The police in Brazil managed to free 207 people working in collecting grapes in Bento Gonçalves (south), where they were subjected to electric shocks, beatings and death threats, in the latest forced labor scandal to rock the Latin American country.
“The number of people working in slavery-like conditions is increasing,” says the deputy director of the National Coordination for the Elimination of Forced Labor, attorney Italvar Medina.
The number of people freed from criminal employers has doubled in two years, from 936 in 2020 to 2,075 in 2022, according to official labor inspection data.
And the year 2023 began with the liberation of 207 people in Bento Gonçalves during a security operation that was carried out after a group of fugitives denounced the degrading working conditions there.
The Ministry of Labor indicates that the grape pickers were employed 3,000 kilometers from Bento Gonçalves, in the state of Bahia, by a company that provides labor for three large wine-producing companies in the Bento Gonçalves region, which is famous for its sparkling wines sold throughout Brazil as well as abroad.
“The result of a murderous economic model”
Harrowing testimonies published by the ministry and local media reported that grape pickers were subjected to electric shocks to wake workers up at dawn, blows with batons or broomsticks, and death threats by telling them, “A good Bahia citizen is a dead citizen.”
And they were piled up in a warehouse and the food they were giving them in the vineyards was inedible because it was exposed to the sun for hours.
Therefore, if they wanted more food, they had to buy it on the site at very high prices, so that they fell into such debt that they did not receive their wages and were forbidden to go home.
However, the three companies said that they categorically refuse to work in slavery-like conditions, blaming the companies that employ the labor force.
“This is not an isolated case, and it is the result of a murderous economic model,” asserts Andre Thomas Os-Emmer of the Parish Land Commission, a Catholic association that advocates for rural workers.
“Many large companies in the agro-food sector are resorting to labor suppliers to exploit more and more lands, and we find ourselves facing new cases of slavery,” adds the activist based in southern Brazil.
For Mauricio Krepsky, the coordinator of the group against forced labor in the Brazilian Ministry of Labor, the case of the grape pickers in Bento Gonçalves “sounds a wake-up call”.
“This shows that these violations can occur in all sectors, even in those sectors where there were no such serious cases in the past,” he says.
The year 2023 also saw a lesser-known media case involving 139 people working in a sugarcane processing plant in the state of Goiás (central west).
Modern slavery in Brazil targets agricultural activities, especially those related to sugar cane and coffee, but there are also cases of slavery in urban settings in the fields of clothing and construction.
Mauricio Krebsky believes that this problem is closely related to “structural racism”, as the majority of the workers concerned are blacks in the last country in the American continent that abolished slavery in 1888.
“The employers do this not only to increase their profits, but also because they really believe that these people can be treated as second-class workers because of the color of their skin.”
It is considered that in Brazil there is a “culture of devaluation” of unskilled labor.
“Once they are removed from the yoke of their employers, they must be followed up, including psychologically, to help them reintegrate into the legal labor market and prevent them from being exploited again,” says the lawyer.
However, the competent authorities are sorely lacking in the necessary resources, especially since the last examination conducted for the appointment of labor inspectors dates back to 2013.
“There are less than 2,000 inspectors in a country of 215 million people, which is very few, and it is entirely possible that some employers will indulge in these practices as they think they will get away with it,” Krebsky continues.