When my plane landed in Cuiabá, the Southern Gate to the Brazilian Amazon, the heat almost took my breath away. My first stop was a major construction site where a new stadium is being built for the 2014 World Cup. During the following hours I learned about a fascinating initiative to prevent modern forms of slavery.
The idea of the project is simple but effective: workers who have been rescued from what is called “slave labour” in Brazil, or who are at risk of falling prey to exploitative labour practices, are offered a six-month vocational training course. Once they’ve completed the course, most of them are hired by companies under decent conditions of employment. The company building the stadium for the World cup is one of them.
Unscrupulous employers, who have been prosecuted for using “slave labour”, have to pay heavy fines for moral damages. These fines and a unique partnership with local business, including construction companies, cotton producers, and agricultural farms are the financial and economic backbone of the project. But of course this is not enough. Vital to its success is a strong public system and a strong commitment from those involved in the project, including the dynamic superintendent of the Ministry of Labour who started the project four years ago, a non-corruptible labour prosecutor who truly believes in what he does, and vocational trainers of the highest quality.
I talked to two workers who are now employed by the construction company. Both cut sugarcane before they were rescued by the labour inspectors, enrolled in the training programme and were re-employed. When I asked them about the difference between their previous and current job, they just shook their heads and struggled to find the right words: “It’s all different,” they said. “You can’t compare the two jobs. Now, we receive a regular wage and work regular hours.”
Preying on poverty and hope
What makes people stay in jobs that don’t pay enough to live and to work under humiliating and degrading conditions? When the ILO adopted its first Convention against forced labour in 1930, slavery had already been abolished but people were still trafficked or forced to work under different systems of servitude, bondage or institutions similar to slavery. Today, coercion is more subtle but it is not less effective. Poverty and the hope to find a better life elsewhere make people easy prey to deception and abuse. Workers who don’t know their rights can be threatened and intimidated, their debts are being manipulated and wages not paid. One worker told me: “Workers, who have been in slave labour, have nothing to lose.” But many of them have nothing to gain either if they denounce their exploiters. This is precisely why the initiative in Brazil can make such a big difference. It offers a real and viable alternative.
According to the ILO’s most recent count, there are almost 21 million women, men and children in forced labour. This represents about three in every 1,000 of today’s population and every single case has a devastating impact on an individual’s life. The vast majority of these cases are never identified and victims never receive justice. Women and girls are disproportionately affected.
A new momentum
Despite these staggering figures, dramatic changes have occurred within more than a decade. Brazil’s government was one of the first countries to publicly denounce slave labour in 1995. In 2000, the UN Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, entered into force, which led to sweeping legal changes in many countries. In 2011, for example, EU member States adopted new legislation that guarantees greater rights for trafficked victims – an issue that had been contested in previous years.
Last year, the Government of Myanmar, which had been sanctioned and isolated internationally for its use of forced labour, signed an agreement with the ILO to stop all forms of forced labour by 2015. Also in 2012, US President Obama called for stronger measures to abolish “modern forms of slavery”, a speech that was echoed by Australia’s Prime Minister last month. In the Middle East, some governments are now publicly discussing alternatives to the “kafala system”, which ties migrant workers to their “sponsors” and accords disproportionate power to employers.
Clearly, we have reached a new momentum in the global struggle against slavery. Pressure to change public policies is mounting. Such pressure was crucial when the British Parliament passed the bill that abolished the transatlantic slave trade more than 200 years ago, and it is equally important today. But it is not enough to call for an end of these intolerable forms of exploitation; we also need to think of how to do it.
Challenges for the future
Our understanding of the dimensions and structural causes of forced labour is still weak. We also know very little about the long-term impact of anti-forced labour initiatives. ILO research, grounded in practical experiences from countries around the world, can make the difference.
When I returned from Brazil, I couldn’t stop thinking that what had happened in Cuiabá should be possible elsewhere too. It’s important to share the lessons learned from these initiatives and to remind governments of their obligation to invest in the long-term prevention of forced labour. With the right strategy in place, preventing the problem is much more cost-effective than addressing its consequences. And the hope this brings to workers like the ones I met in Cuiabá is worth much more than money.