Congress approves expropriation of property found with slaves

The proposed constitutional amendment provides for expropriation of real estate property where this crime is found and their allocation to land reform or urban housing programs
By Leonardo Sakamoto

Brasilia – The Brazilian Senate approved the Constitutional Amendment Bill (PEC) 57A/1999 on Slave Labor late on 27th May. The proposed constitutional amendment provides for expropriation of real estate property where this crime is found and their allocation to land reform or urban housing programs.

After an agreement between party leaders, the two rounds of voting were held in the same session. As an amendment to the Constitution, the bill requires no presidential sanction and takes effect right after its promulgation, scheduled for next week. It had already been approved in two rounds by the Chamber of Deputies in 2004 and 2012.

Of the 49 votes needed, the first round saw 59 votes in favor, none against and no abstentions; at the second round, there were 60 votes in favor, none against and no abstentions.

A sub-amendment was also approved to add the words “according to the law” to the proposal. Senate president Renan Calheiros said that such redundancy was intended to stress the need for further regulation. The amendment will cause the bill to return to the Chamber of Deputies, according to its Leadership.

A proposal for regulation is being discussed, pointing out procedures for the forfeiture of lands, buildings and improvements – the amendment includes whatever is inside the property, such as machinery or livestock. It shall be voted next week, according to Senator Romero Jucá. The so-called ruralist parliamentarians will try to waken the PEC’s power by reducing the list of situations to which it would apply.

All senators speaking at the session that voted the PEC stressed that this was a “historic moment”, as if some of them had not fought hard behind the scenes for years to prevent the bill from proceeding.

The first time a proposal to expropriate properties found with labor analogous to slavery was presented to Congress was in 1995 – the same year the Brazilian government recognized before the United Nations that contemporary forms of slavery persisted in the country and created the public system to fight that crime. Since then, more than 46 thousand people were rescued from slave labor by the federal government at farms, charcoal kilns, sewing workshops, construction sites, among other businesses.

On Tuesday (27), the Chief Minister for the Human Rights Secretariat of the Presidency Ideli Salvatti, alongside artists and intellectuals from the Humanos Direitos (Right Humans) movement, such as Camila Pitanga and Maria Zilda Bethelem, visited the offices of party leaders and senators and asked for their support to vote the proposal.

“This is a clear sign that the Brazilian State does not condone this crime in its territory. At a time when the International Labor Organization is meeting in Geneva to strengthen measures against this violation of human rights, the PEC’s approval sends a message to the rest of the world,” Ideli Salvatti told this blog.

Expropriation – The PEC provides for an addition to Article 243 of the Constitution, which already includes expropriation of areas where psychotropic crops are found. The idea has been debated in Congress since 1995, when the first draft was presented by Congressman Paulo Rocha (PT-PA), but it failed to advance. Then, a similar bill created by then Senator Ademir Andrade (PSB-PA) was approved in 2003 and sent to the Chamber of Deputies, where the 1995 bill was amended.

The murder of three labor inspectors and a driver working got the Ministry of Labor and Employment in a rural routine inspection on January 28, 2004 generated public outcry. It became known as the “Massacre of Unaí” (a town in northwestern Minas Gerais) and caused the bill to pass in the first round at the Chamber in August that year. Farmers Antério and Norberto Mânica, accused of ordering the crime, have not been tried yet.

Since it was presented, the PEC was in and out the voting schedule several times. Dozens of crosses were planted on the grass in front of Congress and over a thousand people embraced the building in March 2008 to protest against the delay in the vote. Two years later, a petition with over 280,000 signatures was delivered to then President of the Chamber of Deputies and now Vice President of the Republic Michel Temer. In January 2012, President Dilma Rousseff elected the PEC as a legislative priority for the federal government this year.

On May 8, 2012, a meeting at the Chamber’s auditorium Nereu Ramos gathered hundreds of people calling for the PEC’s approval, including rural workers, social movements, labor federations, artists and intellectuals. Another petition with nearly 60,000 signatures was delivered to the President of the Chamber of Deputies Marco Maia.

Seeing the growing social mobilization around the issue, which would lead sooner or later to the approval of the bill, ruralists changed tactics and started trying to alter the definition of slave labor. Thus, the approval of PEC 438 would become a window of opportunity to mischaracterize what contemporary slavery is.

On May 22, 2012, the PEC of Slave Labor, which proceeded at the Chamber of Deputies under number 438/2001, was approved in the second round. There were 360 votes in favor, 29 against and 25 abstentions, totaling 414 votes. In 2004, 326 votes had been in favor, 10 against and 8 abstentions. Therefore, the matter was sent back to the Senate where it originated, because the Chamber included a provision to expropriate urban real estate in it.

Regulation – In recent months, lawmakers opposed to the Slave Labor PEC pushed for its vote to be conditioned on a prior approval of regulation including definition.

Senator Romero Jucá (PMDB-RR), rapporteur of the bill to regulate the Slave Labor PEC, decided to adopt a partial definition of slave labor, which is more restricted than that on article 149 of Brazil’s Penal Code. The definition is not supported by the federal government, but it is aligned with the ruralist caucus, which excludes degrading conditions and exhausting working hours from the definition.

