The Global Slavery Index estimates that on any given day in 2016 there were 369,000 people in conditions of modern slavery on any given day in Brazil, a prevalence of 1.8 modern slavery victims for every thousand people in the country.
Data collected by the Digital Observatory of Slavery Labour in Brazil (Observatório Digital do Trabalho Escravo no Brasil) reveal that between 2003 and 2017 there have been nearly 35,000 rescues of individuals from situations of slave labour.1 These individuals were concentrated in areas that have experienced rapid economic development, mainly in the agricultural sector. Identified cases of forced sexual exploitation and forced marriage are more difficult to determine, with limited official statistics on the numbers of victims of these forms of exploitation. In 2017, for example, the Brazilian government launched a campaign to combat child commercial sexual exploitation during carnival after 77,290 reports of the violation of children and adolescents during the previous year.2 A 2006 study also shows that 877,000 women between the ages of 20 to 24 reported having married by the age of 15.3
Forced labour within Brazil is concentrated in rural areas where extractive or labour-intensive industries such as cattle ranching, coffee production, forestry, and charcoal production create a demand for cheap labour. The importance of these industries to the Brazilian economy has led to the expansion of vast ranches, plantations, and logging operations, while also creating the need for a large workforce to clear land.4
In the Brazilian Amazon, slavery is intricately linked with economic activities that are also causing environmental devastation.5 Cases of forced labour continue to be identified in the illegal logging industry. According to data from the Ministry of Labour and Pastoral Land Commission, 931 workers, most of whom were men between 15 and 30 years old,6 were rescued from slave labour conditions while harvesting trees from 2003 to 2016.7 Similarly, in July and August 2015, Brazilian authorities freed a total of 128 workers from slavery on five coffee plantations in Minas Gerais, including six children and teenagers.8 The cattle industry faces public scrutiny and media attention following the 2016 order by the Inter-America Court of Human Rights that the government of Brazil pay US$5 million to 128 former farm workers enslaved on a Brazilian cattle ranch between 1988 and 2000.9 In a series of raids in 2016, federal police discovered men on cattle ranches subjected to bonded labour and forced to live in degrading conditions with no shelter, toilets, or drinking water.10
In recent years, accelerating urbanisation has resulted in an increase in modern slavery, especially in the textile, construction, and sex industries.11 In São Paulo, there have reports of exploitation in the textile industry,12 where undocumented migrants are exploited by third party suppliers which produce garments that may end up in the supply chains of large multinational clothing companies.13 In 2013, most of the rescued workers of slave labour (trabalho escravo) were involved in construction and textile industries.14
Economic growth in Brazil attracts migrants from countries in the region Bolivia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, and Peru,15 and from across the world including Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, and Sri Lanka.16 Research has found cases of migrants smuggled into the country with false documentation. These individuals have accumulated debt to pay for their transportation and are forced to work in degrading working conditions under physical threats and harassment.17 In 2013, in Samambaia, located in central-west Brazil, 80 Bangladeshi workers were identified after being trafficked into Brazil by an organised criminal gang. The workers, who were employed at warehouses, building sites, and car-washing services, were promised wages of US$1,500 a month but found themselves in situations of debt bondage, owing US$10,000 to their traffickers for their entry into the country.18
Domestic work in Brazil has its origins in slavery19 with an estimated seven million domestic workers working in Brazil, the highest number in any country worldwide.20 The majority are women, with indigenous populations and those of African descent over-represented in the sector. There are reports that these workers are denied basic rights, such as working long hours with low21 or no wages and are subject to physical and sexual abuse.22 Children are particularly vulnerable to working without payment and having restrictions placed on their movement.23 Child trafficking remains a concern, with Paraguayan and Brazilian indigenous children trafficked into and within Brazil for forced domestic work.24
Forced sexual exploitation of adults and children
There is little information about the number of individuals trafficked into sex work, but reports refer to victims being subjected to forced sexual exploitation both within Brazil and abroad. Women and girls from Brazil and other South American countries are exploited in sex trafficking in Brazil, particularly in the north and northeast regions.25 Members of the LGBTQI community experience exploitation in urban areas within Brazil. ‘Cross-dressers’, as a marginalised group of Brazilian society, experience exploitation at the hands of their clients and traffickers, and face stigmatism when accessing services, with reports of violence by police.26 Child sexual exploitation in the form of child sex tourism also remains a concern in coastal and tourist cities in Brazil.27
