How the ‘mini labor reform’ affects the fight against slave labor

Pending in Congress, Provisional Measure No. 1045 is referred to the Senate with amendments that undermine the oversight of labor irregularities

Foto: MPT/Reprodução
Foto: MPT/Reprodução

The Federal Senate is scheduled to vote this Wednesday, September 1, on Provisional Measure No. 1045 that weakens labor oversight and punishment of cases of contemporary slavery. The measure also permits, among other things, the reduction of salaries and employment contracts without labor rights. Since all Provisional Measures have an expiry date, the deadline for the Senate to vote is September 7, otherwise the bill loses validity.

The so-called Mini Labor Reform bill was submitted by the Presidency and it creates the New Emergency Program for the Maintenance of Employment and Income. It is defended by allies of the federal government as a means to help employers during the Covid-19 pandemic. In practice, it undermines labor rights.

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In the Lower House of Congress, lawmakers added several riders to the bill. Amendments that have little to do with the subject matter of the measure include changes to labor oversight. According to the version approved in the Lower House, employers can only be fined for violating labor laws after two visits by the labor inspectors. According to an article by the NGO Repórter Brasil, the double-visit rule is valid even for “serious violations, such as breaches of health and safety standards (that put workers at risk of illness and accidents)”. 

The text of the Provisional Measure states that “irregularities directly related to the situation” of slavery would be excluded from this double-visit rule. However, a technical report released by members of the Office of the Public Prosecutor for Labor Issues has noted that this point violates the Federal Constitution because “since the bond of slave labor is the result of a crime by the employer, there is no labor irregularity regarding the victim that is not directly related to this criminal practice”.

Undermined oversight 

The measure also states that “if repeated irregularities or serious occupational accidents or illnesses are detected in a given economic sector or geographic region”, the labor inspection must conduct “technical instructional visits, scheduled in advance” and, in these situations, the employers cannot be fined. 

The Office of the Public Prosecutor for Labor Issues said this point undermines the effectiveness of the labor inspection, “which could encourage illegalities and increase occupational accidents, deaths and illnesses”.

According to Fernanda Drummond, an advisor for the Defense of Socioenvironmental Rights program at Conectas, if these measures are approved, cases of child labor and contemporary slavery could increase in Brazil. “The changes could encourage many employers to impose degrading conditions on their workers given the expectation that they will be unlikely to be punished. In this context, we know that black and poor people will be the main victims”. 

Between 1995 and 2020, more than 55,000 people were freed from contemporary slavery in Brazil, and agriculture, civil construction and clothing were the sectors with the most recorded cases, according to data from the Economy Ministry’s Special Department of Social Security and Labor.

Lack of social participation

In a letter to the president of the Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco, civil society organizations stated that the Provisional Measure “is an attack on the fundamental rights of the working class and creates loopholes for the worsening of working conditions […] and for the weakening of important labor protection mechanisms that currently exist in our legal system”. 

The signatories of the letter also explained that the text was approved without public participation, in particular representatives of workers and bodies that combat labor irregularities. As such, Congress is attempting to make a structural change without broad debate with society, in particular worker representatives. The letter is signed by Conectas, the Rural Workers Alliance of the State of Minas Gerais, the National Confederation of Salaried Rural Workers and Oxfam Brasil, among others. 

The attempts to dismantle the structure to combat slave labor in Brazil have been recorded in a UN report in 2020. According to the document entitled “Impact of the coronavirus disease pandemic on contemporary forms of slavery and slavery-like practices”, Brazil’s Special Mobile Inspection Group, a body that reports to the Economy Ministry tasked with investigating allegations of forced labor, “significantly reduced its operations, while vulnerability to labor exploitation and abuse has been increasing”.

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