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Brazil: Expropriation Approved for Slave Labor Properties

[All links in Portuguese unless stated otherwise.]

In order to combat exploitative slave labor, the Brazilian Congress approved the Proposal of Constitutional Amendment Number 438 (PEC 438) last May 22, 2012. The approved proposal, ensures the immediate expropriation of properties without right to compensation where “the government's inspectors prove the existence of slave labor or similar forms of exploitation of manpower in certain properties, whether rural or urban”.

Until the recent approval, confiscated land would go for Agrarian Reform and in the case of the urban environment, the properties would go to housing programs. It was the addition of urban real estate to the project that made a second round of voting necessary in the House of Representatives, which took seven years to happen.

The vote on the PEC, according to Deputy Dr. Rosinha, was delayed at least 37 times and waited a whole 17 years to be passed between modifications, additions, votes in the Senate and House of Representatives and delays on the part of the “ruralistas” that when approaching the moment of voting, sought to empty Congress and perform various maneuvers to avoid policies that could get the necessary votes for approval of the proposal.

Deputies celebrate the approval of PEC 438. Photo by Rogério Tomaz Jr, used with permission

Deputies celebrate the approval of PEC 438. Photo by Rogério Tomaz Jr, used with permission

Activist Rogério Tomaz Jr gives the details:

Dois mil, oitocentos e quarenta e um dias. Sete anos, nove meses e onze dias.

Esse foi o tempo decorrido entre a aprovação em primeiro e segundo turnos da proposta de emenda à Constituição (PEC 438/2001) que expropria terras onde for constatada a prática do trabalho escravo.

Originalmente proposta em 1999 por um baiano – o senador Ademir Andrade (PSB-PA) – e aprovada numa sessão da Câmara conduzida por um gaúcho, o deputado Marco Maia (PT-RS), a PEC do Trabalho Escravo foi uma rara (e acachapante) derrota dos ruralistas num Congresso onde eles, via de regra, aprovam ou desaprovam tudo que querem.

Two thousand eight hundred and forty-one days. Seven years, nine months and eleven days.

This was the time between the approval for first and second rounds of the Proposal of Constitutional Amendment (PEC 438/2001) which expropriates land where the practice of slave labor is found.

Originally proposed in 1999 by a Senator from Bahia, Ademir Andrade (PSB-PA), and adopted in a session in the House of Representatives led by Dep. Marco Maia (PT-RS), from Rio Grande do Sul, the PEC of Slavery was a rare (and overwhelming ) defeat  for the “ruralistas” in a Congress in which they, as a rule, approve or disapprove all they want.

The original design of the PEC 438 dates back to 1995 (in the Chamber of Deputies) when Deputy Paulo Rocha of the Workers Party of Bahia proposed a project for the expropriation of rural property on which was found the use of workers under conditions similar to slavery, and 1999 (in the Senate) by the hands of Senator of Pará, Ademir de Andrade. In 2001, the proposal was amended by Senator Ademir de Andrade and was transformed into PEC 438, designating the confiscated land to land reform; he has since battled for its approval.

The proposal was approved in the Senate and in the first round in the House of Representatives in August 2004, with 326 votes in favor, 10 against and 8 abstentions. Proposed amendments to the constitution require two rounds for approval, which should gather the votes of at least three fifths of the total of 513 federal deputies. Members of the so called Rural Caucus – often criticized for its “regressive” policies in the Brazilian agricultural sector and agribusiness- kept delaying the second ballot of the PEC 438, but it ended up being adopted now, with 360 votes in favor, 29 against and 25 abstentions, a total of 414 votes.

Survey of NGO Reporter Brasil with photos and names of Deputies who voted against the PEC 438.

Survey of NGO Reporter Brasil with photos and names of Deputies who voted against the PEC 438.

On Twitter, the tag #PEC438 was widely used especially by supporters of the proposal.

