The air surrounding the 17 men at SENAI's school of construction in Cuiabá, capital of the state Mato Grosso in Western Brazil, is thick with dust. The work is done with a mixture of concentration and smiles as jokes are traded back and forth. Two months ago none of the men here had reason to smile. Why? Because they were working as slave labourers on Brazil’s cattle farms. As former slave, 27-year-old Daniel Moraes Ferreira, says: ’This is a new beginning.’
Daniel Moraes Ferreira came to Cuiabá a few weeks ago with his friend, Rodrigues Gomes Guimarães. They worked at the same farm in Mato Grosso, where they were kept in slave-like conditions. Mato Grosso is the biggest cattle producing state in Brazil, and as a result, the place where the most slaves are to be found. Daniel is nervous. His eyes flicker and he laughs nervously while telling his story. ‘This story needs to be told to the world,’ he says. ‘Many workers are afraid to talk about their experiences, [so] this is why I talk. I don’t wish for anyone to go through the same.’
The two men escaped from a cattle farm where they worked clearing the Amazon forest to prepare new grassland for the cattle. They were taken hundreds of miles from civilisation. They slept on the ground in self-made shacks. There was no toilet. They had to hunt for their own food, as their employer did not provide them with any, and soon they realised that they were drinking out of the same muddy puddles as the cows. They did not have any protective equipment. And they did not get paid.
According to Leonardo Sakamoto, director of Brazilian NGO Repórter Brasil, cattle farms are the number one reason for slavery in Brazil. ‘This kind of exploitation is directly involved with your [European] way of life,’ he says. The workers used for slavery are typically from the Northern states of Brazil. ‘They are poor, have little or no education and few prospects,’ says Luiz Machado, the ILO official in charge of a project on forced labour in Brazil. And, as Daniel Ferreira explains, offered the chance of earning twice the amount in half the time, it is all too tempting to say yes to the “gato” – the person in charge of the slaves. ‘They come with a thousand promises,’ says Ferreira, ‘and we fall into the trap. But it is not what we expect.’
The men are driven away during the night to farms far away from everything they know. Only upon arrival do they realise that reality doesn’t reflect the promises. ‘The first week we were treated well with breaks, food and sleep,’ remembers Ferreira. ‘But after a week, they took us to the forest and asked us to cut down the trees, and this is when things changed.’
Violence and intimidation
Ferreira soon realised that something wasn’t right at the farm. Normally, workers are paid weekly but after 20 days, he still had not received anything. ‘When I asked the “gato” to get paid for the second time, he told me that if I was unhappy I could leave.’ He tried and was handcuffed to a tree and beaten continuously for 10 hours. ‘When the sun started to go down, the “gato” asked me if I was still going to leave,’ remembers Ferreira. ‘I of course said no. So he let me down and I went to sleep. The next day I got up with my colleagues and went to work as usual.’ ‘Officially the workers are free to leave,’ comments Machado. ‘In reality, they are captured in an illegal debt bondage by the “gato”.’
Harder to spot than evidence of violent beatings, financial pressure has become one of the commonest ways to keep slave labourers in check. According to Amarildo Borges de Oliveira, chief of investigations at the Regional Labour Department in Mato Grosso, it creates a dangerous co-dependency between “gato” and slave. ‘They have to buy all necessary supplies such as toothpaste and soap from the “gato”,’ explains de Oliveira. ‘He will then note down everything they use, even petrol for the chainsaws and the food they eat, and subtract this from the pay the slaves are meant to receive. The prices the “gato” charges are always higher than the market prices.” Effectively, this means that the slaves always owe more than they are owed, and are caught in a trap. Sadly, the slaves’ pride means they play into the hands of the “gato”. ‘If they are told they have a debt, they will pay it off,’ says Elizabete Flores from the Pastoral Land Commission, an organisation that works for the prevention of slavery in Brazil. ‘Even if it is a made up debt, they feel morally obligated to pay.’
The Brazilian 'black list'
One of the instruments the Brazilian authorities have created is the 'Lista Suja' (black list). This is a public database showing the farms and production sites where the federal government found and released slaves. According to Sakamoto, this technology could be used to help eradicate slavery without punishing those Brazilian farmers who do not use slaves. However, the cattle industry is a secretive one, a fact that becomes plain during the course of anti-slavery raids. ‘There is a strong sense of community between the farms,’ says Ferreira. ‘When they see the big white government vans they call each other on their radios so they can tell the slaves to run and hide.’ This makes it difficult to compile an accurate black list.
Although an imperfect system, a place on the list has consequences. When a farm is placed on this list, it is hit by financial penalties in the shape of fines and restrictions on borrowing money. But more importantly, they can no longer sell their livestock to the big slaughterhouses – most of whom have signed an agreement not to use black listed farms.
Mato Grosso not only has a booming cattle ranching industry but also a wide-spread network of large scale slaughterhouses. Sharp practice and rule breaking is common, as is intimidation and as a result, workers in areas around the slaughterhouses are terrified of repercussions and would only speak to us on condition of anonymity. According to former slaughterhouse worker, João, 28, more than 120 cows were slaughtered every hour in the slaughterhouse in which he was employed and only when the auditors arrived was production reduced to the legal amount. ‘We had no fixed working hours; we could leave when we reached the day’s quota,’ says Ana, 40, also a former slaughterhouse worker. ‘Some days I would start working at four in the morning and only leave at one the next day.’
According to Aline A. Roberto Amoras, Head of Health and Safety at Work in the Regional Labour Department in Mato Grosso, this creates an unofficial pressure not to have breaks. ‘If one worker has a break it means that the whole chain of production comes to a halt.’ This, along with lack of training, is typically the cause of one of the biggest problems in slaughterhouses: mutilations. Repetitive strain injuries are also a common occurrence. ‘The most common problems are permanent damage caused by repetitive work in very cold environments and mutilations caused by the sharp knives and machines,’ adds Amoras.
After four years of working in the same position in the same slaughterhouse in Northern Mato Grosso, Ana has bad arthritis, which means she cannot find work. ‘It is too hard to think about the past, I get worried about the future,’ she says. She used to work cutting and cleaning the intestines and the hard labour is what made her ill. ‘I know a lot of people with the same problem. This is how the companies are. When you are healthy you get work, when you get sick they fire you. This is justice in Brazil.’ She has not received any compensation for her injuries.
No rights for workers
It is difficult for slaughterhouse workers to complain about their workload and work-related injuries, says Valdiney Antônio de Arruda, Superintendent of the regional Labour Department. Although Brazil has a number of legal requirements in place to protect workers, Mato Grosso’s slaughterhouses appear to ignore them. ‘Every eight months we are fired because the slaughterhouse changes name or owner,’ João told the Ecologist. ‘We are always hired again a couple of days later.’
Wlaudecyr Antonio Goulant, Fiscal Labour Auditor at the Regional Labour Department in Mato Grosso, says that this happens because the workers accumulate certain rights, and after eight months they are entitled to use them. ‘Changing the name just means that the rights are transferred onto the “new” slaughterhouse in reality but the workers do not know this, so the slaughterhouse is let off its duties,’ says Goulant. ‘If the workers know, they then have to fight the slaughterhouse individually to obtain their rights. This often means that they do not take up the fight, and the slaughterhouse gets off easy.’ ‘Workers generally make compromises with the slaughterhouses because they are afraid of the consequences of filing a law suit,’ adds de Arruda. As one worker, George, 26, put it: ‘Machines are more important to them than their employees.’
The names Ana, João and George are pseudonyms. DanWatch is an independent media and research center doing investigative journalism about the global impact of corporations on people and the planet.
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