Brazilians experience forced sexual exploitation overseas. According to data from Eurostat, Brazil was second mostly frequently reported non- EU country of origin for trafficking victims in Europe between 2010 and 2012 (537 victims), second only to Nigeria (1,322 victims).28 In 2014, for example, a Portuguese national reportedly recruited and trafficked Brazilian women for sexual exploitation in Portugal, charging these individuals extortionate migration fees and costs associated with travel.29
An increase in sexual exploitation has been associated with sporting events both in Brazil and overseas. Ahead of the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, there were reports of an increase in the commercial sexual exploitation of children. In 2016, for example, police in Rio de Janeiro rescued eight minors who were forced to work for a sex trafficking ring at the beaches near the main Olympic hub.30 There are also reports of individuals coming to Brazil to recruiting children using sport as an incentive. In 2015, a South African woman reportedly approached children in the Águas Lindas de Goiás municipality offering the opportunity to play soccer and be a model in Johannesburg. These children were intercepted before they were trafficked to South Africa.31
Data on forced marriage are limited. The Walk Free Foundation survey data conducted in 2014 found instances of forced marriage in Brazil, but there is limited supporting data on this phenomenon. Data on early marriage are more readily available. In 2006, the most recent year for which UNICEF data is available, 36 percent of women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18.32 According to a 2006 study, 877,000 women between the ages of 20 to 24 reported having married by the age of 15.33 Research conducted from 2013 to 2015 in two Brazilian states with the highest prevalence of child and adolescent marriage, Pará in the north and Maranhão in the northeast, found that among those interviewed, the average age at marriage and first birth is 15 for married girls, with married men being on average nine years older.34 The report found that while most child marriages are informal and consensual, these unions also create or exacerbate risk factors related to health, education, and security. Factors in deciding to marry before age 18 include unwanted pregnancy, the desire to prevent “risky” sexual behaviour, and a perception on the part of the girls and their families that marrying an older man provides security. In reality, girls in early marriages were at higher risk of early pregnancy, had fewer educational opportunities, had their mobility and social networks curtailed, and were exposed to partner violence.35
Imported products at risk of modern slavery
While Brazil is affected by exploitation within its own borders, the realities of global trade and business make it inevitable that Brazil, like many other countries globally, will be exposed to the risk of modern slavery through the products it imports. Policymakers, businesses, and consumers must become aware of this risk and take responsibility for it. Table 1 below highlights the top five products (according to US$ value, per annum) imported by Brazil that are at risk of being produced under conditions of modern slavery.36
Table 1Imports of products at risk of modern slavery to Brazil
|Product at risk of modern slavery||Import value|
(in thousands of US$)
Apparel and clothing accessories
Argentina, China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam
Laptops, computers, and mobile phones
China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand
Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana
As for most other leading economies, Brazil’s highest-value imports that are at risk of being produced through modern slavery are apparel (nearly US$1.8 billion) and laptops, computers, and mobile phones (US$832.1 million).37 Over 60 percent of all of Brazil’s garment imports originate from China (worth US$1.5 billion), where the clothing industry is at risk of using modern slavery. Brazil also imports large amounts of fish (worth about US$212 million) from industries that may be tainted by modern slavery. Brazil sources more than US$120 million worth of cattle from Paraguay, which amounts to nearly 50 percent of Brazil’s overall import of cattle products. Another import at risk of being produced by modern slavery is cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
While Brazil’s economic growth has catapulted it to one of the most developed countries in South America, wealth and income inequality within the country remain high,38 with the richest five percent earning as much as the other 95 percent.39 Despite 10 consecutive years of poverty reduction, a contraction of the economy in 2015 led to a sharp increase in poverty in most regions, especially in the northeast and in urban non-metropolitan areas.40 In rural areas, there has been a trend of farmers seeking to engage in pluriactivity so they can earn a living from agricultural as well as non-agricultural sources.41 Rural households living under the poverty line face a higher risk of exploitation as financial hardship and limited employment opportunities force workers to seek employment in industries at higher risk of modern slavery.
