Modern slavery

Slave labor is not a deviation, but a tool of the system, anti-slavery activist says

Brazil celebrates National Day Against Slave Labor on Jan. 28

Slave labor is a global issue and must be tackled by global efforts, anti-slavery expert says
Slave labor is a global issue and must be tackled by global efforts, anti-slavery expert says - Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

Sixteen years ago on Jan. 28, the massacre of four people in the Brazilian town of Unaí, Minas Gerais, shocked the country and sparked a pressing debate: the fight against slave labor.

The crime happened in 2004, when three labor auditors and a driver were ambushed and killed while they were conducting routine inspection work in the farms of the Unaí rural area.

Norberto Mânica, a man who confessed to having ordered the killing of the labor law enforcement officers Nélson José da Silva, João Batista Soares Lage, and Eratóstenes de Almeida Gonçalves and the driver Aílton Pereira de Oliveira, was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. The businessmen Hugo Alves Pimenta and José Alberto de Castro also confessed to having involvement in the crime as middlemen, and were found guilty. But 16 years later, none of them is in prison.

In 2009, the Brazilian government designated Jan. 28 as the Day of the Labor Auditor and the National Day Against Slave Labor. To celebrate the date, journalist Leonardo Sakamoto is launching this year the book *Escravidão Contemporânea* (“Contemporary Slavery”), in which several experts write about the issue, in Brazil and the world.

Sakamoto has been fighting slave labor for more than two decades and spearheads *Repórter Brasil*, one of the most important organizations fighting contemporary slavery in Brazil. He spoke with **Brasil de Fato** about his new book and the global challenge of ending modern slavery.

Read the highlights of the interview.

**Brasil de Fato: For many years, you have been dedicated to the issue of slave labor, working with international organizations and experts, and always in contact with realities from around the world. The book *Escravidão Contemporânea* features articles by authors from many different countries. Do you consider that providing a global outline about this reality is key to fight it?**

**Leonardo Sakamoto:** Brazil is a point of reference in the fight against slavery, and it has been so through different administrations. The Fernando Henrique [Cardoso] administration [1995-2002] had the merit of having started that. The [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] administration [2003-2010] expanded that fight, and it’s still like that, in the [Jair] Bolsonaro administration. Brazil is a point of reference globally, despite the many problems the system has.

The United Nations currently estimates that 40.3 million people are enslaved today around the world, generating US$ 150 billion a year in profits [for exploiters]. It’s clearly a global problem. A problem that has a pattern of exploitation, a pattern that steals dignity and freedom, but it also adapts to the reality of each country.

But all this slave labor is connected to global production networks. Contemporary slavery cannot be seen as something that happens only in the remote corners of the world. It’s part of the global production network. That doesn’t mean that the world economy depends on slave labor, but rather that slave labor is in the world economy, it’s in production and marketing networks. For example, in TV manufacturing: there is slave labor in ore extraction in Africa, in the components assembly lines in Asia, and finally in the final assembly lines in South America. So there is slave labor sometimes in two or three different continents down the same production chain.

So as the exploitation of slave labor is global and feeds a global network, obviously fighting it must be a global effort. We talk about the globalization of markets, but we also need to talk about the globalization of the fight against slave labor.

It’s extremely important to point out that, if several countries around the world passed laws and improved their system to fight it, that’s because of an international network that has been promoting the debate, providing information, and stimulating a long discussion. Brazil actually provided inputs to countries including the United States, England, Australia, and France, to conceive their own projects, which in some cases have improved the Brazilian instruments and in others have chosen different paths.

There is a global system that has to be taken into consideration. Every country must do its part, but the system as a whole also must do its part. We need to move forward to hold these chains that benefit from slave labor accountable. With the United Nations, there is debate about this in Geneva, about mandatory and binding accountability, so that companies are forced to follow international human rights standards.

Of course, it’s a very tough conversation, but we are going to have to move forward with this discussion, in Brazil and internationally.

**Is Brazil’s experience replicable, considering the examples of the countries you mentioned, which used our example as an input to formulate their own policies?**

The Brazilian case is many times seen as a difficult case to replicate in full. Of course, some elements have been investigated and replicated, like the slave labor dirty list, which is a registry created in 2003 of employers who have committed those crimes. It’s an extremely important instrument to guarantee transparency, so that the Brazilian production sector can really see what is going on and take action.

But, of course, it has its limits. Brazil has an auditing system that, even though now it’s cutting down the number of workers and facing budget problems, it’s still a very strong system. It’s the basis of the fight against slavery in Brazil, responding to reports and rescuing workers where slave-like conditions are found.

Brazil has more than 2,000 labor auditors working all over the country, and that’s something that not many other countries have. [Other places] may have auditors, but not like in Brazil, and, at the same time, there are places where they don’t have that kind of inspection.

So many countries have to adopt practices to fight slave labor based on the action of companies. Companies that are urged to show commitment and fight the problem, because sometimes you don’t have numbers about inspections and rescue of workers.

Every country in the world has its own characteristics, and replicating the Brazilian model depends a lot on those characteristics. More than just replicating it, it’d be interesting if each country could be inspired by previous examples. That international exchange is very helpful. But we must move forward in terms of accountability. International companies that profit from contemporary slavery must end.

**After all these years that you have been researching the issue, do you think it’s possible to overcome this barrier to development, which is the persistence of slavery?**

We have to be slightly pessimistic as we analyze the issue, but we must be optimistic about our action. You can’t just be full-on optimistic, otherwise you will quickly become disappointed. I have been fighting slave labor since 1999. We can’t say that nothing has changed, because that’s almost insulting to social movements. The fight against slave labor has changed a lot in the past 25 years, but of course, there is a lot yet to be done.

History is not a straight line. It has achievements and setbacks. History is not over and it doesn’t go in a straight line. Maybe we won’t see the end of slavery in the world in our lifetime. Ending slavery requires structural change, as it is a consequence of capitalism.

But is it possible to end slavery? Yes, it is. But the struggle must go on. We are in the middle of a process in which the right is rising in the world and the State is becoming weaker, and the State is a key player in this process.

We can’t look at the issue as just a matter of auditing and inspecting, as a matter of law enforcement. Millions of people around the world are pushed into this kind of labor because they don’t have other options in their lives. We must move forward to improve people’s quality of life.

So ending slavery must necessarily include fighting poverty.

Yes, but we must be careful not to link poverty to the lack of money. That’s a misconception. We must think in terms of lack of opportunities. These are people who can’t put everything they can be in practice because they are not ensured health care, education, leisure, culture, transportation. A decent life. It’s not just about the lack of income, it’s about the lack of opportunities. It’s the lack of a State that can make sure they have the very least to sustain themselves, not only their body, but also their intellect and their soul.

Edited by: Leandro Melito