PALMAS, Brazil – All children in Brazil learn in history classes that slavery ended on May 13, 1888, when Princess Isabel signed Imperial Law 3353, known as the Golden Law.
But 124 years later, about 20,000 Brazilians still work under conditions similar to slavery, according to Brazil’s Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division Issues.
In 2011, the Federal Government rescued 2,271 people, most of them from the six states where the situation is most critical: Tocantins, Bahia, Maranhão, Mato Grosso, Pará and Piauí.
Since 2004, the government has had an ally in 45 municipalities in these states, as the program Escravo, Nem Pensar! (Slave, No Way!) – an initiative of NGO Repórter Brasil – has disseminated information to combat the problem.
“Our focus is on prevention. We identify the most vulnerable communities and we train professors and community leaders there,” says the program’s coordinator, Natália Suzuki, 28. “Those people act as multipliers of information, which is essential to the process of combating slavery.”
After training more than 2,000 professors and “special agents” – all volunteers – the Escravo, Nem Pensar! was named in 2008 as the first nationwide slavery prevention program by the government.
The program relies on community engagement to spread knowledge about slave labor and human trafficking, Suzuki says.
In addition to training educators, the NGO produces teaching materials and helps organize competitions, cultural festivals and other community activities related to the issue.
Earlier this year, the program released the booklet “Tráfico de Pessoas, Mercado de Gente” (“Human Trafficking, A Market of People”), which addresses the issue of illegal human trafficking, particularly the exploitation of young people in the sex trade. A total of 5,000 copies were distributed in the municipalities where the program operates.
In Santa Luiza in the state of Maranhão, Elbna Ferreira, a 36-year-old teacher, became an educator for the program in 2006. Since then, she has given talks at schools and communities. The booklet is useful, she says, as it provides suggestions for activities that allow teachers to address the issue in the classroom.
“But the municipality of Santa Luiza is very poor. I know workers who were rescued and had no choice but to go back to the farms and once again subject themselves to slavery,” Ferreira says.
She says the program has mainly focused on the people who recruit workers from places located far from the job site, offering false promises with regard to the work they’ll perform.
These gatos, as they are known in Brazil, are responsible for the transportation, accommodations and meals of the people they recruit. All of these expenses are then passed on to the workers. If any of them try to leave the site, they are informed that they owe money and cannot leave until the debt has been paid.
“These expenses are never paid off. So, the workers find themselves trapped,” Suzuki says.
Through the efforts of the program, many of the recruitment locations have been dismantled, Suzuki adds.
“Beforehand, recruitment was carried out in a very public manner,” she says.
A deep-rooted problem
A 2011 survey by the International Labor Organization (ILO) shows that more than 50% of the victims of rural slave labor in Brazil are men under 30, most of them from the Northeast Region.
Without any job opportunities, most people have to accept jobs under slave-like conditions. Many of these people are not even aware that they are being exploited, according to NGO Repórter Brasil.
“We’ve found that in some cities it’s a deep-rooted problem, where people commonly accept working conditions that degrade their human rights,” Suzuki says.
The coordinator of Escravo, Nem Pensar! says that by explaining and teaching people to recognize the problems associated with slave labor – poor food and housing, poor sanitation, abuse, violence and degrading work conditions, coupled with a loss of freedom – the program helps many realize that they have become victims.
Maria do Rosário, a 52-year-old teacher, is a volunteer of the program.
After giving a talk, she was once approached by a man in tears. He told her he had escaped from a farm where he was forced to endure the types of conditions she had discussed.
“He told me that everything I had said seemed as if I was recounting his life story. Then he showed me the scars on his body, his skin torn from barbed wire – the marks of his escape,” says Rosário, who sent the man to Brazil’s Attorney General Office.
The next step
Carolina Motoki, the Escravo, Nem Pensar! regional coordinator in Araguaína in the state of Tocantins, said the program must do more than focus on prevention.
“A simple vocational course doesn’t solve the problem,” Motoki says. “We invest in the creation of cooperatives and other forms of income generation.”
Cooperative for the Dignity of Maranhão (CODIGMA), in Açailândia, is an example. Created by formerly exploited workers, the cooperative manufactures plant-based coal that provides income to needy families.
“These are the types of initiatives we want to encourage,” Motoki says.