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Brazil and the “S-Word”

2015-12-11 Comments Off on Brazil and the “S-Word”

The Atlantic slave trade left a ruinous legacy everywhere, but in the Americas, perhaps no country was more affected than Brazil.  During a ghastly period of more than 300 years, estimates suggest that somewhere between four and five million slaves were delivered to its shores by slave traders—more than one-third of all Africans dragged to the Americas.  When Brazil finally abolished slavery in 1888, it was the last country in the Americas to do so.  Today it is home to the largest population of Afro-descendants outside the continent of Africa.

So while the s-word may painful everywhere, it touches a nerve that is especially raw in Brazil.  Which is why the government’s decision to enshrine it in the country’s legal code in 1940 was so powerful, so provocative and so controversial.



Brazil’s definition and prohibition of slave labor are established in Article 149 of its Penal Code:


Article 149. Reducing someone to a condition analogous to that of a slave, namely: subjecting a person to forced labor or to arduous working days, or subjecting such a person to degrading working conditions or restricting, in any manner whatsoever, his mobility by reason of a debt contracted in respect of the employer or a representative of that employer.


Article 149 identifies four elements of what Brazil calls “conditions analogous to slavery”:


forced labor: people forced to work under threats/acts of physical or mental violence;

exhausting work hours: workers subjected to workdays that go far beyond normal overtime and threaten their physical integrity;

degrading conditions: people lodged in substandard housing and/or without access to appropriate equipment to protect themselves in handling and applying agrochemicals, decent food or water in the field; and

debt bondage: workers are tied to labor intermediaries and/or landowners by illegal debts related to expenses on transportation, food, lodging and work equipment.


Employers can be found to be “Reducing someone to a condition analogous to that of a slave” if inspectors find evidence of any one of these conditions.  But based on our conversations with labor auditors and our review of the inspection reports from coffee farms on the Dirty List, they rarely are.  In all the cases we saw, when Brazil’s government cited employers for violating Article 149, there was evidence of at least two of the four conditions, and often more.  Brazil’s definition of slavery may be expansive, but it does not seem to be applied capriciously.



The language of Article 149 differs in three important ways from that of the definition of forced labor enshrined in International Labor Organization Convention No. 29, which remains the universal standard in this area.

First, Article 149 uses the provocative term “slave labor” rather than the ILO term “forced labor.

Second, it is more expansive than the ILO definition, including reference to degrading working conditions and exhaustive work days that do not appear in ILO conventions.

Third, Article 149 does not require evidence of forced labor—an essential element of the ILO definition and most other definitions of modern-day slavery—for an employer to be prosecuted.

These discrepancies do not mean, however, that it Brazil’s definition is incompatible with ILO standards.

As the labor monitoring organization Verité explains in this outstanding policy brief, when countries sign “relevant international human rights law,” it is the role of domestic law to “[elaborate] on the implementation of that international law within the national context.”  In other words, Brazil’s ratification of Article 149 is how the system is supposed to work: its sovereign government applies ILO Conventions within its jurisdiction in ways that are consistent with the country’s culture and values.

But just because Brazil’s rules are legit doesn’t mean that everyone likes them.



More than two years ago, we asked a long-time CRS partner Repórter Brasil to conduct research into modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector.  At the time, a significant minority of legislators and a small number of governors—mostly representing rural areas that are home to large landowners—were lobbying to reduce the scope of Brazil’s definition of slavery: 162 of Brazil’s 513 congressional representatives and 11 of its 81 governors.  They wanted to amend Article 149 to eliminate references to exhausting work hours and degrading conditions, which they regard as subjective, and to bring it into closer alignment with ILO Convention No. 29.

Indeed, the line between grinding but legal conditions and modern slavery in Brazil is fine, and blurry, as this exceptional BBC radio documentary shows.



Vanity Fair recently published this profile of one of our partners in the fight against slavery in Brazil.  The author of the article suggests that modern slavery is endemic to rural Brazil: “slavery fits naturally into the vast and brutal Brazilian countryside.”

He explains: “The landowners protest that…the workers they employ are accustomed to hard lives and grateful for the jobs.”

That may be true. But that doesn’t make it ok to employ people under conditions that are an affront to human dignity.

Quinn Kepes of Verité has conducted research into labor conditions in the coffee sector. In a recent conversation, he characterized farmworkers in the coffeelands of Latin America as “poor, rural, less educated, less connected, less informed, disempowered, accustomed to a traditional role of subjugation and dependent on a small range of employment opportunities, mostly under substandard conditions.”

They are so used to such limited and lousy options, he says, that they are grateful for whatever they can get, even when that work is degrading: “Even workers earning half the minimum wage and working well in excess of the maximum work week will not say they are dissatisfied with their working conditions because they have never known anything different.”

In other words, the fact that workers toiling under conditions of modern slavery may not necessarily consider themselves slaves doesn’t mean they aren’t.


<< Previous: Modern Slavery in the Coffeelands

Next: This is What Modern Slavery Looks Like >>

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This post is the second in an eight-part series on the CRS Coffeelands blog about modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector.  The series draws on research coordinated by CRS and conducted by Repórter Brasil with the generous support of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and allies working in the coffee sector, including: Allegro Coffee Company, CRS Fair Trade, Fair Trade USA, Equal Exchange, Keurig Green Mountain, Lutheran World Relief, the Specialty Coffee Association of America, United Farmworkers, UTZ Certified and others.  The views expressed in this series are those of its author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the companies or organizations that provided financial support for the research that informed this series.