World Day against Trafficking in Persons: lessons from Brazil

Blog31 Jul 2017

This World Day against Trafficking in Persons we take a look at Brazil. Once a shining example of best practice in the fight against labour exploitation, it is now faltering after recent labour market reform.

For two decades Brazil has been developing policies to protect workers and punish exploiters. Employers that have exploited workers are included in a  ‘dirty list’ that not only names and shames but also prevents offenders from getting public financing. The list provides consumers, companies and investors with information on the working conditions in supply chains. Since 1995, Brazil’s Special Mobile Labour Inspection Group (GEFM) has identified over 50 thousand workers in exploitation. The GEFM also informs employers of their obligations and makes workers aware of their rights.

Earlier this month, Brazil reformed its 1943 Labour Code. Major amendments to the law now allow subcontracting in almost all jobs. This is troubling because sub-contracted staff tend to earn less and work in worse conditions than directly employed staff. As FLEX has shown, sub-contracting is concerning for those working to prevent labour exploitation because it makes workers uncertain of who should guarantee their rights or whom to contact in cases of violation.

The reform also allows for collective bargaining agreements to have the force of law. This means, employers and workers can agree salary, working hours and conditions inferior to those in the labour code. In practice, this law authorises payments below the minimum wage and allows employers to impose lower salaries and working standards. This is especially concerning in sectors with low levels of unionisation because workers will have less power in negotiations with employers. 

These reforms have been sold as economy boosting. Yet, in the process, Brazil’s world leading efforts to protect workers from exploitation have been seriously undermined. GEFM inspections have reduced by 58% in 2017, in comparison with last year. Experts in Brazil are deeply concerned that these inspections will drop even further as most funding has now been allocated. This year's inspections have identified 76% fewer workers in exploitative conditions than in 2016.

This World Day against Trafficking in Persons, there is much to be learnt from the lesson of Brazil. Hard-hitting responses to exploitation through the GEFM and the dirty list have made a real dent in Brazil’s shameful forced labour problem. This good work is undermined by new measures to deregulate the labour market and weaken worker protections, putting increasing numbers of vulnerable workers at risk of exploitation. Brazil has spent twenty years building a world leading status in the field of human trafficking, lets hope this is not the year it gambles it away. 

For more information on Brazil’s latest responses to labour exploitation visit FLEX’s Accountability Hub.