Combating Modern Slavery in Textile Supply Chains in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas
During colonial times in Brazil, approximately one million people from Africa landed at the Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro to be sold into slavery or—for those who did not survive the horrific conditions of the middle passage—buried in “cemeteries” specific to those who were enslaved. The abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 transformed the port area into a residence for people who were formerly enslaved and domestic migrants as well as for poor European immigrants already settled in the area. These workers sought to stay close to the city’s center in search of opportunities in the capital of the Brazilian empire, planting the seeds for the first shantytown (favela) in Rio de Janeiro, called Favela da Providência. Today, this part of the city where death was mourned and human beings sold is called “Porto Maravilha” or Marvelous Port.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo built the first textile factories in the country, using cotton produced in the big plantations in the north of Brazil and selling their products to domestic and external markets. Many of the families that settled in the Favela da Providência worked in the textile factories. Women and children joined the ranks of workers without social protections, including low wages and employer controls. Later, the competition with cotton from the United States diminished the Brazilian textile sector, making urban land speculation more profitable than factory production. After textile factories closed, the huge areas called workers’ neighbourhoods (cidades operárias in Portuguese), constructed partially by the textile workers, transformed into the poor suburbs of today.
Interestingly, sewing remains a means of survival for many women living in the port area and in the suburbs of Rio. They work individually in small accommodations where sewing machines, flaps and needles are mixed with children playing. Other groups of women go to work in the former tenements in the port area, subcontracted by small clothing manufacturers, who employ these women under degrading working conditions. They are part of the invisible and under-studied production supply chains, which are characterized by seasonal demand. These women supply garment and beachwear to small and large clothing shops and samba carnival schools . During the summer and the carnival celebrations, there is an increase in orders and in supply of labour which leads to a fall in hourly wages and further degrading work conditions.
Sewing My Rights
It is in this context that the Sewing My Rights project (Costurando Meus Direitos in Portuguese), which is funded by the Brazilian Human Rights Fund (Fundo Brasil de Direitos Humanos in Portuguese), was developed. The aim of the project is to promote citizenship education and to build resilience to child labour in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Given that child labour is often the result of the exploitation of mothers and women who are deprived of the freedom of choice to support their families, the project chose them and their children as its focus.
To foreground the knowledge and the experience of those who are vulnerable to slavery in the peripheries of Rio de Janeiro, the project sought partnership with a local sewing cooperative, called the Cooperativa Maravilha. As a result of an agreement with the Rio city council, the Cooperative occupies a former wharf located in the port area and produces public servants’ uniforms and clothes for sale in local shops. The rules of the Cooperative Maravilha include: respect for working hours; negotiation of a fair price; and the cultivation of a healthy work environment, in which the members share their issues in a network of mutual help and solidarity. These women, mostly mothers and grandmothers who are residents of the Favela da Providência, are aware of the importance of breaking the cycle of exploitation.
Sewing My Rights started with identifying the demands and priorities of the group of women. The group first demanded an increase in the number of members in order for the Cooperative to both be able to fulfill high volume orders and to avoid sacrifices of family time and leisure. As a result, the project organized a sewing training course and attracted more women from the Favela da Providência who were interested in learning how to sew and to be part of the Cooperativa Maravilha. However, while income generation is an important step in the fight against poverty, patterns of exploitation can be reproduced even after the training. For this reason, the project is not limited to capacity-building but is also a forum for discussion and debate of issues such as modern slavery, child labour, children’s rights, notions of citizenship, dignity of work, cooperativism and social organization among the mothers and grandmothers—themes that are also incorporated into the children’s play activities.
Outcomes and Impacts of the Sewing My Rights Project
The children are the key focus of the Project’s activities. They enjoy exclusive attention in a space with books, games and recycled materials, close to their mothers, in order to learn values such as respect for others, dignity, care for the body and the environment, understanding “difference”, among other topics that are raised by the children themselves. In this space of trust, they are accompanied by a child psychologist and two women, who are responsible for the community children’s library of the Favela do Cantagalo. The two women from the Favela do Cantagalo act as vectors of change while scaling up the Sewing my Rights project in their community and mobilizing knowledge to address the issue of child labour. The network of seamstresses, academics, activists and students, who are part of the project, provide support to ensure the continuity of the project, disseminating benefits and helping to identify patterns of exploitation in different locals.
The testimonies of the Project’s mothers and grandmothers regarding the evolution of their children and grandchildren can be seen in the video that was made about the project:
Their testimonies highlight the value of enjoying a moment of learning, where, without worrying about their children or grandchildren, the women have devoted themselves to knowledge and empowerment.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the project’s outcomes needed to be reshaped, and the group of seamstresses assumed an essential role to combat the virus. The Cooperativa Maravilha and the Sewing My Rights project produced 3,000 masks which were donated to public health clinics in the port area and to families from the Favela da Providência. Due to the pandemic, the training courses shifted online, and the number of members continued to increase. From ten women in the beginning of the project, now there are 38 women and one man, who are learning not only how to sew but are also debating collective work, solidarity, social organization and how to raise awareness of patterns of modern slavery that must be eradicated locally.
Given the success of the project in the Favela da Providencia, the project was scaled up and developed in the Favela do Cantagalo. So far, there are six children and four women involved in the activities there, all of which are face-to-face. An increase in the number of the attendees in the library building is avoided due to the pandemic.
Finally, the success of the Sewing My Rights projects led to the construction of a nursery in the Favela da Providência. The partnership between the Cooperativa Maravilha, the Favela do Catagalo Community Library and the Sewing My Rights project continues in the direction of the empowerment of the residents of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, which are often marked by social stigma and exclusion and the worst forms of exploitation.
This article has been prepared by Silvia Pinheiro as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.
 Mattos, Hebe & Abreu, Martha. Pedra do Sal. Quilombo. Relatório Técnico de Identificação e Delimitação. INCRA. 2010.