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From clore@columbia-center.org Fri Sep 1 10:43:20 2000
Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000 21:08:09 -0500 (CDT)
From: Clore Daniel C <clore@columbia-center.org>
Subject: [smygo] Brazil: Desperation & Debt Turn Workers into Virtual Slaves
Article: 103894
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Forced-Labor System / Ranches Raided in Crackdown

By Stephen Buckley, Washington Post Service, International Herald Tribune, Paris, Monday 28 August 2000

BARRAS, Brazil - A labor recruiter came to town in March with a bus and a bullhorn, promising steady work in a nearby state, a $25 sign-up bonus and a $75-a-month salary - $75 a month more than many Barras residents were making at the time.

Gilmar de Souza, 38, and dozens of others leaped at the offer. A month later, after living as a virtual slave, he limped home with a battered ego and pockets as empty as the recruiter's promises.

Yet Mr. de Souza would do it all again tomorrow. For him, as for the others, forced labor is better than no labor at all.

I wouldn't trust the same guy if he came around, Mr. de Souza said. But if another guy came to town?

Mr. De Souza was a victim of a century-old practice in Brazil known as debt peonage, a form of forced labor that is widespread in the poorest regions of Latin America's largest and most populous country.

Under the system, farm laborers agree through brokers to work without benefits for a certain salary but end up owing almost the entire amount for food and services provided by employers - who often force the laborers to remain on the job once they realize the reality of their situation and try to go home.

The practice has drawn fresh attention here in recent months as Ministry of Labor monitors and federal police officers have raided several ranches and freed scores of workers who were being held against their will.

The crackdown has won wide praise. But it also has highlighted the economic desperation of the country's most marginalized towns and regions and has revealed again how an ethos of impunity and political cronyism continues to dog Brazil's efforts to bring about critical social reforms.

In the case of Barras, 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) north of Rio de Janeiro in Piaui, the poorest state, low levels of education and a dearth of jobs have made forced labor an economically viable option for many.

More than half the population of 40,000 is illiterate; only 1,000 residents have finished secondary school. It is a town of palm trees and gray-sand roads that lead to worn wood-and-clay homes - and of people who consider themselves exceedingly lucky if they find a job that pays them the monthly minimum wage - $85.

There are scores of small shops and a handful of factories, but much of the population survives as temporary laborers picking such crops as watermelon on dozens of farms in and around the town.

MANY of the men seemed to have worked debt labor at least once in their lives; some have done it again and again. And they continue to do it, which is why Barras is such fertile ground for labor recruiters from nearby states, who come spinning dreamy promises of high wages and steady, if temporary, work.

Laborers, accustomed to being paid $2 a day for backbreaking farm work, salivate at the chance to earn twice that much, even if it requires traveling hundreds of kilometers.

The laborers are hauled to work sites, typically via isolated back roads. Upon arrival, they are told that they must buy all their daily supplies - from toothpaste to soap to work tools - at an on-site general store. Within a few weeks, they accrue a debt that negates, or vastly reduces, the salary their recruiter had promised them.

The workers are often hired during the rainy season and must toil in hip-high water during typical 12-hour days. At night, they sleep on hammocks in plastic-sheeting shelters or on the chilled, rain-soaked earth.

Hundreds of men often must share one outhouse. Diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis are rampant.

Laborers are forced to bathe in and drink water from the same troughs used by cows and horses.

Pistol-wielding guards keep laborers from running away. The guards occasionally thwart potential escapees by shackling their ankles, and some have threatened to chop off the legs of anyone who tries to flee.

The conditions are subhuman, said Claudia Pinto Marques, the Ministry of Labor official in the northeast state of Para who coordinated recent raids on ranches there. It's depressing. It's horrible.

She said that debt peonage remains a problem in part because ranch owners almost never face harsh punishments for breaking the law, which in principle bars them from keeping laborers against their will. Fines are rarely paid.

Sometimes ranchers are caught seven or eight times and never face prosecution. Occasionally the government takes a repeat offender's land away, but it pays him first. The Reverend Henri des Roziers, a Catholic priest and social activist, calls that particular practice a prize, not a punishment.

Miss Marques said that politicians often willfully ignore the practice of forced labor and sometimes try to pressure her ministry's monitors to call off impending raids. She said debt peonage is so deeply embedded in the culture of northeast Brazil that ranchers frequently do not consider it a crime, and neither do many politicians.

Of course they get paid what they're promised, said Jose Regino Melo Lages, a city councilman in Barras. They buy TVs, stoves, stereos. The problem simply doesn't exist.

Francisco Diogo has neither a television nor a stereo. He has a stove, but he cannot afford the gas to make it work. Mr. Diogo, 55, has gone off to Para state more than a dozen times in the past 20 years, most recently last March. He said a recruiter had promised him $450 for three months of work clearing a farm for planting.

He said that his debt had ballooned daily as the ranch manager charged him for everything, including the plates and spoons he used to eat his meals. Imagine that, he said this week in the shack where he lives with his wife and four children. Even the spoons.

In the end, the debt whittled his earnings to $30.

NEITHER Mr. Diogo nor his wife, Raimunda, read or write. They are so poor that they cannot afford shoes for their children to wear to school. They cannot even afford to let their children use old clothes to fashion a makeshift soccer ball, the usual alternative for poor youngsters who want to enjoy the country's pastime.

Raimunda Diogo sneers at Councilman Lages's assertion that debt labor is not a problem. The money her husband made in Para, she said, was barely enough to buy a T-shirt.

Mr. Diogo's repeated trips to Para illustrate why the government has started to focus not simply on law enforcement but also on job creation.

Vera Olympia, director of inspections for the Ministry of Labor, said the government was promoting cooperative work agreements among large-scale ranchers in states such as Piaui to try to reduce labor costs and thus eliminate the debt peonage system.

The government also is forcing ranchers to pay promised wages and social security benefits. Rogero Felix Silva, 26, said he had received roughly $110 after he worked for two weeks clearing a farm in Para last March. By the time the police burst onto the property, he said that a foot infection - apparently caused by his standing in water all day - had laid him up for three days, which ranch management charged him for.

Mr. Silva said he would not respond to the labor recruiter's call next time. And after his most recent experience, Mr. Diogo said neither would he.

It's been so many times, and I still haven't earned anything, Mr. Diogo said. I think I'm just going to stay here.