In the last 13 years, 333 people have been rescued from slave-labor conditions in Brazil’s illegal mines according to a new report from Mining Observatory. Most were operating in the Amazon and mining for gold, while other mines targeted precious stones such as amethyst, kaolin, limestone and tin.
Law enforcement found the majority of victims through 31 raids across the Amazon and northeastern Brazil, covering the states of Pará, Amazonas, Amapá, Rondônia, Mato Grosso, Bahia, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte.
“Over the course of these operations over the past few years, we’ve seen criminals increasingly using slave labor. Because they manage, with this practice, to make that illegal activity, which was already profitable, even more profitable,” explained Warlei Dias, the Federal Police chief in Brasília and head of the Forced Labor Repression Nucleus.
In all the raids, workers are found in precarious conditions, without adequate accommodation facilities or bathrooms; consuming contaminated water and improvised food; working without protective equipment, on exhausting journeys, and without formal employment; and, often, subjected to accumulated debts with the owners of the mines, or garimpos, most of them illegal. Under Brazilian law, such conditions constitute slave labor.
The decision to crack down on these mines came from the Special Mobile Inspection Group (GEFM) created under the Public Ministry of Labor, says Magno Riga, the group coordinator. “It was an institutional decision. We started to look more closely at mining and prioritize operations.”
Illegal mining is usually accompanied by other crimes, such as illegal deforestation, illegal possession of weapons, and formation of criminal networks. Slave labor fits into this context, said Warlei Dias.
Following a rescue, workers are entitled to basic rights, including payment of severance pay, unemployment insurance, shelter at social assistance centers, and assistance to return to their place of origin if they are victims of human trafficking.
Still, a persistent problem in Brazil is the lack of labor auditors and staff. Today the Special Mobile Inspection Group (GEFM) has a mere 17 auditors — the same number from a decade ago. The Covid-19 pandemic has made their work even more difficult.
“Most [auditors] are in remote or indoor activity because of the pandemic. Over the last 25 years, this is certainly the time when we have the fewest auditors in the field,” said Riga, the GEFM coordinator.