French-born Dominican Brother Xavier Plassat was surprised to discover in the 1990s that slavery still existed in Brazil. Today, he is the head of the anti-slavery efforts of the Commissao Pastoral da Terra, an agency of Brazil’s conference of Catholic bishops that campaigns for land reform. Photo by Michael Swan

Brazil’s fight against modern slavery

  • March 30, 2012

Brazil is now the world’s sixth largest economy and economists project it will be the fifth largest by the end of this year. It has an advanced aerospace industry, some of the most sophisticated telecommunications companies in the world and more billionaires than Japan. It also has slaves.

Between 25,000 and 40,000 Brazilians every year are trafficked into slavery. On average, government anti-slavery teams free 4,500 people per year.

“When I went to Brazil for the first time (in the 1990s) I was far from imagining that slavery was still existing,” said French-born Dominican Brother Xavier Plassat. “For me it was a discovery.”

Plassat heads up the anti-slavery efforts of the Commissao Pastoral da Terra, an agency of Brazil’s conference of Catholic bishops that campaigns for land reform.

He is in Canada to speak to parishes about Brazil’s fight against modern slavery, work that is supported by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. His efforts have earned him awards from the international NGO Free the Slaves and the U.S. State Department.

Giving the Freedom Award to Plassat and his allies in Reporter Brasil, a Brazilian NGO,  was an easy choice, said Terry FitzPatrick of Free The Slaves.

“He knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t just hear the stories of people. He has been out there on the raids (of slave employers),” said FitzPatrick. “That gives him a certain credibility that goes along with his compassion.”

Most people don’t realize there’s a little bit of Brazilian slave labour in their cars, their kitchen appliances, downtown office buildings, cell phones and computers, said FitzPatrick. Ethanol derived from Brazilian sugar cane has a way of worming its way into the supply chain for many products.

The most famous Brazilian slave product is steel produced from Brazilian pig iron. Slave labour is used extensively in Brazilian charcoal camps that produce the first essential component of pig iron.

“There isn’t a shopping mall in America or Canada that doesn’t have slavery in it,” said FitzPatrick. “When you think about cars and cell phones and computers — depending on where the products are coming from, the kinds of minerals in them — there’s slavery that touches every person in the world today.”

Unpaid, forced and subhuman labour is an old problem in Latin America, said Plassat.

“It is impressive how the words of Montesinos could be applied exactly to the present situation,” said Plassat.

In 1511 Dominican Friar Antonio de Montesinos called out the Spanish empire for its treatment of Taino Indians on the island of Hispanola.

“Tell me, by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?... Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from excessive labour you give them? And they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day,” said Montesinos.

It’s still an issue of human dignity and therefore an issue for Christians, said Plassat.

“I cannot say I am human if my brother is treated less than humanly. Something of my humanity is denied. I cannot look at myself in the mirror,” he said.

Over the last 15 years there has been a growing awareness of forced labour in Brazil’s agricultural sector, particularly on giant plantations carved out of the Amazon rain forest on what is considered Brazil’s frontier. While the old military dictatorship in the 1980s denied there was any slavery, beginning in the 1990s civilian administrations have acknowledged the problem.

In 2003 newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva launched an anti-slavery program as one of his first acts in office.

While Plassat and the CPT began with the idea that slavery is a problem of exploited, captive agricultural labour, they are now finding the problem is more widespread, with illegal immigrants held captive in Sao Paulo sweatshops making clothes and shoes and construction workers building roads and dams throughout the country for wages that never arrive.

“We are discovering that the problem is all over Brazil — not in the same proportion or the same gravity — but there are other sectors,” said Plassat.

“Everywhere you have subcontracted workers you may have the possibility of such treatment for workers.”

In many cases company owners claim they had no knowledge that slaves were even present on their property.

They paid the subcontractor with the expectation labour laws would be respected.

There are farms where the official employees work to the highest standards in the world with the latest technology and all the protections of union and government regulation, while beside them subcontracted labour is carried out under dangerous conditions with little or no hope of payment. In a country with the world’s biggest gap between rich and poor, people have come to accept that some people’s lot in life is to be desperately poor, said Plassat.

“It’s an argument that these are poor, they were born poor and they must be poor until the end,” he said. “The misery is the justification of continuing misery.”

Ultimately, it will be up to Brazilians to tackle slavery, said Plassat.

“Brazil has the cheese and the knife in hand to solve this problem,” he said. “We have the natural resources. We have intelligence. We have laws. Even with this, the problem persists.”

The solidarity of Christians everywhere — in Canada and in Brazil — is one more weapon in the battle for human dignity, he said.

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