by Mario Osava
(IPS) RIO DE JANEIRO -- "It was terrible to see 30-year-old men crying like little boys," said Carmen Bascaran, trying to portray the sense of terror in which a group of charcoal workers in northern Brazil were living before they were taken in by her human rights organization three months ago.
The 11 men, who were working on a charcoal-producing ranch in the southeastern portion of the northern Amazon state of Para, fled to escape slave-like working conditions and sought help from the Centre for Defense of Life and Human Rights (CDVDH) in the nearest city, Axailandia.
CDVDH gave them shelter in a house in the city for a few days. But the threats from their "employers" and the fear of being killed made a safer refuge necessary.
"At midnight we took them to a remote estate, owned by friends, until the Labor Ministry took a hand in the matter " 15 days later, Bascaran told IPS.
As president of CDVDH, she had already been involved in many similar cases, protecting and hiding workers who had been subjected to forced labor in appalling conditions -- a phenomenon that is common in Para and Maranhao state to the east, where Axailandia is located.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are between 25,000 and 40,000 people working in slavery-like conditions in this South American country of roughly 180 million. Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (MST) says the number is even higher.
New hope for curbing slave labor on charcoal-producing ranches in northern Brazil emerged last month when 15 local steel mills signed a pact in which they promised to require that their charcoal suppliers ensure decent working conditions for their employees.
The pledge was signed in Brasilia, the capital, by the Carajas Steel Mill Association, other steel industry associations, and local non-governmental organizations pushing for socially responsible business practices, like the Ethos Institute and the Social Observatory.
There has been a concerted effort over the past decade to eradicate modern-day slave labor in Brazil by drafting the support of industry for measures aimed at abolishing servitude and degrading working conditions at all points of the production chain.
Remote charcoal ranches, sugar plantations and areas where land is being cleared for growing monoculture crops like soybeans or for raising cattle in northern Brazil are the main exploiters of forced labor, said Bascaran.
The charcoal is produced from felled trees, whose wood is gathered by workers, including children, and fired in kilns. The charcoal is used as an input for pig iron smelters, which obtain it from subcontractors.
The pig iron industry boomed in the 1970s in the Carajas region in southern Para, leading to an increase in Brazil's exports of iron ore, of which it is one of the world's leading producers.
The expansion of the industry took advantage of the high unemployment in a part of Brazil where the state is largely absent and labor laws go unenforced.
That area of northern Brazil has the highest number of rural murders, whose main victims are trade unionists and rural, social and human rights activists, as well as Catholic priests who work with the poor.
The slave-like conditions involve workers who are recruited by agents, known as "gatos," with promises of decent wages. But once they are brought to the remote ranches, the workers find they are unable to leave, not only due to the lack of transportation but also because many of the establishments are watched over by armed guards, and they are threatened with torture or death if they try to escape.
When the workers arrive, they already owe the "gatos" the cost of their transportation. And since they are forced to buy their food and tools in the company store at inflated prices, they continue to fall further and further into debt, because their meagre wages fail to cover what they owe.
Neither work contracts nor labor rights exist, and the charcoal producers work up to 14 hours a day without even the minimal safety protection of gloves or boots. On top of that, they are given poor-quality, insufficient food, said Odilon Faccio, director of the Social Observatory.
But unemployment in the region is so high that there is an abundance of workers who have no choice but to accept any job they are offered.
In the states of Maranhao and Para there are between 20,000 and 23,000 charcoal ranches, according to Faccio. But Bascaran says there may be many more, because a large proportion of the ranches work in clandestine conditions in extremely remote areas.
Producing the charcoal poses a huge threat to the health of workers, causing respiratory and skin ailments and circulatory problems due to the charcoal dust and high temperatures in the kilns. They are also prone to accidents due to the extremely unsafe working conditions. At the age of 40, a charcoal maker is already old, Bascaran said.
The steel mills signed the pact to fight slave labor because legal action against their charcoal suppliers threatened to bring them legal problems and leave them without credit from Brazil's government-owned banks.
In addition, some overseas markets are refusing to purchase charcoal-based pig iron produced by forced labor, said Bascaran.
August 17, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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