Rural workers are vulnerable to forced labour due to a combination of limited educational opportunities, informal working conditions, and unethical recruitment practices by unscrupulous middlemen. Of the nearly 35,000 workers released from conditions defined as “slave labour” in Brazil between 2003 and 2017, about 71 percent were either illiterate or had no more than four years of schooling.42 In the coffee harvest season, it is estimated that nearly 40 to 50 percent of labourers work informally, without being registered or without holding a contract.43 There are reports that plantation owners frequently offer workers a higher wage for working without a contract.44
Unethical recruitment practices by middlemen referred to as Gatos is a key factor in situations of debt bondage. Enticed by the Gato’s false promises of decent wages and favourable employment conditions, workers agree to travel and work at distant, isolated worksites and farms.45 Wage advances are used by Gatos to attract workers46 by “helping” them pay off other debts they may have.47 In reality, workers find themselves in situations of debt bondage having to work to pay off debts accumulated by transportation costs and ongoing costs for accommodation and basic amenities. Workers are forced to buy all their food and other basic needs products from their employers at highly inflated prices, adding to their debt.
Workers in the most labour-intensive industries in the isolated Amazon region are vulnerable as landowners feel little restraint in treating them poorly and disregarding regulations. The remoteness of these areas also provides a deterrent for workers to escape, and this isolation places a powerful restriction on labour market mobility for workers.48 In recent years, the forms of coercion these individuals face has shifted from debt bondage and physical restraint to exhausting work days (journada exaustiva), low wages, and degrading working and living conditions.49
In most labour-intensive industries, slavery disproportionately affects males aged from 15 to 40 years.50 Men from poorer north-eastern states, such as Maranhão, Piauí,51 and Tocantins, migrate to states with a high demand for labour, such as Parã.52 These men leave their home states in search of work as job prospects closer to home are limited and agriculture has become difficult due to drought.53 Internal migrants can have their identification documents taken away by exploitative employers, preventing them from switching jobs or returning to their home states.54 Systems of debt bondage also trap these workers in a cycle of poverty and slavery as their wage payments are never sufficient to allow worked to leave these exploitative situations.
Migrant workers who have entered Brazil illegally are a highly vulnerable group due to their undocumented status and lack of support systems and social networks. Spanish-speaking migrants from neighbouring countries who are unable to speak Portuguese are socially isolated and unable to communicate with their employers or police.55 These workers tend to find themselves completely dependent on their employer for food, accommodation, and medical treatment56 while their illegal immigration status denies them access to housing, public services, or legal employment with better health and safety conditions.57
The Northern Triangle of Foz do Iguazú (Brazil), Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) and Puerto Iguazú (Argentina) is an area particularly vulnerable to modern slavery. The porous borders see large numbers of migrants crossing each day for work as well as facilitating the smuggling drugs, contraband goods, and human beings.58 The economy is also largely connected to the tourism sector, which increases demand for sex as well as increasing the vulnerability of the local population, particularly children, to commercial sexual exploitation.59
Discrimination against certain ethnic groups in society results in disparity in employment options and social standards. While indigenous Brazilians and those of African descent account for nearly 51 percent of the population,60 this group has consistently higher poverty rates. Due to their lower socio-economic status, job prospects may be limited among individuals in this group, thus exposing them to a higher risk of exploitation and fraudulent recruitment by Gatos. Evidence also suggests that women who have experienced some form of domestic violence are more vulnerable to exploitation, as they are desperate to leave their home situation and less able to resist further abuse given their lack of family support.61 The racialisation and sexualisation of Brazilian women makes them more vulnerable to sex trafficking, especially in foreign markets,62 while the marginalisation and discrimination of LGBTQI groups makes these individuals vulnerable to sexual exploitation.63
Response to modern slavery
Forced labour is a criminal offence under Article 149 and 197 of the Penal Code. Article 149 was amended in 2003 to give a broader definition of the crime of submitting someone to a “condition analogous to slavery.” This law envisions four conditions that can be applied to determine forms of slavery, including forced labour, exhaustive work days, degrading and inhumane working conditions, and restriction of movement due to workers’ debts.64 In October 2016, Law 13.344/16 was passed, criminalising all forms of human trafficking with harsher penalties for perpetrators, proposing preventative measures including the creation of a database for offenders, and extending the right to legal, social, and health benefits to trafficking victims.65
