Workers slept on the floor and ate ants while building a hangar for Anapolis air force base
By Fabio Teixeira
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Seven workers have been rescued from slavery-like conditions where they slept on the floor and ate ants while building a hangar for the Brazilian Air Force, labour authorities said.
The men had been hired by Shox do Brasil Construcoes, which was contracted by the air force to build a R$ 15 million ($2.9 million) hangar at Anapolis, one of Brazil's most important bases as it protects the nearby capital, Brasilia.
Shox's lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The company said on its website that it "has developed with its employees a culture of working safely and responsibly" and that it also had public works contracts at Brasilia airport and the northern port of Belem.
The workers were living in a house outside the air force base that had no furniture, "fetid" bathrooms and garbage accumulating in rooms, said labour inspectors who declined to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
"The workers were asking for handouts from neighbours, begging for food," said Luiz Fabre, the labour prosecutor assigned to the case, who plans to sue Shox for about R$ 1 million ($194,893) for employing slave labour.
The Brazilian Air Force said in a statement that it had asked Shox for an explanation as soon as it became aware of the case and would analyse the contract and take "appropriate measures" as it repudiated any labour law violations.
The Labour Prosecutor's Office will not charge the air force but will present its findings to them, said Fabre, adding that the value of the contract showed Shox could afford to pay and house its workers properly.
The construction workers were brought in from other cities with promises of good pay, housing and food, but on arrival they were told they had to work weekends as well to receive money for food, authorities said.
The labour inspectors showed the Thomson Reuters Foundation a video of some of the workers catching and cooking tanajura - ants that are fried across Latin America.
Slavery in Brazil is defined as forced labour but also includes degrading work conditions, long hours that pose a health risk or work that violates human dignity.
Beyond losing its public contract, Shox could also be added to Brazil's "dirty list" of companies that have engaged in slave labour, if found guilty after an internal government procedure, which are barred from getting state loans for two years.
Labour inspectors said that the workers had left the hotel where they were taken to after being rescued and their whereabouts was unknown.
But the prosecution will continue regardless, said Fabre.
"The collective issue is more important than the individual issue," he said. "I'm thinking of several workers in the sector who are at risk of being next."
($1 = 5.1310 reais)
(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Katy Migiro. 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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