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“Contemporary forms of slavery in Brazil are crimes that must be punished,” says UN expert on slavery

Slavery going unpunished in Brazil

29 May 2010

28 May 2010

BRASILIA– “The Government of Brazil has put in place exemplary policies to combat contemporary forms of slavery in Brazil. However, some landowners, businesses and intermediaries such as the ‘gatos’ have found a way to avoid criminal prosecution by taking advantage of legal loopholes that delay justice and foster impunity,” said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, including its causes and consequences, Ms. Gulnara Shahinian, at the end of her visit to the country. “Slavery is a crime that should not go unpunished.”

“Brazil has the potential of becoming the world’s fifth largest economy but this should not be at the expense of people’s rights. Forced labour in the rural areas, a slavery-like practice, is most prevalent in the cattle ranching industry followed by the sugar cane industry from which ethanol is produced. The victims are predominantly men and boys aged 15 and older. In urban centres forced labour features in the garment industry. These sectors are in need of urgent reform to prevent slavery like practices such as forced labour from being used. In all these situations the victims of forced labour work long hours, with little or no pay. They are threatened with, or subjected to physical, psychological and sometimes sexual violence.”

“Comprehensive and sustainable programmes should be adopted in order to ensure that those most vulnerable to perform forced labour enjoy basic human rights such as food, water, health and education and to ensure the sustainable rehabilitation of victims and their integration into economic life and social protection networks. Education provided should include vocational training and adult literacy programmes. This should be complemented by Government action safeguarding the right for vulnerable groups such as afro descendants and indigenous Brazilians to work without having to succumb to forced labour.”

The Special Rapporteur recognized that those who defend the rights of victims have been threatened, harmed and killed. “Measures should be strengthened and enforced to guarantee the safety of human rights defenders in Brazil. These measures should include the protection of individuals working with civil society and government institutions who inform, rescue, release and reintegrate victims of contemporary forms of slavery.”

The Special Rapporteur congratulated Brazil for openly discussing and addressing forced labour: “ The Brazilian Government has led the way in combating forced labour. It established the Mobile Inspection Group and publishes the ‘Dirty List’ showing all farms and companies that use slave labour. Companies that feature on this list are also prohibited from accessing public funds. The Government has also established a multi-stakeholder national commission, put in place a well resourced National Plan to combat Forced Labour, and formed the National Pact with the private sector to combat forced labour across the entire supply chain.”

“These exemplary actions threaten to be overshadowed by the impunity enjoyed by some land owners and companies.” Whereas civil penalties have been successfully applied, criminal penalties are yet to be enforced. Jurisdictional conflicts and delays in the judiciary system often cause the statute of limitation to lapse and the perpetrators enjoy impunity. Although forced labour is a serious crime, first time offenders might only face house arrest or community service in certain circumstances.

The Special Rapporteur commended the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that confirms that the Federal Courts have the competency to try criminal forced labour cases and ends the previous uncertainty. Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur recommended increasing the minimum penalty for the crime of forced labour to five years and thereby increasing the expiry period according to the statute of limitation.

“The strongest message that the Brazilian Government can send to Brazilians to show that the crime of slavery will not go unpunished is to pass the constitutional amendment known as PEC No. 438/ 01, which would allow for the expropriation of land where forced labour is used. This expropriation would occur without compensation and the land would be re-distributed, with priority being given to those workers previously held in conditions analogous to slavery.” said Ms. Shahinian.

“The Brazilian Congress began debating this constitutional amendment nine years ago. Yet, little progress has been made on this excellent proposal. Passing this amendment will show that Brazil is indeed strongly committed to fighting slavery” said Ms. Shahinian.

During her visit, Ms. Shahinian met with Government authorities, international organizations, the private sector and NGOs, and visited communities in São Paulo, Cuiabá, Imperatriz, Açailândia and Brasília. In rural areas, the Special Rapporteur personally met with victims subjected to forced labour and slavery-like practices in the cattle ranching and sugar cane industries. The Special Rapporteur also spoke with victims in the garment industry.

>> Portuguese version


Ms. Gulnara Shahinian was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences in May 2008. She is a lawyer with extensive experience as an expert consultant for various UN, EU, Council of Europe, OSCE and government bodies on children’s rights, gender, migration and trafficking. Ms Shahinian is also a former trustee of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary forms of Slavery.

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Independent Expert:
OHCHR Country page – Brazil:

For additional information regarding the visit, please email: [email protected]

For media requests during the visit, please contact: Valéria Schilling on 00 55-21-2253-2211 or 55-21-8202-0171 or at: [email protected]