Previously seen as a leader in the fight against slave labour, current trends and proposed legislative changes in Brazil have been condemned as steps backwards.66 Brazil’s progressive and broad definition of slavery has been recently challenged by a government decree seeking to change and limit the definition. Under this narrowed definition, for workers to be considered working in “conditions analogous to slavery,” employers must deny freedom of movement, and to be found guilty they must be caught directly in the act by two government officials. This disregards other exploitative practices and conditions such as working exhaustive work days and degrading and inhumane conditions or being paid only in food.67 In October 2017, the Federal Supreme Court suspended the decree published by the government claiming the change of definition was in direct violation of the constitution.68 As a result of this pressure, the government issued a new Decree (no. 1293, December 28, 2017) and Normative Instruction (no. 139, January 22, 2018) that restored the definitions outlined in the 2003 decree. However, at the time of writing, the new decree (no. 1293) and the restored definitions were being contested before the Supreme Court by Associação Brasileira de Incorporadoras Imobiliárias (Abrainc), a real estate developer’s association.69
The National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour continues to act as a permanent platform for cross-sector engagement, coordinating the efforts of public authorities across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and with the private sector and civil society actors.70 Between 2012 and 2014, the Commission offered workshops for more than 1,000 judges, prosecutors, and labour inspectors on forced labour and article 149 of the Brazilian Penal Code.71
Successive national action plans have been adopted, the most recent covering the period 2013-2016. The second National Plan to Combat Human Trafficking72 sought to improve the coordination of all bodies and agencies involved in preventing human trafficking and proposed new measures to train multi-agency personnel involved in combatting human trafficking.73 There is not a current national plan to eradicate slave labour, nor one in preparation.74
Data from the Brazil Pastoral Land Commission (Commissao Pastoral da Terra) indicate that between 1995 and 2017, nearly 53,000 workers in modern slavery were rescued by Special Mobile Inspection Groups75 established to detect forced labour and slavery cases in remote areas.76 These groups combine the efforts of specially trained and equipped labour inspectors, prosecutors, and police officers who conduct unannounced inspections of factories, farms, and firms.77 Through more than 600 inspections, the Ministry of Labour rescued more than 5,000 workers from slavery-like conditions between 2013 and 2016.78 In 2017, a further 150 operations were conducted, rescuing 479 workers.79 The fall in the number of inspections and rescues is in part explained by the reduction in resources available for the Ministry of Labour’s regional teams.80
Victims of modern slavery have benefitted from the promotion of literary and training initiatives as well as access to cash-transfer programs such as Bolsa Familia,81 which aims to reduce economic inequality through the provision of cash transfers. Between 2013 and 2016, the Ministry of Labour supported workers through the transfer of R$8.7 million82 (US$2.7 million)83 in unemployment insurance. Workers rescued from forced labour are entitled to this benefit.84
In February 2018, the government ratified the 2011 ILO Convention No. 189, which covers decent work for domestic workers.85 Reforms in 2014 had previously increased protections for domestic workers, including requiring employers to register their employees, limiting working hours to an eight-hour working day, and providing the right to a minimum wage, a lunch break, social security, and severance pay.86 However, the 2015 economic crisis meant that many domestic workers lost their full-time jobs and had to return to daily rate (diarista) roles. The National Federation of Domestic Workers has also raised concerns in recent months about the introduction of a new “intermittent employment contract” that allows hourly payment for domestic tasks with no guarantee of minimum wage or number of hours.87
Response to modern slavery in supply chains
The principal law regulating public procurement in Brazil is the General Law of Public Procurement and Government Contracts (Federal Law no. 8,666 of 1993).88 This law sets general rules applicable to public procurement proceedings and to agreements for the purchase of assets and services by the Public Administration.89 Besides the regulatory framework at a federal level, some state and local governments also have their own public procurement laws. None of these laws, however, contains specific rules that prohibit the purchase of goods linked to modern slavery or forced labour. It is also unclear whether any training has taken place on these general rules for government officials.
