Human Trafficking

Brazil Slave Labor: Hero Honored for Battling Human Trafficking

Labor hero

Br. Xavier Plassat , of the Pastoral Land Commission of Episcopal Conference of Brazil (a CRS partner). Photo by Jim Stipe/CRS

Catholic Relief Services partner, Br. Xavier Plassat, is being honored today by the Department of State as one of seven heroes in the fight against human trafficking. Br. Xavier, a Dominican Friar, is coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission’s (CPT) National Campaign Against Slave Labor, which works to eradicate slavery in Brazil. He answered a few questions for us on his work and the status of slavery in Brazil.

What does slavery look like?

Modern-day slavery in Brazil is a form of exploitation in which rural workers, generally illiterate, landless, and without knowledge of their rights, are lured by middlemen or employers with false promises of good jobs and money. These workers are taken to work in remote areas in Northeastern Brazil and are forced to work in forestry, charcoal production, the ranching industry, and on sugar, cotton and soybean plantations. In many cases these workers have no access to clean drinking water, sufficient food, and are not provided with a place to sleep. Nevertheless, they are charged exorbitant prices for their lodging and transportation and are living in a constant deficit cycle in which they cannot work off the debt they’ve incurred.

How does the CPT work to help these workers?

We work on two fronts, with the workers themselves and with the Brazilian authorities. The victims are obviously our priority. We welcome these workers. We listen to their stories. We encourage workers to denounce their treatment with the authorities, so that there is an investigation that will, hopefully, lead to the release of those who remain on the farm.

We also pressure authorities to investigate claims, take action against employers, and adopt measures to help avoid people from being re-enslaved. One of the problems is that this form of enslavement is cyclical. It’s made up of three components: poverty, greed, and impunity. Whenever you leave one of these components operating you allow the cycle to work once more.

Releasing slaves is not enough, then?

Releasing slaves is not eradicating slavery. To eradicate slavery you have to address the question of impunity, poverty, and greed. The current model of farming in Brazil often feeds off the fact that employers go unpunished so they continue to mistreat workers, the poverty of the workers and lack of access to their own land makes it so they often feel they have no choice but to work in these conditions, and the greed of employers doesn’t motivate them to improve working conditions, all these situations are fueling the cycle of enslavement.

What is being done to address the issue of employer abuse?

The Brazilian government has created a “dirty list,” that publically names those who have been found guilty of allowing slavery on their properties. These people are prohibited from accessing public funds, and several banks are cutting credit to them.

What advances have been made in the fight against slave labor?

We have had some advances in the last 10-15 years. The first step was that the authorities acknowledged that there was a problem and created a special task force to investigate claims of slavery. Since the task force’s inception in 1995, around 38,000 workers have been released, 90 percent of them in the last 7 years.

What does this TIP Hero award mean to you and the fight against slave labor in Brazil?

It’s an honor that Brazil is being held up as something of a model of not only acknowledging the problem, but taking action against it. Even so, with all this concerted effort, why hasn’t Brazil been able to eradicate slavery? We haven’t been able to do so because our national efforts to combat slavery are insufficient. This award helps to shine a light on the job that we’re doing—that the CTP is taking the necessary steps to eradicate slavery, but it is not saying that Brazil has won the war against slavery. We are on the right track, but we are conscious of the fact that there are other demands that must be addressed that have not been addressed. CTP is here to insist that actions be taken until no one is forced to live and work in slave like conditions.

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