Symposium: Slave Labour and Gender: Who are the Women Subject to Slave Labour in Brazil?

18 March 2021
Research Innovation

Natália Suzuki  | Coordinator of Escravo, nem pensar!, Repórter Brasil
Thiago Casteli  | Project Advisor for Escravo, nem pensar!, Repórter Brasil
Rodrigo Teruel  | Project Assistant for Escravo, nem pensar!, Repórter Brasil

According to data from Brazil’s Ministry of the Economy, only five per cent of the total number of people rescued from slave labour in Brazil are women. This relatively small number has contributed to the invisibility of women subjected to slave labour and, therefore, civil society organizations and government institutions have paid little attention to gender considerations in relation to this human rights violation.

The perverse result of this situation is that the specificities arising from the question of gender have remained obscured for decades and even disregarded by public policies dedicated to the eradication of slave labour in Brazil, thereby reinforcing gender inequalities.

Still, who are the female workers subject to slave-like conditions in Brazil? Where do they come from? What types of labour were they engaged in when they exited situations of slavery?

Between 2003 and 2018, 47,760 workers were found in conditions analogous to slavery in Brazil. Of the total, 35,943 victims were registered in the database for the unemployment insurance granted to rescued people. Among them, only 1,889 were women. Of these, 62 per cent were either illiterate or did not complete the fifth year of elementary school.

There is also a relevant racial disparity among those rescued: more than half (53 per cent) are of African descent, of which 42 per cent are pardo (of mixed ethnic ancestry) and 11 per cent are black. They come mainly from the states of Maranhão (16.4 per cent), Pará (12.8 per cent), Minas Gerais (10.6 per cent), Bahia (10.4 per cent) and São Paulo (10.2 per cent). Like men, these women are in conditions of socio-economic vulnerability, which makes them more susceptible to labour exploitation.

This data is part of an unprecedented investigation by the non-governmental organization Repórter Brasil about the question of gender as it relates to the labour exploitation of female workers in the country. The study was carried out based on the inspection records of the Ministry of the Economy between 2003 and 2018. The results of the research are presented in the briefing, Slave labour and gender: Who are the women subject to slave labour in Brazil?, which was produced by Repórter Brasil’s education programme, Slavery, no way! (in Portuguese: Escravo, nem pensar!), with the support of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Like men, most women were found working in agricultural activities: 64.2 per cent of the total, corresponding to 1,212 women. They both partook in labour considered arduous and physically demanding, such as cutting sugar cane and producing charcoal, and engaged in domestic activities, such as cooking and cleaning, thereby reproducing the same logic of the sexual division of labour entrenched in society at large. It is not coincidental that the second most recurring occupation for women subject to slave labour is that of cook.

Check out Brazil’s data dashboard that brings together all national publicly available data related to SDG Target 8.7 forms of exploitation. All years of data hold up to standards set by interagency collaboration between ILO, UNICEF and World Bank, though, in some cases are not perfectly comparable between years.

Domestic work and sex work are not perceived as labour

Domestic activity is often not recognized as work. There have been cases in which the responsible authorities have identified domestic workers as merely relatives of exploited workers, who just happened to be at the site of exploitation accompanying their husbands, children or parents. This mistaken perception means that they are not considered workers and end up deprived of their labour rights, further aggravating their vulnerability and hindering their ability to re-establish their lives after exploitation, which reinforces gender inequality.

The problem of not recognizing the activities of the “care economy” as labour derives from a ubiquitous notion that the role and place of women belong to the private sphere. Therefore, it is “natural” (and not socially constructed) that women are held responsible for managing the home, which includes educating the children, caring for family members, especially the elderly and the sick, as well as household chores such as cooking, cleaning and ironing.

