“Deliberate blindness” leads to slave labor conditions in Brazil

“Deliberate blindness” leads to slave labor conditions in Brazil

  • Published on
    March 31, 2024
  • News Source Image
  • Category:
    Forced Labor, Supply Chain
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In a poor north-eastern state in Brazil workers harvest carnauba wax from palm trees to earn a meagre living. As reported by the BBC, big businesses like L’Oreal, who buy the wax once processed, are currently turning a blind eye to the slavery-like conditions of these workers. And despite processing plants having signed an agreement to improve supply chains and end the informality of the carnauba harvesting sector, labor inspectors in Brazil say nothing has changed for workers.

From candy, to pills to cosmetics, slavery is on the list of ingredients

Carnauba wax is a product that has been used for years all over the world to stop candy from melting, make pills easier to swallow and to thicken cosmetics like lipstick and mascara. Raids to rescue people working on carnauba palm, or “tree of thorns”, plantations under conditions considered to be like slave labor have been conducted for over a decade. Gislene Melo dos Santos Stacholski is part of a mobile deployment unit that carries out those raids.

Gislene said:

“Carnauba harvesting is a painful activity because the working conditions under the sun aren’t easy, it’s extremely manual, heavy work, using hand tools.”

One of the unregistered workers Gislene interviewed during a recent raid shared that they had to stop working regularly or the sun would kill them. The workers at this site are drinking from plastic water containers with the words “only with medical prescription” stamped on it, which means they are drinking from old medicine containers. It is difficult dangerous work and most of the workers receive little to no training on how to do it safely. They work using handmade scythes attached to the end of a long bamboo pole which they use to cut down the leaves at the top of the palms. To avoid injury, you need to wear gloves, but only the few “registered” workers are provided with any safety equipment. The rest must buy their own or go without.

Protection on paper, but not in practice

Brazil’s penal code includes not only forced labor and debt bondage in its definition of slavery, but also degrading work conditions and long hours that risk workers’ health. However, the power to really stop the exploitation instead of just raid, fine, repeat, is all in the hands of big business who, authorities say, are turning a blind eye to exploitation. There is a high level of informality in the industry, which makes tracing the supply chain back to big companies an almost impossible task. Brazil’s Ministry of Labor tried to address the situation in 2016 when it got the five biggest wax processing companies to sign an agreement committing themselves to improving the supply chain and ending the informality in the industry. But inspector Gislene says that as nearly all the wax produced in Brazil is exported, and without strong support from foreign industry, little can be done.

Gislene stated:

“The precariousness comes from the top down…what we call deliberate blindness. It’s comfortable for the industry not to see the problems, because they don’t need to act, they don’t need to invest, they don’t need to pay.”

One of the biggest hurdles to accurately tracing supply chains for the wax is that legally, small family-run producers in Brazil do not have to keep a paper trail when selling their wax. Despite commitments to responsible sourcing, authorities say no company buying from the carnauba industry in Brazil can claim to have a clean production chain due to the pervasive informality of the harvesting process there.

At the end of her inspection Gislene handed out a fine for the 15 infractions she found at the site, including slave-like labor conditions, failing to register workers, not providing sufficient work clothes, no drinking water, unsafe electricity supply, illegal contracting of workers, poor accommodation and insanitary conditions.

This is the third time the site has been fined. After their interviews Gislene tells the workers they can go home, but few of them want to go. It was grinding poverty that led them to the job in the first place. For many, it doesn’t matter that the conditions they are working under equal modern slavery under the law. The income they bring home puts food on the table, no matter the working conditions, and it’s back to the “tree of thorns” they go. Without support from the international community and multinational industry, it is unlikely to change anytime soon.



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Ilona O'Beirne
Ilona O'Beirne
1 month ago

The greed of some companies is beyond words. They exploit about everything, nature, animals and humans. It will be aquestion of time when this will all end and nature will be fighing back. As we can see, she started allready!!!

Jeanne H Davis
Jeanne H Davis
1 month ago

Protect the workers who supply your raw materials. Many work under slavery conditions.

Maij Carter
Maij Carter
23 days ago

The greed of these companies is unbelievable! It is always about money. Time you considered the impact you are having on the labour force!

Angela O’Neale
Angela O’Neale
1 month ago

I am continually saddened at the way we treat our fellow humans. Thank goodness for those who stand up and try to make a difference. I hope we can, as a global community, get behind anything that challenges these inhumane working conditions.

Rita Meuer
Rita Meuer
1 month ago

Why won’t the infractions stop? History is very telling.

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