A government raid on an illegal gold mine in northern Brazil freed 39 people working in conditions of slavery and revealed once again the challenges that the country’s anti-slavery mechanisms must overcome.
In early November, authorities raided a gold mine in the northern state of Pará, where workers lived in conditions that meet Brazil’s definition of slavery as well as having little access to potable water, food, or protective gear.
The resources that were available had to be purchased through the mine’s store at inflated prices, leaving the enslaved people deeply in debt. The miners reported that the mine was owned by a Brazilian businesswoman previously added to Brazil’s “Dirty List” of businesses that use slavery, Raimunda Oliveira Nunes.
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The Dirty List, which was created by the now-defunct Ministry of Labor and Commerce by decree in 2004, is one of Brazil’s most famous anti-slavery tools. It is released every six months and publicly names companies that the Labor Inspection Secretariat has identified as using slave labor.
Although the legal punishments it implements are limited, companies on the list are barred from receiving state loans and some private loans. Many Brazilian and international companies, including Starbucks, have committed to ending relationships with businesses on the Dirty List.
Oliveira Nunes was first added to the Dirty List in April 2020, after a 2018 raid when 38 workers were freed from similar conditions in a separate mine she owned, also in Pará. As a result, she was convicted of having subjected workers to “conditions analogous to slavery" and placed on the Dirty List.
However, Oliveira Nunes appealed the decision and has continued running gold mines since.
This is just the most recent example of Brazil’s slavery problem. Although the government rescued 231 workers from slave-like conditions in the first six months of 2020, the Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 369,000 people in Brazil still living in modern slavery.
The types of businesses that the Brazilian government has added to the Dirty List of slave labor range from cocoa farms that directly or indirectly supplied multinational chocolate companies to owners of agricultural businesses, at least one of which was later accused of money laundering and deforestation, according to a report by Publica.
Even a faux-organic business managed by a religious sect was included in the most recently released list, and was fined for keeping 79 workers under conditions analogous to slavery, according to Correio Braziliense.
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Repeated allegations of the type against Oliveira Nunes call into question whether the Dirty List has enough teeth to truly enforce the penalties it sets out.
Oliveira Nunes has avoided the list’s civil penalties and continued operating her businesses thanks to judicial appeals that last for years. Since 2004, at least 130 other companies have successfully argued for injunctions to temporarily remove them from the Dirty List, which some advocates claim judges give too freely. Criminal prosecutions are also lengthy. Although Brazilian prosecutors opened 52 slave labor cases in 2019, the cases may take up to ten years to be resolved, further delaying justice.
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The constitutionality of the Dirty List has also been questioned. The list was suspended by the Brazilian Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal – STF) from 2014-2016 during one such case. Even though it was declared constitutional in 2016, the government of then-president Michel Temer declined to publish the list until it was required to do so by the STF in 2017.
The Bolsonaro government has not directly targeted the Dirty List, but advocates have argued that he has taken other actions to weaken it.
In January 2019, Bolsonaro dismantled the Ministry of Labor and Commerce and moved the Labor Inspection Secretariat, which manages the Dirty List, to the Ministry of Economy.
The Secretariat has faced diminishing funding and staffing for years, and this has not improved under Bolsonaro. The Brazilian president has also spoken in support of weakening laws to punish businesses for using slave labor, claiming in both 2019 and 2020 that the definition of “conditions analogous to slavery” are too loose and could harm farmers.
And last month’s update to the Dirty List added the lowest number of offenders since the list was first created.