Temer's government accused of shielding 'slavery'

Carola SOLÉ
A blacklist of companies mistreating workers meant to be published every six months has not appreared since Brazilian President Michel Temer took over in May 2016

Brazilian President Michel Temer's center-right government is facing accusations of trying to cover up exploitation of workers in conditions likened to modern-day slavery.

Since 2003, a weapon in the fight against companies mistreating workers, especially in Brazil's powerful agribusiness sector, has been the country's so-called "dirty list," which names violators.

The blacklist is meant to be published every six months but has failed to appear since Temer took over the presidency in May 2016, following the suspension of his leftwing predecessor Dilma Rousseff.

And fingers are being pointed at Temer's government, whose backers include the agricultural industry.

"It's clear that the government is censoring the dirty list and that it has come under pressure from the construction or agribusiness sectors," said Leonardo Sakamoto who founded Reporter Brasil, an NGO investigating companies accused of abusing workers.

Nearly 46 million people around the world work in slave-like conditions, most of them in Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, according the Walk Free Foundation, an Australia-based NGO.

Brazil, where slavery was abolished in 1888, is estimated to have 161,000 victims.

Most are young people from poor regions who are lured with false promises of good conditions to work on Brazil's extensive soy and sugarcane plantations, or its cattle ranches.

Once there they are poorly fed, made to work without pay and threatened if they try to leave, said Xavier Plassat, from the Catholic group Pastoral Land Commission in testimony to a regional rights body last year.

- Blacklist halted -

The blacklist was last published in 2014 under Rousseff's administration, but was halted in December of that year by the Supreme Court after a complaint by the construction industry association, which argued that companies listed had no way to defend their reputation.

In response, Rousseff's government made adjustments to the document and the Supreme Court lifted its ban from May 2016.

The next publication date was scheduled for June but by then Temer had taken over, and no blacklist has been published since.

In March, a court ordered its publication, but this has again been held up following an appeal by the government's lawyer, again arguing that companies rights were being harmed.

Following revisions made by a government commission and representatives of management and unions, the list is now scheduled to reappear in July.

The Brazilian labor rights watchdog has added its voice to criticism of the delays, saying the blacklist "is the most effective, efficient and rapid way to fight the evil of slave labor."

- 'Guaranteeing transparency' -

Asked to comment, the labor ministry sent a statement to AFP quoting the minister, Ronaldo Nogueira, saying that the blacklist "is an important instrument for fighting slave labor."

But he added that modifications made under Rousseff failed to guarantee the right "to a proper defense by those who are accused."

The list was first created under leftwing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and those named can be fined or have funds frozen.

"The importance of the dirty list is huge in guaranteeing transparency of policy toward slave labor and so that foreign companies can analyze the risk and be assured when it comes to buying certain products," Reporter Brasil said.

In December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled against Brazil in a historic case, ordering compensation to be paid to 85 people working in slave-like conditions in the Amazonian state of Para.