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BRAZIL: New Lives for Victims of Slave Labour

Mario Osava

AÇAILANDIA, Brazil, Jul 3 2007 (IPS) - José Alves has held on, for memory’s sake, to what is left of the old bicycle that took him hundreds of kilometres throughout Brazil’s eastern Amazon jungle region as he "hunted for work to improve my life." His need for a job led him to fall victim to slave labour – not once, but several times.

Capoeira class Credit: IPS/Mario Osava.

Capoeira class Credit: IPS/Mario Osava.

Alves’s case is an illustration of the desperation that pushes workers in northern Brazil into forced labour. After his father died, he had to help his mother raise the three youngest of his nine brothers and sisters. In his search for work, he suffered the violence of modern-day slavery in his home state, Maranhao, and in the neighbouring state of Pará.

He dug wells and cut down forests and cleared brush "practically with my bare hands." One of his bosses paid only half of the promised wages and abandoned Alves and the other workers in the middle of the jungle, where they fished in the rivers to survive, while another kept his employees captive under armed guard.

"I don’t even like to remember," said the 30-year-old father of three, adding that he now lives in "paradise." He coordinates the production of "recycled charcoal" at one of the two units installed by the Cooperative for the Dignity of Maranhao (CODIGMA), a project launched by the Centre for the Defence of Life and Human Rights in Açailandia (CDVDH) a year ago.

Recycled charcoal, ideal for use in households or barbecue restaurants because it produces little smoke, is made by mixing the wood charcoal leftovers discarded by local iron foundries with mud and mandioca starch. The final product is cut into small squares and dried in the sun.

The production of 4,000 kilos a month only allows CODIGMA to pay 150 reals (77 dollars) a month to each of the unit’s ten workers. But Alves hopes their income will double as of August, with the construction of a new drying area. "There is plenty of raw material," he said, because the cooperative, which operates in Vila Ildemar, a poor neighbourhood in the city of Açailandia, is located near five foundries.

"The beginning is difficult, but now we can reach the sky without the need of a ladder," he said.

Of the 20 original members of the unit, only 10 are left, because the rest could not continue to survive on a mere 150 reals a month, plus a basket of basic food items provided by CODIGMA, and were forced to seek work elsewhere.

In CODIGMA’s second unit, which manufactures educational toys from waste fragments of wood discarded by sawmills, only 16 of the original 28 workers are left.

But Alves believes the desertion is only temporary.

CODIGMA’s workers are all former victims, or the family members of victims, of slave labour.

Workers who fall into forced labour are unable to leave because they are in remote jungle areas, their identity documents are held by their employers, and in some cases they are watched over by armed men.

After they are hired under deceptive promises of decent wages and housing, they are told that they owe money for the cost of their transportation, &#39&#39rent&#39&#39 for the shacks or tents in which they are housed, and inflated prices for the food and alcohol they are sold in the &#39&#39company&#39&#39 stores on the estate. Even the cost of their working implements is deducted from their wages.

CDVDH, which founded CODIGMA, was created after activists found that efforts by the authorities and awareness-raising campaigns were insufficient to eradicate slave labour, which persists especially in Brazil’s eastern Amazon region and in arid northeastern Brazil, the country’s poorest areas.

The Labour Ministry’s mobile inspection teams have freed more than 24,000 victims of slave labour since they were first created in 1995. The teams have inspected around 2,000 estates and companies, charging them fines for violations of labour rights and forcing them to pay compensation to their workers. Some employers also face legal charges, which could bring them sentences of four to eight years in prison.

But despite the intensified efforts to crack down on slave labour, the Pastoral Land Commission, linked to the Catholic Church, says 25,000 Brazilians are still subjected to forced labour, mainly on remote cattle ranches and in camps where charcoal is manufactured for the production of pig iron.

Extreme poverty and unemployment force workers into the hands of the "gatos", the name given to those who recruit labour for unscrupulous employers.

The 14 plants that produce pig iron from iron ore mined in the Sierra dos Carajas mountains (380 kilometres west of Açailandia, a city of 110,000) created the Instituto Carvão Cidadão (Citizen’s Charcoal Institute) in 2004 with the aim of eradicating slave labour among their charcoal suppliers.

