What effect has supply chain legislation had on the prevalence of modern slavery in Brazil?

In her blog, Caroline Emberson of the Rights Lab, University of Nottingham, describes findings from a research project investigating the supply chain effectiveness of modern slavery legislation. Researchers included representatives from CORE, the Brazilian NGO Reporter Brasil, the international NGO Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab in the UK and the Pontifical Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro (PUC Rio), Brazil.

Brazil: modern slavery and the “dirty list”

The Global Slavery Index estimates that in 2016 there were 369,000 slaves in Brazil. According to Reporter Brasil, the single highest number of people released from slavery between 1995 and 2017 were found in the cattle industry with the timber-producing sector also ranking highly.

Brazil is an important exporter of commodities such as beef and timber, so slavery may be widespread within its global supply chains, including those of the beef and timber products that end up in the UK.

In 2003, Brazil expanded its definition of slavery enshrined in the 1943 Brazilian Penal Code to include conditions analogous to slavery – this wider scope includes forced labour, debt bondage, excessive working hours and debilitating work. Yet despite this strong legal framework, enforcement remains a problem.

In 2009, the Brazilian Ministry of Labour started to publish a ‘dirty list’ (lista suja in Portuguese). This list details those companies who have been found using slave labour. Those appearing on the list are denied access to Brazilian Government loans and some larger companies in both sectors use it to block the purchase of goods supplied by offenders.

There has long been a history of ‘peonage’ (a system of debt-bondage) in the Brazilian cattle industry. But with a complex supply network of cattle ranches encompassing 10,000s of suppliers, blocking the small number of organisations whose names appear on the dirty list has not in itself been enough to change labour practices.

The UK Modern Slavery Act – changing businesses practices?

However, our research shows that, with the introduction in 2015 of the UK Modern Slavery Act, JBS, the world’s largest meat packer, has taken further steps to improve its slavery risk identification processes.

Working in collaboration with the Brazilian anti-slavery NGO InPACTO, JBS uses geographical and territorial risk monitoring data, combined with data related to socio-economic vulnerability, to produce a ‘heat map.’ Against this, the locations of its cattle suppliers can be mapped and relative slavery risk identified.

The Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock (GTPS or Grupo de Trabalho da Pecuaria Sustentavel in Portuguese), who represent 1.7 million livestock producers in Brazil, has also developed a voluntary, self-assessment tool for use by farmers to assess their labour practices. Assessment scores can be used to identify specific weaknesses and as a tool for selecting and monitoring potential breeding and fattening farm suppliers.

Likewise, in the timber sector, the large Brazilian pulp and paper processor Klabin has been working with timber producers to raise labour standards across the industry. It has introduced audits against the Forest Stewardship Council Small and Low Intensity Managed Forests (SLIMF) standard among a group of its ‘formentados’ or partners.

Other companies have sought to tackle one of the underlying causes of slavery: poverty. In 2009 Fibria, who manage the cultivation of eucalyptus and pine forests mainly in the South East of Brazil, introduced a cooperative scheme to help communities located close to its Aracruz operations develop alternative sources of income.

Fibria’s rural land development programme (PDRP) identifies vulnerable communities through the assessment of indicators related to social and environmental vulnerability, the impact that its operations have on the community and the regions’ local importance to the company. Resources are then targeted to identify designated community areas for growing crops and tools, technical and marketing assistance provided. By 2017 the scheme included over five thousand families across 56 communities.

Stronger enforcement and stricter sanctions needed to stamp out slavery

Our research shows the development of capabilities to tackle slavery at the firm, supply chain and business-non-business partnership level. And there is some evidence that legislation has, at least in part, had a role to play. This is clearly promising.

Currently, however, state enforcement of existing anti-slavery policies and legislation is not strong enough to have had comprehensive, sector-wide impact. Business interventions are somewhat idiosyncratic in nature with some organisations choosing to focus on detection while others seek to develop remediation capabilities. All these initiatives are voluntary, limited to specific geographical areas and reflect the activities and interests of large organisations.

So, while these pockets of good practice may alleviate some of the risks, stronger enforcement coupled with stricter sanctions may be necessary if the UN target for the eradication of slavery by 2030 is to be achieved.

This research project was led by Principle Investigator Dr Alexander Trautrims and Co-Investigator Dr Silvia Pinheiro. It was funded by the British Academy as part of its ‘Tackling slavery, human trafficking and child labour in modern business’ programme. The investigation examined practices in Brazilian-UK beef and timber supply chains. Further details of the project’s findings can be found here.