How an ethanol company hired degrading labour

A recent article published by the excellent investigative organization Reporter Brasil exposed details of the way slave labour is organized in the ethanol industry.

The journalist Maurício Hashizume obtained hard evidence that the company Brenco – Companhia Brasileira de Energia Renovável, a multimillion-dollar company that runs ethanol projects in Brazil aiming at the international markets, hired a middleman specialized in enlisting workers in the state of Goias for sugarcane plantations.

Many times, workers hired João Pereira da Silva, also known as “João Paracatu”, ended up being forced to work in degrading conditions and even conditions similar to slavery.

A January 2008 contract obtained by the journalist establishes that João Paracatu would get 10% of the workers’ productivity. He was hired to recruit 240 rural workers and take them to farms in the west of Goiás to work in sugarcane plantations.   

In February 2008, 17 of these workers were found by fiscals of the Ministry of Labour working in degrading conditions.   

The workers claim to have been promised a salary of 450 dollars, health plan, decent accommodation and alimentation provided by Brenco. But when they were found by the government officials, they had been sleeping in an improvised dormitory for two months.

There was only one toilet, and trash was spread all over floor together with rats and insects. The workers said they were never given products to clean the place. There were no mattresses for everyone – let alone beds – no filtered water and the food was prepared by them in a camping cook.

Some of the workers claimed that their bank cards and PIN numbers were collected by the middleman. All the workers interviewed by the government fiscals said they had not left the place because they did not have money for bus tickets.

The company Brenco denied the allegations saying that workers were being paid.

But Public prosecutor Antonio Carlos Cavalcante Rodrigues say no receipts of payments were found at the time the workers were liberated. 

According to him, the contract obtained by Reporter Brasil – which had been validated by the juridical department of Brenco and by a public notary office – violates the Constitution and the Labour legislation.

Joao Paracatu has been involved in at least three other episodes of recruiting slave workers for farms in Goiás, according to Reporter Brasil. The prosecutor Antonio Carlos himself had filed an action against him for his "recruiting" services.

But the company Brenco claims it had no knowledge of the accusations against Joao Paracatu and needed his help to recruit labour in Goiás because it was not well known in the region.

In May this year, Brenco obtained a legal writ that determines it will not be blacklisted in the government’s file of companies that recruit slave labour. Such companies are denied loans by state banks and financial institutions. 

Brenco is engaged in many ethanol projects in Brazil. In August 2008, it got a 600 million dollar financing from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) for investment in ethanol plants and to build an ethanol-duct from Goiás to the port of Santos in the southwest.

The full article in Portuguese, together with a copy of the contract, can be read in the website Reporter Brasil.