By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazil's ministry of labour has fined 340 Brazilian companies for using slave labour, including forced labour and people working in degrading conditions for little or no pay in rural and urban areas, a leading anti-slavery group has said.
A "dirty list" published by the rights group Reporter Brazil this month revealed that 340 Brazilian companies from May 2013 to May 2015 employed people working in slave-like conditions, including in sweatshops producing clothes, in farms, cattle ranches, timber companies, construction and charcoal production.
Leonardo Sakamoto, head of Sao Paulo-based Reporter Brazil, said his organisation, which works to expose slave labour, used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the names of companies and individuals that were found to have slave labour by federal labour inspectors in Brazil.
"The companies were fined by the labour ministry and those enslaved were released," he said.
Brazil defines slave labour as work carried out in degrading conditions or in conditions that pose a risk to a worker's health and or life. Forced labour, and working for free to pay off debts incurred with an employer, known as bonded labour or debt bondage, are also considered slave labour.
"We don't know yet if children were enslaved. We are still analysing the list. And we can't say yet if the construction companies are involved in building works for the Olympics," Sakamoto told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
AMAZON SLAVERY HOTSPOT
Brazil imported more African slaves than any other country in the Americas, mainly to cut sugar cane. While slavery was formally abolished in 1888, there are still pockets of Brazil, especially on farms and in areas where the Amazon jungle is being razed, where working conditions are similar to those in the 19th century, experts say.
"Historically the worst slave conditions in Brazil have been found in cattle ranches in the Amazon where state power is difficult to reach and where exploitation is more violent," Sakamoto said.
Brazil's government has made addressing slavery a top priority over the past decade in Latin America's largest economy.
In 1995, Brazil officially recognised the active use of slave labour in the economy. That year, the Labour Ministry launched a Special Mobile Enforcement Group that works with prosecutors and police to find and raid farms, construction sites and other companies suspected of employing slave workers.
Since then, around 50,000 people have been freed from slave-like work, according to government figures.
There is no reliable data to show the scale of child labour across Brazil but 2014 figures from the labour ministry show 5,522 children were "removed" from child labor, as well as 1,509 adults released from forced labour and labour exploitation.
Worldwide, an estimated 21 million people are trapped in some form of forced labour, generating profits totalling $150 billion a year, according to the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO).
In recent years, a key weapon in Brazil's fight against slavery has been the so-called "dirty list" of employers published by the labour ministry.
Launched in November 2003, the blacklist has revealed to the public hundreds of companies and individual employers who were investigated by labour prosecutors and found to be using slaves.
Blacklisted employers are blocked from receiving government loans and have restrictions placed on sales of their products. If after two years a company pays all its fines and proves that it has improved working conditions, it is removed from the list.
But in late 2014, Brazil's Supreme Court ordered the Labour Ministry to suspend the release of the slave labour blacklist. The ruling came in response to an injunction filed by Brazil's Real Estate Developers' Association (Abrainc), whose members include the country's largest construction companies.
Reporter Brazil is lobbying to make the list public again. Meanwhile, the NGO uses freedom of information laws to publish the information.
"We believe this information is of public interest that allows people and corporations to make their own decisions about whether to buy from these companies," Sakamoto said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)