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Input to the United Nations examines Slavery and the Informal Economy in Brazil

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

FNI considers the manifestations of contemporary slavery in different Brazilian regions, the profile of the victims, and how to prevent and address the problem in the informal economy.

Image source: IHU Unisinos / MTE, 2017.

In 2007, the United Nations Human Rights Council created the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences.

In 2021, the Special Rapporteur initiated his preparation for a new thematic report to the UN General Assembly on contemporary forms of slavery in the informal economy.

In preparation for such report, the UN Special Rapporteur launched a process of gathering inputs from States and other relevant stakeholders.

Facts and Norms Institute (FNI) is amongst the respondents.

Through its Global Human Rights Observatory, FNI prepared a special report entitled “Contemporary Forms of Slavery and the Informal Economy: input to the UN regarding Brazil”.

The document is a joined effort by FNI's principal researcher Henrique Napoleão Alves and Dr. Renan Bernardi Kalil, a leading expert in labour and international human rights law.

A special invitee to FNI's research branch, Mr. Kalil is a labour prosecutor with a record of professional and academic works on human rights and the informal economy (including a Ph.D. concluded in 2019 at the University of São Paulo after a period at Harvard University).

Drawing from a variety of sources – academic works, press notes, official statistics, documents from international organizations (such as the International Labour Organization and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) etc. –, the Institute's report encompasses contemporary forms of slavery in Brazil, their connections with the informal economy, and the mechanisms to prevent, combat and redress slavery in the country.

Millions of workers are unemployed, underutilized, or under informal arrangements

According to official statistics from 2021, 12.4 million Brazilians are unemployed; 29.1 million are underutilized workers; and 38.6 million are informal workers. In the first quarter of 2021, unemployment reached the highest level since, at least, 1976.

From the end of the first semester of 2021, unemployment began to decline. This was mainly driven by informal jobs. The latter often display higher levels of vulnerability and lower pay. As a result, the average income from work decreased despite the improvements in employment, and reached the lowest level since the historical series started in 2012.

A large part of the population earns their livelihood through autonomous activities or working in micro and small businesses. Most of them are characterized by the absence of formal registration of the company and/or the worker and for not contributing to social security.

Micro and small businesses are often started for reasons of necessity, and not opportunity or an entrepreneurial spirit of those pursuing them. This is especially true among the less educated.

Although there can be informal workers living under decent conditions, and workers in the formal economy who are subject to degrading contexts, some of the most precarious working conditions in the country are indeed found among informal arrangements.

The victims in urban and rural areas

In terms of regions and sectors, contemporary forms of slavery happen more often in rural areas– v.g., in agriculture, livestock, and coal mining. n urban areas, they are more commonly present in construction, garment industry and textile manufacturing, and for sexual exploitation purposes.

Contemporary forms of slavery are also particularly present in domestic settings. Victims are generally women and girls working as domestic servants. More attention to this manifestation of slavery is needed.

Victims are often trapped in a cycle in which they have to be rescued and liberated multiple times.

There are limitations regarding the available sources on the characteristics of informal workers who are more vulnerable to slavery. An important exception is a study published in 2011 by the International Labour Organization.

According to the cited study, most of the identified victims in selected rural areas were men (95.3%), young (average 31.8 years) and non-whites (81%). 77.6% were originally from the Northeast Region.

70% of rescued workers were migrants. The deterritorialization or uprooting of these workers is a fundamental characteristic (although not universal) of this group that, if disregarded, can even lead to the ineffectiveness of policies or initiatives aimed at them.

Driven by economic and social vulnerability to leave their places of origin in search of work opportunities, many of the victims fall prey to forced and bonded labour.

71.9% lived in urban areas (notably on the outskirts of cities). Among these, 84% came from rural areas and had migrated for more than five years.

As for education, 18.3% of the workers were illiterate and had never attended school. 45% were functionally illiterate and had completed less than four years of schooling.

Virtually all workers had some history of child labour, as they started their professional life before the age of 16 (92.6%).

Finally, a high degree of re-victimization of the interviewees was observed: 59.7% had already been through some situation of slave labour involving deprivation of liberty.

Mechanisms to prevent and combat slavery

There are provisions allowing victims to file complaints of slavery, v.g., before the Labour Inspectorate, the Labour Prosecution Service and the Labour Justice. Moreover, slavery is tackled by the actions and inspections of the Special Mobile Inspection Group (“Grupo Especial de Fiscalização Móvel”). Another important mechanism is the public naming and shaming of companies and people charged with exploiting slave labour known as the "dirty list".

Additionally, rescued victims are immediately entitled to receive three instalments of unemployment insurance as a means of temporary financial assistance. They are also entitled to the labour rights and payments which they should have received in the first place. Furthermore, the federal government must provide them with professional qualification and replacement.

Organizations of workers and civil society organizations with a pro-social agenda can also play an important role.

The most common forms of working people's organizations are unions, cooperatives, and associations.

Unions are entities directly affected by the existence of the informal economy, given that they have historically turned their attention to formal workers. Unions can act to ensure that the employer fulfils all duties assigned by labour legislation.

Cooperatives can be used by informal workers to create new income opportunities and to overcome their adversities in a collective manner. And Associations can be used by informal workers to replace unions and cooperatives. This is often the case, either because of lack of knowledge or because of the difficulties in creating Unions or Cooperatives.

Among civil society organizations with a pro-social agenda, two cases in point are the Comissão Pastoral da Terra, an ecumenic organization created among the Catholic Church in 1975; and Repórter Brasil, an independent organization created in 2001 by a group of journalists, social scientists and educators.


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