OPINION: Brazil’s ‘dirty list’ is key to stopping slave labor. But it is being undermined

by Leonardo Sakamoto | Reporter Brasil
Monday, 15 June 2020 09:12 GMT

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. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Brazil risks a 17-year setback in the fight against slave labor with its key anti-slavery tool coming under attack

Leonardo Sakamoto is a journalist and doctor in Political Science from the University of São Paulo. He is the director of Reporter Brasil, a leading anti-slavery non-profit in Brazil, and member of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

Since 1995, almost 55 thousand people have been rescued from modern slavery by Brazilian government labor inspection teams while working in cattle, soy, cotton, coffee, orange, potato and sugar cane farms, but also in charcoal production areas, brothels, construction sites, sewing workshops, among other production units.

Throughout this period, slave labor was no longer seen as an issue restricted to agricultural frontier areas such as the Amazon. Now the struggle against it also takes place in major urban centers. In addition, it came to be understood not as a remnant of archaic forms of exploitation that resisted the passing of time, but rather as an instrument adopted by enterprises in globalized supply chains.

Modern slavery is used by enterprises to boost their production and expansion processes. Overexploitation of labor, of which slavery is the cruelest form, is deliberately used as a tool in certain regions and circumstances. In other words, some employers use it to gain unfair competitiveness – a form of social dumping. Others take advantage of this alternative only to increase profit margins.

In 2003, the Brazilian government created a list of employers caught using slave labor – the so-called “dirty list”. It has served as an instrument to guarantee quality information so that businesses can manage their risks.

Updated every six months by the Ministry of Economy, the list includes names of people and companies that have already exercised their right to administrative defense at first and second jurisdiction levels. In principle, employers remain in the list for two years, but they may choose to sign agreements with the government and have their names suspended from the register. To do so, they must commit to meeting several labor and social requirements.

Although the Government Ordinance establishing the list does not provide for mandatory commercial sanctions, Brazilian and foreign companies have been using it for risk management for the past 17 years. The instrument has become a global example in the fight against slave labor, being recognized by the United Nations. And, given its importance, Brazil’s National Monetary Council forbids granting rural credit to anyone on the list in 2010.

As a result, the “dirty list” has contributed to avoid attempts at establishing commercial barriers to Brazilian goods based on slave labor, since it allows surgical action against violators instead of punishing entire industries, which would lead to more unemployment.

However, the instrument has been under attack since it was created, not only by employers that are granted the legal right to have their names removed from the list but also by business associations that went to the Supreme Court and suspended the disclosure of the entire “dirty list” in the past. In addition, it has been attacked by agribusiness and civil construction representatives in Congress and the government of former President Michel Temer attempted to undermine it.

Civil society, the Attorney General Office, the Labor Prosecutors Office and business sectors have worked to mitigate these attacks, which, of course, jeopardize both the international credibility of our products and the country’s own ability to fight this crime.

How can we prove to American, English, French, German or Australian importers that Brazilian meat, soy, cotton and pig iron, among other goods, are free from slavery if the country starts to neglect a system seen as exemplary in combating this crime?

Brazil has often avoided such trade barriers, showing that the policy is strong, and that the information provided to the market for risk management is transparent. Such transparency is essential for capitalism to work properly. Today, groups opposed to the system for combating slave labor and their political representatives are putting pressure on the State to withhold information of public interest. In other words, a 17-year setback.

Who will pay for the losses endured by businesses that comply with the law if they are surpassed by those who use unfair competition and social dumping and undermine instruments for combating slave labor – instruments that, in practice, separate those who work within the rules from those who want to turn the tables? 

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