After two-month stoppage, labor inspectors say their work is too important to be suspended indefinitely
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By Fabio Teixeira
RIO DE JANEIRO, May 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazilian anti-slavery rescuers have carried out their first raid after a two-month freeze due to the coronavirus outbreak, saying coffee farms will be their main priority when harvesting kicks off next month.
As Brazil's COVID-19 death toll surges, labor inspectors wore surgical masks or face shields and adhered to social distancing as they rescued 15 people in Minas Gerais kept in slavery-like conditions to make charcoal by burning timber.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation exclusively reported in March that such operations were being suspended due to the risk of infection among workers and officials, but inspectors said their work was too important to be halted indefinitely.
"The work we do is an essential activity because it serves a population in a situation where their health and life is at risk," said Humberto Camasmie, who coordinated last week's raid.
The workers they found were housed in overcrowded shacks without running water - conditions ripe for spreading the highly contagious virus, while their employer wore a face mask to protect himself, Camasmie said.
Following the week-long operation, the workers were given face masks and social distancing measures were implemented on the bus transporting them from the site.
One of the men, who had a persistent cough, was kept at a greater distance in case his symptoms stemmed from coronavirus infection rather than smoke inhalation from the wood-burning work.
According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, about 369,000 people are living in slavery in Brazil. Between 1995 and 2019, more than 54,000 people have been found by labor inspectors in slavery-like conditions.
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.
'WORST POSSIBLE CONDITIONS'
Camasmie, who coordinates anti-slavery operations in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, said last week's raid will serve as a model for other operations during the pandemic.
While the Minas Gerais raid was the country's first following the two-month nationwide halt, labor inspectors in other states are also resuming their operations.
Brazil has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide after the United States and the sixth-highest death toll, reporting more than 24,000 fatalities so far, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University.
In the coming weeks and months, Camasmie's team of rescuers will focus their attention on coffee plantations in Minas Gerais - a major growing area in the world's biggest coffee producer.
Thousands of migrant workers are expected to travel to the state as the harvest season gains momentum in June, and labor inspectors fear that could lead to a wave of new infections.
They have issued guidance to farmers on how to reduce the infection risk among workers by improving housing and transport conditions on farms, but Camasmie said he feared the health advice would be given short shrift.
"I don't know if we're going to get them to observe precautionary measures," he said. "The conditions offered (by farmers) are usually the worst possible."
(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Helen Popper. 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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