Federal Deputy of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) Chico Alencar (@DepChicoAlencar) counted the parties that voted against the PEC, including those who abstained and those who declared obstruction:

Dos 55 votos NÃO, ABSTENÇÃO e OBSTRUÇÃO contra PEC trab escravo 40% foram do PSD, 30% do DEM, 25% PP, 24% PMDB, 18% PTB, 17% PR

Of the 55 votes NO, ABSTENTION, and OBSTRUCTION against the PEC of Slave Labor were 40% of the PSD, 30% DEM, 25% PP, 24% PMDB, PTB 18%, 17% PR

Journalist George Silva (@George_wos) indicated the number of dissenting votes for each party:

DEM (5), PDT (1), PHS (1), PMDB (7), PP (4), PR (1), PSC (1), PSD (7), PSDB (1) e PTB (1). Os 29 votos contra à ‪#PEC438http://bit.ly/JHwclW

DEM (5), PST (1), PHS (1), PMDB (7), PP (4), PR (1), CSP (1), PSD (7), PSDB (1) and PTB (1). The 29 votes against the # PEC438 ‪ ‬ http://bit.ly/JHwclW

Professor Idelber Avelar published via Twitter the full list of votes in the House of Representatives. The website Trabalho Escravo (Slave Work), created by NGOs that supported the approval of PEC 438 also compiled a list of legislators who voted and those who were absent and also posted the names and photos of each one of them.

At the same time, legislators who supported the approval celebrated, such as Jean Wyllys (@jeanwyllys_real) from PSOL, and Paulo Teixeira (@PauloTeixeira13) from PT:

#PEC438‬ aprovada! Vitória histórica! Vitória da democracia e do Brasil que deseja se desenvolver sem explorar a mão de obra escrava!

#PEC438 ‬ approved! Historic victory! Victory of democracy and of a Brazil that wishes to develop without exploring the slave labor!

Blogger and activist Leonardo Sakamoto commented on some of the reasons why the vote was so hard and time consuming:

Os ruralistas e contrários à proposta defendem a aprovação de uma lei que defina o conceito de trabalho escravo, diminuindo as situações possíveis de caracterizá-lo. Os favoráveis à proposta e o governo afirmam que não há necessidade e que o conceito de trabalho escravo já é claro no artigo 149 do Código Penal, defendendo a aprovação de legislação infraconstitucional apenas para regulamentar a expropriação, garantindo que ela ocorra após decisão judicial transitada em julgado.

Deputies celebrate and sing the national anthem with the Brazilian flag. Photo of Thiago Skárnio under CC license

Deputies celebrate and sing the national anthem with the Brazilian flag. Photo of Thiago Skárnio under CC license

The ruralistas and those against the proposal argued the approval of a law that defines the concept of slave labor, diminishing the possible situations to characterize it. Those in favor of the proposal and the government say there is no need and that the concept of slavery is already clear in Article 149 of the Penal Code, advocating the adoption of constitutional legislation to regulate only the expropriation, ensuring that it occurs after a final court decision .

Conservative journalist Políbio Braga applauded those who voted against the PEC, stating that:

O artigo 149 do Código Penal, fala em condições “exaustivas”, ”degradantes” e “análogas”, mas não conceitua nada. Para efeitos de expropriação da propriedade rural ou urbana, tudo ficará submetido ao arbítrio do fiscal da DRT [Delegacia Regional do Trabalho].

Article 149 of the Penal Code says under “comprehensive”, “degrading” and “similar” but doens't conceptualize anything. For the purposes of expropriation of  rural or urban propertu, all will be subject to the discretion of the supervisor of the DRT [Regional Labor Delegation].
These arguments are strongly disputed by government agencies and civil society members who work for combating slave labor in Brazil, which strengthen the laws that conceptualize slavery and provide mechanisms for monitoring and penalizing are clear and already have broad jurisdiction. This was clearly reinforced by the UN rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, the Armenian Gulnara Shahinian.
The PEC now goes to vote in the Senate, where “ruralistas” hope to open a debate to discuss and redefine the concept of “slave labor”, despite this being explicit in the Criminal Code, aiming to restrict the definition only in extreme cases, excluding situations degradation and violation of human rights, which they considered “less serious”.
Article written in collaboration with Mariana Parra.

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