Renato Bignami, in charge of policies to fight urban slave labor at São Paulo’s Regional Labor and Employment Department said that the PEC will not contribute to the fight the crime at sewing workshops and construction sites, for example, if it is regulated as proposed by Senator Jucá. Prosecutors and labor judges heard by this blog say that the PEC will be weakened if ruralists are able to apply a softer definition.

Under current law, elements determining slave labor include: degrading working conditions (depriving workers of their dignity), exhausting working hours (preventing workers from recovering physically and having a social life – e.g. the two dozen-plus people who died from excess sugarcane cutting in São Paulo in recent years), forced labor (keeping a person working through fraud, geographical isolation, document retention, physical and psychological threats, exemplary beatings and even murder) and debt bondage (forcing workers to illegally acquire debts so they cannot leave).

Brazilian law is considered very advanced by the UN Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, since it covers not only freedom but also dignity as values to be protected. That is, when workers enjoy freedom, but are deprived of minimum conditions of dignity, that is also slave labor.

In her speech at the session that approved the PEC, Senator and Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA) President Kátia Abreu stressed that the definition of slave labor is restricted to forced labor and debt bondage, ignoring the other elements connected workers’ dignity that are part of the law.

According to senators heard by this blog, the ruralist caucus wants narrow regulation not only to weaken the constitutional amendment, but also to enable a review of Article 149 of the Criminal Code itself. Ideli Salvatti said that there will be no agreement to change the definition that will be used to regulate the PEC. “The government will keep the definition from Article 149 of the Penal Code, which has guided the fight against slave labor.”

The article carrying the definition of slave labor dates back from 1940; it was renewed in 2003 in order to make characterization clearer. Lower, district and higher courts use that definition. Lawsuits filed against parliamentarians at the Supreme Court are also based on Article 149.

Ruralist leaders claim that there is an alleged “confusion” in the definition of slave labor – a discourse heard during the session that voted the PEC. Movements, social organizations and lawmakers who are involved with the matter and accompanied the vote are worried about that demand.

According to Xavier Plassat, head of the campaign against slave labor conducted by the Catholic Church’s Land Pastoral Commission, that “confusion” about the definition is a “fallacy” promoted by the ruralist caucus to invalidate not only the PEC – by changing the definition of the crime – but the very fight against slavery. A deputy accompanying the matter for a long time in Congress was heard by this blog and said that “the impression is that ruralists want to punish only those found holding a whip, chains and the purchase receipt for the slave”.

Those pro-PEC and the government claim there is no need for that and that the definition of slave labor is already clear in Article 149 of the Penal Code. They advocate the adoption of sub-constitutional legislation only to regulate expropriation and define when it takes place – after a labor inspection, after a lower court ruling, a collegial ruling or a final ruling? Should it be an administrative act or a civil, labor or criminal court decision?

In rural areas, the highest incidence of modern-day slavery is found in bovine cattle raising, charcoal production for the steel industry, production of pine, sugarcane, yerba mate, coffee, fruit, cotton, beans, onion, potato, in extraction of mineral resources and of native wood and latex. In cities, the incidence is higher in sewing workshops, trade, hotels, brothels and domestic services. In both scenarios, cases abound in construction.

Analysis – Just as the fight against contemporary slavery has been essential to improve the quality of life of rural workers – for instance, it pushed for expansion of labor inspections structure and punishment of offenders, which is useful for the larger society – the defense of businesspeople who use slave labor has helped to maintain the status quo in rural areas.

An emblematic case is constitutional amendment bill 57A/1999. Even if the proportion of employers who use contemporary slave labor is small given the universe of rural producers, those political representatives have been historically against the proposal – as said above, their current agreement with the approval is more related to a change in their action strategy than to their actual acceptance of the matter. That is because, for them, what is at stake is land ownership, considered inviolable by their constituency – landowners. Its continuation and concentration is essential to enable agricultural business because, besides being capital, it is the place where wealth is produced through work. According to members of the ruralist class, the PEC on Slavery was a risk to their very existence. Therefore, fighting against its approval amounted to more than maintaining exploitation of non-contractual forms of labor.

Opposition to the PEC brought together entrepreneurs who follow the law and those who commit crimes, those who pay taxes and those who evade them, those who honor labor contracts and those who do not even have them, those working within market rules and those who prefer anomie. Who is interested in protecting those who promote unfair competition and social dumping and illegally cut costs in order to gain competitiveness through exploitation of human beings – and tarnish the name of Brazilian products abroad as a side effect?

Only in the symbolic field can we understand the importance of that bill seeing it from both sides. For we know that enforcing such law – just as all those related to workers’ rights – would face several difficulties at the courts. The reference for this prediction is what already happens with expropriation of lands where psychotropic plantations are found.

The conduct of organizations points at the same direction. Although CNA officially repudiates the use of this type of labor, their public interventions on the matter have been towards delegitimizing situations found at farms by Ministry of Labor and Employment inspectors. That is, that organization, which is a member of the National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labor, does not reject the need to eradicate contemporary slavery – it even advocates that need on its publications and public speeches – but it says that farmers and cattle ranchers do not resort to that. A sad, but understandable, paradox.

A 19-year battle comes to an end with the approval of the PEC. But another one continues not only during the regulation of the amendment, but also in bills currently under proceedings in Congress: to ensure that the definition of labor analogous to slavery – the basis of the current fight against such crime – is not dilapidated.

Originally published in portuguese



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