americas Watch. Forced Labor in Brazil. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1990.

Americas Watch. Forced Labor in Brazil Re-Visited: On-site investigations document that practice continues. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993.

Sutton, Alison. Slavery in Brazil: A Link in the Chain of Modernisation, the case of Amazonia. London: Anti-Slavery International, 1994.

November/December 1995