Business supply chains
Over the last decade, Brazil’s private sector has actively engaged in combatting modern slavery. Since the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour was launched in 2005, signatory companies have voluntarily agreed to promote decent work practices and cut commercial ties with those businesses on the “Slave Labour Dirty List” (List Suja do Trabalho Escravo) that use forced labour in their supply chains.95 The response to the Pact was initially positive, with more than 450 companies, representing almost 30 percent96 of Brazil’s GDP, signing on by 2014.97 To expand the results of the Pact, InPacto, the Institute of the National Pact, was founded in 2013 with the goal of uniting private sector and civil society organisations to prevent and eradicate slave labour in supply chains.98
In 2003, the Ministry of Labour and Employment introduced the “Slave Labour Dirty List” to publicly “name and shame” companies that have been found to be profiting from slave labour.99 These businesses are identified during inspections conducted by Special Mobile Inspection Groups. When cases of slave labour are identified, administrative proceedings are opened where employers may submit a defence. Employers found guilty of being responsible for using slave labour are then put on the “Dirty List” by the Slave Labour Eradication Inspection Division (Divisão de Fiscalização para Erradicação do Trabalho Escravo, DETRAE). The names of these businesses are included on the register for two years and the list is reviewed every six months. Businesses on the list are subjected to investigations, bank lending penalties, and are barred from receiving public funds.
The power of the “Dirty List” to impede financing opportunities for non-compliant businesses continues to be critical,100 as it has major support from the business community and consumers who boycott companies on the list.101 In 2014, the Supreme Court of Brazil suspended the disclosure of the “Dirty List” and removed previous iterations following a lawsuit filed by the Associação Brasileira de Incorporadoras Imobiliárias (Abrainc), a real estate developer’s association that represented many organisations on the list.102 Abrainc argued the list was unconstitutional as it disrespected the fundamental right to a defence.103 In May 2016, a new Decree (no. 4/2016) resolved these issues, but the government put the “Dirty List” under embargo until March 2017, when, after a long judicial battle, the Ministry of Labour was obliged to issue the list under new technical rules. Since the resumption of publication, there has been criticism that the list has not been updated,104 as the 2017 list identifies only 68 businesses, compared with the 609 names listed in 2014 when it was last released.105 This has raised concerns about the utility of the list over the longer term.106
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives have grown in recent years, with an increasing number of Brazilian companies focusing their social actions on the eradication of modern slavery. For example, the Brazilian Association of Apparel Retailers launched a CSR initiative107 designed to monitor working conditions among first-tier suppliers and to identify vulnerable workers in subcontracted firms at lower tiers of value chains.108
There has been a recent increase in corporate “zero deforestation” commitments by major food retailers and supermarkets. Under this commitment, organisations commit to block the purchase of cattle from ranches that engage in deforestation and employ slave labour. 109 Brazil’s largest grocery retailer, Pão de Açúcar, has pledged to be transparent in its supply chains and to cut ties with those suppliers hiring slave labour. 110
The government of Brazil should:
- Implement the 2011 ILO Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) by ensuring that all domestic workers are able to access their labour rights.
- Ratify P029 – Protocol of 2014 to the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930.
- Prevent any further legislative attempts to change the definition of slavery by continuing to contest changes to the definition.
Improve victim support
- Strengthen victim identification processes at border crossings and develop a comprehensive strategy to raise awareness among migrants and provide them with contacts of local support organisations.
- Tackle the exploitation of women and children in the sex industry by raising awareness of commercial sexual exploitation among tourists visiting Brazil and, in particular at border regions.
Strengthen coordination and transparency
- Establish an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to oversee a coordinated response to tackling modern slavery across all sectors.
- Release the next iteration of the National Action Plan on trafficking, including mechanisms to monitor and report on progress.
Address risk factors
- Develop and fund livelihood transition programs including access to land and investment in job and income creation for victims of slavery.
- Ensure that all employers adhere to labour laws and appropriate social safeguards by increasing resources and the number of labour inspections and raids.
- Provide primary education to all children and extend social projects that provide support to families and children at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.
- Provide support and outreach services to LGBTQI individuals working in the sex industry and run raising awareness and behaviour change campaigns tackling discrimination against these groups.
Eradicate modern slavery from the economy
- Pass ethical recruitment legislation mandating that fees payable to recruitment agencies are not charged to the employee.
- Pass legislation requiring businesses to report on measures taken to address modern slavery in their supply chains.
- Take measures to guarantee the legality of the “Slave Labour Dirty List” in legislation to strengthen its use against exploitative businesses.