The Brazilian government has this week taken action against a tobacco company for the first time over conditions of modern slavery on a farm in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Labor inspectors found nine workers, five of whom were children, living in poor conditions and receiving less than a third of Brazil’s national minimum wage. The workers were also found to be suffering from acute intoxication due to exposure to high concentrations of nicotine.
The company facing the charges, CTA Continental Tobaccos Alliance, which exports tobacco to over 50 countries and also owns a factory to process the tobacco, said it is not responsible for conditions on the farm despite having an exclusive contract with the farm owner.
According to labor inspectors, this is not an uncommon way for tobacco companies to operate in the region, which is one of Brazil’s largest tobacco-producing areas.
While tobacco companies claim no responsibility for working conditions on the farms, the contracts they sign with farmers allow them exclusive rights to the farms’ outputs in return for “providing credit, seeds and equipment.”
Labor inspectors believe these contracts make tobacco companies responsible for any labor violations occurring on the farms.
Labor inspector Leandro Vagliati told Thomson Reuters Foundation:
“The (tobacco) industry’s current position of not being responsible for the illegal exploitation of the workforce … has to be faced. The companies have to be called to account.”
If found guilty, CTA Continental Tobaccos Alliance, which has about 12,000 of these contracts with farmers across Brazil, could be added to the Brazilian government’s “dirty list” of companies that have engaged in slave labor, which would ban them from receiving state loans for two years and tarnish their international reputation.