The upcoming Supreme Court trial of a senator in Brazil charged with employing workers in ‘slave-like conditions’ highlights the issue of forced labor in the country, which affects as many as 40,000 people.

When auditors from the Labor Ministry inspected Senator João Ribeiro’s farm in 2004, they found 35 employees forced into working nearly 80-hour weeks under conditions described as “sub-human.” Ribeiro, who was re-elected to the Senate in 2010, has been embroiled in a legal suit ever since, which will soon be heard by Brazil’s highest court of law.

Workers had allegedly been brought to Ribeiro’s farm attracted by the promise of a decent salary, but once they arrived they racked up debts with the management and were coerced into staying. Such practices are especially common in rural states along the Amazonian frontier like Para, where Ribeiro kept his country estates. Employers charge their laborers for food, housing, and equipment, withholding their wages until their debts are paid off. Workers are forced to keep long hours and safety regulations are ignored.

More recently, 24 workers were freed by a federal task force in the northeast Piaui state. The labourers were fed spoiled food, and forced to pay for their housing, transportation, and the tools they used for work.

According to Rogenir Costa, the head of Brazil programs for humanitarian agency Catholic Relief Services, there are between 25,000 and 40,000 slaves in Brazil. Most work in the cattle industry, but slaves also work in sugar cane fields, mines, and factories.

Workers are often recruited by fixers known as gatos. The gatos lure workers to farms, ranches, and factories where they are then coerced into working under illegal conditions, but as Costa noted, some workers follow their families into slavery because they have no other opportunities. She said 80 percent of these modern slaves are illiterate and 90 percent were already working by age 16.

Those who try to escape may be threatened with violence. A recent report from O Globo told the story of Daniel Moraes Ferreira, who worked in stonemasonry in the Amazonian state Matto Grosso. His employers were armed and patrolled the work site constantly. “When the police cars show up, the slaves are put in the brush and hidden. I couldn’t leave the farm. How, with a .38 revolver threatening me? Anyone who leaves is beaten or shot,” he said.

The problem is not confined to rural areas. Spanish high-fashion retailer Zara was denounced in August 2011 for its relationship with a Brazilian supplier that employed 14 Bolivians and one Peruvian in an illegal São Paulo “sweatshop.” While Zara quickly ended its relationship with that supplier, the scandal was a reminder that multinationals that have outsourced work to Brazil still risk hiring subcontractors reliant on forced labor.

While most of Brazil’s forced labor victims originate from poor states like Piaui, Tocantins, and Bahia, to a lesser extent Brazil is also a destination for labourers trafficked from other Latin American countries. Costa told InSight Crime that Bolivians and Peruvians are frequently employed in slave-like conditions in Brazil. This suggests that the gatos prey on migrant workers, who are particularly vulnerable to labor abuse.

Police are rescuing more workers from illegal conditions in a higher number of states, an encouraging sign that the government has successfully expanded their operations against slave labor. In 2010, according to a report from Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment (MTE), authorities rescued 2,628 workers. And according to Brazilian NGO the Pastoral Land Commission, in 2011 authorities freed slaves in 19 states, a number which had never risen above 15 before 2006. But even so, those who are rescued from slavery reportedly represent less than 10 percet of the total number of estimated victims.

Successful prosecutions are few and far between, which is partly why Senator Ribeiro’s case may prove to be a landmark one, should the Supreme Court find him guilty of slave labor charges. Gulnara Shahinian, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on slavery, has urged the country to pass legislation allowing the expropriation of land used for forced labor, which so far has not occured.

Many offending employers operate with relative impunity even once they are caught. The statute of limitations for slavery cases often expires by the time cases are processed in the Labor Courts, which handle labor violations. This, along with relatively weak sentences, means employers in certain industries and regions have little incentive to play by the rules.

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