EXCLUSIVE-Brazil halts mobile group's anti-slavery operations due to coronavirus

by Fabio Teixeira | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 17 March 2020 17:38 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A worker is seen in a coffee farm during a labor ministry operation to identify workers in conditions analogous to slavery, in Campos Altos, Minas Gerais, Brazil August 12, 2019. Picture taken August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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Brazil's special mobile enforcement group which travels nationally to raid places suspected of using slave labor is on hold and expected to have an impact on numbers of workers rescued

By Fabio Teixeira

RIO DE JANEIRO, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazil has put anti-slavery operations by its special mobile enforcement group on indefinite hold due to fears of coronavirus infecting its staff or rescued victims, authorities said on Tuesday.

The freeze is expected to have an impact on the number of workers rescued from slave labor this year, said Magno Riga, one of four coordinators of the government-funded mobile group that is part of the Labor Inspector's Office.

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"All operations are suspended until further notice," Riga, a labor inspector, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding drivers from the mobile group were classified as "at risk" from coronavirus due to age or underlying health conditions.

"It's impossible to measure (the impact of the freeze). It's all too uncertain."

Riga was speaking by phone as he wrapped up an operation to rescue about 80 workers found toiling in degrading conditions for a religious cult near Brazil's capital, Brasilia. He expected this rescue to be the last one by the mobile group for the foreseeable future.

The special mobile group, created in 1995, is one of Brazil's main tools in the fight against human trafficking.

While any labor inspector can rescue workers from slavery, the group is dedicated to the task and travels nationally to raid farms and workplaces suspected of using slave labor.

The mobile group also has labor prosecutors and federal authorities that accompany inspectors on operations, and bring charges against employers that enslave workers.

Brazil's leading anti-slavery labor prosecutor, Lys Sobral Cardoso, supported the measure taken by the Labor Inspector's Office, saying the operations could put the workers they aim to rescue at risk.

"There is even a risk of contaminating communities living in the most distant regions of the country," she said.

In Brazil, slavery is defined as forced labor but also covers debt bondage, degrading work conditions, long hours that pose a risk to health, and any work that violates human dignity.

Last year 1,054 laborers across all industries were rescued, down from 2,604 in 2012, government data showed. Since 1995 about 54,000 have been found by labor inspectors.

The 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated that 369,000 people are living in slavery among Brazil's 205 million people.

Riga said he hoped to work from Sao Paulo, where he is based, but health concerns had to be taken into account.

He feared even after the freeze was over, the budget for operations might be further reduced due to the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, which could limit operations.

"No one knows the economic impact (of the coronavirus), and how it will affect the state's budget," he said. (Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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