From the moment they enter the labour market, many women engage in activities in the spheres of education and care, such as social assistance and health. Once understood as an extension of women’s chores carried out in the private sphere, these professions are devalued socioeconomically, resulting in low salaries. This logic also extends to the perception of hired domestic workers. In Brazil, domestic work is poorly paid and informal. The number of cases of slave labour would be much higher if situations where girls and women spend their entire lives devoted to domestic work, living for years—often decades—in homes of families other than their own, in exchange for “favours”, such as housing and food, without receiving a single salary were identified and considered as cases of slave labour.

Work activities in which women are subject to slave-like conditions are only a reproduction of gender inequalities that are already rooted in society. Thus, the sexual division of work and the devaluation of women’s work are reproductions of stigmas, prejudices and asymmetries that are part of our daily relationships. More broadly, this invisibility has serious consequences, such as underreporting in official data of women subject to slave labour, which, in turn, makes difficult the elaboration of public policies that take gender into account.

The problem of underreporting also affects women who are exploited in sexual activities. There are known cases of sex workers in situations of slave labour, such as the workers at a nightclub identified in 2010 in Mato Grosso. However, until 2018, there was no record in the slave labour inspection data where female workers are classified as “sex workers”. In such cases, they ended up being classified as “dancers” or “waitresses”. In some cases, the victims themselves do not wish to be identified as sex workers. In others, the authorities use other occupations so that the employment relationship can be established, and the indemnities and rights can be paid, as it is still common to perceive prostitution not as a labour activity for which labour rights are guaranteed. The first record of an identified case of slave labour for the purpose of sexual exploitation took place only in 2019, in the Operação Cinderela (Operation Cinderella).

Women who stay

Slave labour still impacts many women in another way. These are the so-called “widows of living husbands”, present in communities marked by seasonal migration, in which slave-like working conditions are frequently found. They are the wives of the workers who regularly leave for temporary jobs, staying away from home for several months. Often, neither the money arrives, nor does the worker return due to the migrant’s experience of exploitation. Alone, they assume the role of breadwinner along with all the responsibilities that arise from that position, such as the children’s education, and the care for and support of all other family members. In such situations, women are still victims of slave labour from another perspective, which is perversely invisible and no less cruel.

 Slave labour in São Paulo

As noted previously, national data on slave labour in Brazil indicates that 95 per cent of those identified in slave labour are men and 5 per cent are women. The Repórter Brasil investigation confirms that this proportion is recurrent in most Brazilian states. However, there are four exceptions: Amapá, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo*.

The most outlier case from the national average is that of the state of São Paulo, where the proportion is 82 per cent and 18 per cent for men and women, respectively. In the city of São Paulo, the proportion moves further away from the national average: of the 430 victims, 30 per cent are women and 70 percent are men. This is due to the considerable female presence in sewing workshops, which are one of the main sites of exploitation of workers in the city of São Paulo. Among the total number of women subject to slave labour in the city, 93.1 per cent are immigrants mainly from Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay. The state of São Paulo also appears as one of the five main places of origin of the rescued workers. This is because foreign migrants are considered to have originated from the city where they were exploited.

In the case of Amapá, the number of people rescued is very low (six people) and, therefore, the presence of only one woman among them easily changes the proportion in question. In Espírito Santo, other investigations should be carried out for more consistent explanations about the states’s data. Finally, in Rio de Janeiro, where the proportion is similar to that of São Paulo, it appears that the presence of women is due to the rescues that took place in the sugar cane sector, where many women were identified among the exploited workers, but the cases require even more careful investigation and analysis.

The disaggregation of national data to the state and municipal levels allows for a new interpretation of slave labour in Brazil, as it is possible to identify the particularities of local realities and understand how socioeconomic dynamics, which include gender issues, influence the configuration of this violation in different contexts throughout the country. In this sense, the systematization and dissemination of more accurate and precise data can contribute to making public policies, including those aiming to eradicate slave labour, more efficient at breaking the cycle of vulnerability and contributing to a more equitable and just society.

This article has been prepared by Natália Suzuki, Thiago Casteli and Rodrigo Teruel 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.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 “Gendered Measurements of Modern Slavery” symposium. Read all the responses below:

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