Brazil: UN rights expert urges stepped up efforts to fight slavery

Gulnara Shahinian, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery

29 May 2010 – An independent United Nations human rights expert has called urged Brazil to strengthen efforts to close loopholes perpetuating the practice of slavery, including forced labour in the vast South American nation's rural areas.

“Slavery is a crime that should not go unpunished,” said Gulnara Shahinian, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, including is causes and consequences, at the end of her visit to Brazil.

The Government has taken commendable action to combat the scourge, including publishing a so-called 'Dirty List' of all farms and companies using slave labour, excluding them from accessing public funds, she said.

But “some landowners, businesses and intermediaries, such as the gatos, have found a way to avoid criminal prosecution by taking advantage of legal loopholes that delay justice and foster impunity,” the expert said.

Civil penalties have been successfully applied to some landowners and companies but criminal penalties have not been enforced, with jurisdictional conflicts and delays in the judiciary system resulting in the lapsing of the statute of limitations, she pointed out. Although forced labour is considered a serious crime, first-time offenders might only face house arrest or community service.

Brazil could shortly become the world's fifth largest economy, but the Special Rapporteur cautioned that this ascendancy should not come at the expense of people's rights.

Forced labour in rural areas, which she said is a “slavery-like practice,” is most wide-spread in the cattle ranching and sugar cane industries, and the victims are mostly men and boys over the age of 15. In Brazil's urban areas, forced labour takes place largely in the garment industry.

“In all these situations the victims of forced labour work long hours, with little or no pay,” Ms. Shahinian said. “They are threatened with, or subjected to physical, psychological and sometimes sexual violence.”

During her visit, she held talks with Government authorities, international organizations, the private sector and non-governmental organizations, and visited communities in São Paulo, Cuiabá, Imperatriz, Açailândia and Brasília. In rural areas, she met with people subjected to forced labour and slavery-like practices in the cattle ranching and sugar cane industries, and she also spoke with garment workers.

The expert called for the adoption of schemes that ensure that the people most vulnerable to performing forced labour can enjoy basic rights, such as the rights to food, water and education to allow for their rehabilitation and reingetration into economic life and social protection networks.

Education should also include vocational training and literacy programmes, which should be complemented by Government action to safeguard the right for indigenous groups and others “to work without having to succumb to forced labour,” she stressed.

“The strongest message that the Brazilian Government can send to Brazilians to show that the crime of slavery will not go unpunished is to pass the constitutional amendment” which would allow for the expropriation of land where forced labour is used,” the Special Rapporteur emphasized.

“This expropriation would occur without compensation and the land would be re-distributed, with priority being given to those workers previously held in conditions analogous to slavery.”

Passing this amendment, she said, “will show that Brazil is indeed strongly committed to fighting slavery.”


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