The Taint of Slavery in the Brazilian Beef Industry

In 2020, the United States re-opened its borders to Brazilian beef imports, three years after banning them due to health and safety concerns. While the safety of fresh beef from Brazil may have improved, these imports remain tainted – by both slave labor and deforestation.

By Erik Woodward & Joe DelGrande

A new report released at the beginning of this year by the Brazilian investigative agency Repórter Brasil found that JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, was linked to a number of suppliers that have been sanctioned by the Brazilian government for employing slave labor. The working conditions described in the report included exposure to venomous and wild animals, the absence of restrooms and bathing facilities, and a lack of clean drinking water or personal protective equipment.

Although the conditions detailed by Repórter Brasil are shocking, they are nothing new. For decades, the international community has recognized the problem of slave labor in Brazil’s beef industry. The ILO, for instance, stated in 2009 that “when it comes to the cattle farming business [in Brazil], the livestock are given much better treatment than that received by laborers.” Likewise, after a country visit to Brazil in 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery urged the Brazilian government not to pursue economic growth at the expense of forced laborers.

In Brazil, debt bondage is the most common type of forced labor scheme. Laborers, typically afro-descendant or dark-skinned men between the ages of 15 and 40, are recruited by “gatos,” who promise advance payment and free transportation to a work site, typically miles away from their homes and often across state lines. Once these laborers arrive on the job site, they quickly become indebted to their employers, needing to pay them back for their transportation, accommodations, tools, food, and other necessities purchased from employer-owned canteens. Any wages they do earn are insufficient to fully pay off these debts. As a result, workers become stuck and, in some circumstances, have their identification or work authorization documents taken and even stamped as cancelled, preventing them from easily finding work elsewhere.

The government and NGOs in Brazil have taken a number of steps to address the issue of slave labor by criminalizing the practice, creating groups and initiatives such as the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor and the Brazilian Special Mobile Inspection Group, and developing a “dirty list” of employers caught using slave labor. All of these aim to restrict, identify, and shame the use of slave labor in industries throughout the country. Nevertheless, both Repórter Brasil’s new report and the dirty list, which currently features over 100 employers, demonstrate that this serious problem still exists.

Since 1995, just over 17,000 workers in the livestock sector alone have been freed from conditions of slavery, and yet, despite overwhelming evidence of the practice, effective judicial remedies remain elusive and the practice continues. What makes enforcement challenging is the lack of clear criteria for evidence collection, missing state-level programs to combat slave labor, intimidation of human rights defenders and prosecutors of slave labor, and even the involvement of high-level officials in facilitating the practice. Additionally, comparatively mild penalties and the existence of legal loopholes limit the ability to effectively deter perpetrators. For instance, between 2003 and 2010, only half of the 300 employers featured on the dirty list – and thus involved in the use of slave labor – were subject to criminal prosecution, and only a single individual was sentenced to prison.

Beef Production, Slavery, and Deforestation

By failing to stamp out slave labor practices in the beef industry and others, the Brazilian government is contributing not only to grave human rights abuses but also to the deforestation that accelerates the frightening pace of global climate change.

The beef industry – supported by slave labor – is a key driver of illegal deforestation in Brazil. As the output from the beef industry in Brazil grows by approximately ten percent per year, so does demand for additional rangeland, prompting cattle ranchers to turn to illegal deforestation to satisfy their needs. Cattle raised on illegally deforested lands are slaughtered and introduced into domestic and international supply chains. In this way, Brazil’s largest beef exporting companies – including JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva – are directly implicated in illegal deforestation. An investigation conducted by Global Witness found that between 2017 and 2019, these companies “bought cattle from a combined 379 ranches, containing 20,000 football fields worth of illegal deforestation.”

Much of the beef produced in Brazil is exported internationally to the world’s largest economies.  According to Trase, a data-mapping project which traces global supply chains for agricultural commodities, China alone imported nearly 100,000 tons of Brazilian beef in 2017. Other leading importers included Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. As such, imported beef sold in the supermarkets of these countries is implicated in both slavery and illegal deforestation.

How Can We Clean Up the Industry?

While Brazilian beef may now be free of diseases, the industry must still be transformed to rid it of the continued taint of slave labor and deforestation. As the Repórter Brasil investigation makes clear, the current domestic efforts in Brazil to regulate the beef industry and to ensure that the supply chain is free of slave labor are inadequate. While additional pressure should be directed at the Brazilian government to more effectively regulate beef production, global importers of Brazilian beef must also play an essential role in catalyzing industry reform. Leading importing states should follow Finland’s recent suggestion and impose government-mandated reductions and bans on Brazilian beef. Furthermore, non-governmental efforts at promoting supply chain transparency can provide consumers with valuable tools to avoid purchasing Brazilian beef that has potentially been tainted by the use of slave labor and deforestation. These initiatives, which aim to impact the bottom line of beef producers in Brazil, will play an important role in pushing the government and beef producers themselves to more effectively regulate the production and exportation of beef while holding the perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable.


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