Brazil will use drones to fight slave labour in rural areas

Forced labour accounts for 1.8 million men and women in Latin America

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — The Brazilian government plans to use drones to strengthen its fight against slave labour in rural areas, the Labour Ministry has said.

Labour inspectors, who investigate properties that are suspected of employing workers in slave-like conditions, will use six drones equipped with cameras to monitor suspicious activities starting next month in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

"Drones don't substitute the inspector's physical presence, but they will be useful out in the country, in the case of farms that are hard to reach by road, for example," said Bruno Barcia Lopes, coordinator of Rural Supervision at Rio de Janeiro's Labour Secretariat.

The Inspire 1 drones, made by China's DJI, have cameras that can shoot 4K resolution video and capture 12 megapixel photos. After Rio, other Brazilian states will start using similar equipment, the Labour Ministry said in a statement last week.

The decision to use drones comes at a time when a crucial weapon in Brazil's fight against slavery — regular publication of a blacklist of companies using slave labour — has been halted by an injunction brought by a body representing real estate developers.

More than 120 years after Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888, about 1.8 million men and women work for little or no pay as forced labourers in Latin America, according to 2012 estimates by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO). Globally, 21 million people are trapped in some form of forced labour.

There is no reliable data about slave labour in Brazil, and it's difficult to gauge if the situation has improved or if employers who exploit slave labour have simply become more sophisticated, said Leonardo Sakamoto, head of Sao Paulo-based Reporter Brasil, an NGO that exposes slave labor cases.

"We can't say things are better, or that slave labor has migrated to the cities, and it's almost impossible to calculate numbers," Sakamoto said. "Slave labour is like Silly Putty. Every time you squeeze it, it assumes a different form."


In May 1995 Brazil officially recognized the active use of slave labour in the economy. That year, the Labor Ministry launched a Special Mobile Enforcement Group that works with prosecutors and the police to find and raid farms and companies that employ slave workers. Since then, 50,000 people have been freed from slave-like work.

A key weapon in Brazil's fight against slavery is the "Dirty List" of employers. Launched in November 2003, the blacklist has revealed to the public hundreds of companies and individual employers who were investigated by labour prosecutors and found to be using slaves.

The list of about 600 employers is updated every six months. If after two years a company pays all its fines and proves that it has remedied working conditions, it is removed from the list.

Blacklisted employers are blocked from receiving government loans and have restrictions placed on sales of their products. They also undergo private sector boycotts, as more than 400 banks and companies have signed the National Slave Eradication pact of 2005, pledging not to do business with blacklisted employers.

The fight against slave labour had a setback in December, when Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lewandowski ordered the Labour Ministry to suspend the release of the blacklist.

His decision was a response to an injunction filed by Brazil's Real Estate Developers' Association (Abrainc), whose members include the country's largest construction companies.

Last year, OAS SA, which built two stadiums for Brazil's World Cup, was put on the blacklist. Odebrecht, Latin America's largest construction company, was accused last year of keeping 500 Brazilian workers in slave-like conditions at the construction site of a sugar and ethanol plant in Angola.

The government has been working to relaunch the list, using Brazil's Freedom of Information Law as its main argument.

Brazil defines slave labour as work carried out in degrading conditions or in conditions that pose a risk to the worker's life. Forced labour, and working to pay off debts incurred with the employer, are also considered slave labour.

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