After responding to an anonymous claim filed last August, the Federal Police identified 14 individuals held as slaves at a farm in Brazil’s western state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The victims, natives to various northeastern states of the country, had travelled to Mato Grosso do Sul in response to attractive job offers and better lives. Instead, they met slavery and abuse. They were subject to extremely poor living conditions and they lacked employment contracts, which left their rights fully vulnerable. They worked 13-hour shifts for three entire months, without pay. Having no other option but to buy their food and basic goods for credit at the farm’s shop, they accumulated unintended and unmanageable debts, which empowered the farm owner to prevent the workers from leaving the farm’s premises.
Also, in the city of Sao Paulo an immigrant from Bolivia was recently arrested for subjecting six fellow immigrants into slavery. The suspect owned a sewing shop where people worked 15-hour shifts and were grossly underpaid. Employees were made subject to conditions terribly unsuitable for dignified work. Like in the case from Mato Grosso do Sul, the Bolivian employees had no employment contract and were kept unaware of their most basic employment rights.
According to the UN, in 2008 there were up to 40,000 contemporary slave laborers in Brazil. Workers are generally young men recruited from a state characterized by extreme poverty, illiteracy and rural unemployment.
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Surrounding the election of the first black President of the United States, much was made of the country overcoming its legacy of slavery, leading a reasonable person to conclude that slavery is actually history in the U.S.
But, from the agricultural fields of Florida flows a steady stream of reports of migrant workers being subjected to modern-day slavery – forced labor, beatings and withholding of pay included. (According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), in the last 10 years, 7 federal trials on farm labor slavery were prosecuted in Florida, involving 1,000 workers.)
CIW, with the help of The Alliance for Fair Food, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and other allies in the human rights movement, has been battling not only the State of Florida to take a more pro-active role in labor rights protections, but also has been taking on some of the biggest fast food chains in the world, including Subway, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King, which buy the tomatoes and other products they harvest, for better wages and working conditions.
CIW signed agreements with some of the companies on wage and conditions issues, but a statement from a Florida Department of Agriculture spokesperson in December again set off alarms that the state was underplaying the significance of the ongoing abuses in the field.
The Coalition is now asking Florida Governor Charlie Crist to step up his involvement, and have a letter-writing action on their site.
Dear Gov. Crist, didn’t you get the election night memo? Slavery is out.