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The face of contemporary slavery

In partnership with Brazilian legal experts, U.S. historian Rebecca Scott is analyzing documents from the Brazilian Ministry of Labor and Social Security to gain an understanding of the factors that characterize present day labor analogous to slavery

Although slavery was officially abolished in Brazil in 1888, it is still possible nowadays to find workers subjected to conditions analogous to slavery.

According to an assessment recently released by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MTPS), in 2015 alone, the problem has been detected in 90 of the 257 establishments inspected, and a total of 1,010 people were removed from labor conditions considered degrading.

In an attempt to understand the factors that characterize the phenomenon of contemporary slavery, Rebecca Scott, historian and professor at the University of Michigan Law School, has dedicated herself to the study of documents produced by MTPS employees during inspections.

The project has been carried out together with Federal Justice Carlos Henrique Borlido Haddad ,who is also a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and Leonardo Augusto de Andrade Barbosa, a legal analyst in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies in Brasília.

Scott presented the scope of the study March 29 in Ann Arbor, Michigan during FAPESP Week Michigan-Ohio. The event, which ends April 1 in the city of Columbus, Ohio, is designed to promote cooperation between scientists from São Paulo and the United States.

“The campaign to eradicate labor analogous to slavery that has been carried out in Brazil since the mid-1990s – and which has gained renewed intensity mainly in the early 21st century – involves several government and non-government entities and has generated what historians most long for: a vast amount of documentary material. I know of no other country that has undertaken such a systematic study in this field,” Scott said in an interview with Agência FAPESP.

Analysis of the cases generated by MTPS inspection, said Scott, is allowing researchers to go beyond speculation and confirm actual conditions that are leading prosecutors and judges to convict individuals for exploitation of slave labor.

“It is allowing us to examine legal concepts, understand how the inspectors and promoters diagnose the situation when they visit the work sites, and observe how these legal concepts are evolving in society,” she said.

The collaboration with Brazilian legal experts began nearly two years ago, when they were in Michigan engaged in post-doctoral studies. Haddad had practical experience in the subject since he had served as judge in several cases where employers were accused of exploitation of slave labor. In 2009, at the Federal Court of Marabá, in the Brazilian state of Pará, he presided over 32 cases, convicting 27 individuals in a single block of decisions.

“Haddad believes that society as a whole is undermined when this type of situation goes unpunished. Barbosa was very interested in studying how the laws were written and how they have changed,” Scott went on to say.

Scott said she was particularly interested as an historian in defining the concept of contemporary slavery. “The use of this term is intended to make it analogous with circumstances found in 19th century Brazil. But how can we use this metaphor without making a mistake? We cannot diminish the unique characteristics of the process of 19th century African slavery. Determining the line between slavery and freedom is critical for the forward progress of the campaign to eradicate the problem,” Scott explained.

According to the researcher, the analyses have indicated that “conditions analogous to slavery” are those in which violations of labor laws exceed a certain limit and begin to assail human dignity.

“Employers often sense vulnerability in their employees and act to capitalize on this, thus diminishing the degree of autonomy an individual has in accepting certain working conditions. Another part of this are the working conditions themselves. For decades, studies have shown that slavery tends to place humans in conditions similar to those of animals, such as by making them sleep outside, for example,” she explained.

New sources

In addition to the MTPS documents, the group soon plans to examine the collection found in the offices of the Labor Public Prosecutor (MPT) at the 15th Region of Campinas, which is in the process of being digitized with funding from FAPESP under the scope of the thematic project “Between slavery and the burden of freedom: workers and forms of labor exploitation in historical perspective.” The project is headed up by University of Campinas (Unicamp) Professor Fernando Teixeira da Silva, who is a member of the team from the Social History of Culture Research Center (Cecult).

As described by Sidney Chalhoub – who is now a professor at Harvard University, but was once a faculty member at Unicamp and is still a member of the Cecult team –, the MPT collection was in danger of being destroyed due to lack of storage space, and it was saved thanks to FAPESP funding, which has allowed it to be digitized. The database currently includes a total of 3,228 files, 1,053 of which are already available for public consultation at Unicamp.

“A considerable portion of the material from the Labor Court had already been destroyed due to lack of storage space which is a pity. We’re talking about an incredibly rich source of material that historians can use to study the experiences of laborers from a particular time period. Much of what we know today with regard to slavery was found in the testimony provided by illiterate workers in criminal and civil cases,” Chalhoub said.

In addition to Scott and Chalhoub, the session devoted to topics in law and social justice included University of Michigan history professors Paulina Alberto, Jean Hébrard and Sueann Caulfield, besides Brazilian Eduarda La Rocque who coordinates the initiative known as Rio’s Pact – which is a participatory public-private partnership involving public, private and academic sectors, non-for-profit organizations, the general public and international bodies. Its aim is to promote and monitor sustainable development of the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area.

Karina Toledo, in Michigan | Agência FAPESP