Steelmakers, which in the past denied responsibility for the problem that they blamed on the charcoal producers, "have changed, and have admitted that they are partially responsible" for what occurs at earlier stages along the chain of production, and are seeking to clean up their tarnished image, said Ornedson Carneiro, president of the Institute, which is based in Imperatriz, a town near Açailandia.

Besides monitoring compliance with labour laws by charcoal producers, a process that has already led to the disqualification of 312 suppliers, the Institute began to offer jobs in the formal sector of the economy in March to workers rescued from slavery.

"We have found jobs for 56, and the goal is to reach 300 this year," said Carneiro. The workers are employed by the steelmakers and charcoal producers themselves.

After they are freed, the former victims of slave labour receive their unpaid wages and other benefits like vacation pay and year-end bonuses, as well as three months of unemployment insurance at the minimum monthly wage of 380 reals (200 dollars). But once they use up these funds, "they only have two alternatives: go out and steal or return to slave labour," said Carneiro.

The Institute contacts workers from a list of rescued victims and offers them skills training and literacy instruction before finding them a job in a company. To that end, it hired a consultant: Telci Teod’Oro, who has a master’s degree in education for sustainable development.

It is difficult to track down potential beneficiaries for the programme, because in many cases the only information available is the person’s nickname or the town where they live, Teod’Oro found on her first trip to the area around Marabá, a city where seven steelmaking plants operate, some of which have offered jobs to former slaves.

One, for instance, gave his address as the "Corazón de Madre Cabaret", she pointed out.

In addition, some turn down formal sector jobs, saying they "only want to work for themselves," or refuse because they are wary of being drawn into another forced labour situation.

Another difficult aspect is training them to hold down a steady job, with a set schedule. One group of 17 workers who had recently been hired by a steelmaker decided on their own to take vacation because "they missed their families," she said.

Since the former slave workers are either totally or functionally illiterate, the jobs they can do in the factories are often limited to janitorial work or groundskeeping, said Teod’Oro.

But she added that there are cases that stand out, like one young man who learned how to read and write and became a highly skilled vehicle driver.

CODIGMA faces a different set of problems. In the cooperative, former slave labourers try to make their own business profitable. Although there is a market for recycled charcoal, the cooperative depends on investment to increase output, and selling toys is much more difficult because of the heavy competition.

The cooperative produces seven different brightly-coloured toys, including trains, trucks and a "roller coaster". They are sold in stores in Açailandia and nearby towns and cities, as well as over the Internet with the support of Reporter Brasil, a non-governmental organisation founded in 2001 to draw attention to problems of injustice, especially slave labour.

The members of the CODIGMA toy-producing cooperative hope to eventually earn the minimum monthly wage of 200 dollars. "That would be enough to survive on," said Lenilde Fernandes, whose 17-year-old son has epilepsy.

Besides what she earns in the cooperative, Fernandes takes in a little extra money washing other people’s clothes. But "I will never again cook for anyone else," she said, recalling her five years of forced labour on an estate in the state of Pará.

Other women in the cooperative, like Roseni Lima, a mother of six small children, and 21-year-old Francisca Souza, who has one son, were not themselves victims of slave labour, but their husbands were.

Lima and Souza are now working in the cooperative, but their husbands have left to seek additional income as casual labourers.

Orleilson Ribeiro, a 30-year-old mother of two, has been in the toy-making cooperative from the very start, in May 2006. "We have a future here," she said, after remembering the abuses and threats she suffered in a charcoal producing camp five years ago, from which she was able to flee.

The cooperative is just a drop in the bucket, but it is also forging a new path in an area where large investment, concentrated in ranching, mining and steelmaking, generates few jobs and little local development.

CODIGMA is setting up two new units, to produce cleaning products and household implements, said CDVDH president Carmen Bascarán.

Cultural activities are also an important part of CDVDH’s work. Many of the more than 600 youngsters involved in dance, theatre and capoeira (a mixture of sport and dance developed as a hand-to-hand fighting technique by slaves of African descent) groups in Açailandia are now professionals, performing in public and working as instructors in the various centres set up by CDVDH.

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