By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register
Brazil is now the world's sixth largest economy, and economists project it will be the fifth largest by the end of this year.
It has an advanced aerospace industry, some of the most sophisticated telecommunications companies in the world, and more billionaires than Japan. It also has slaves.
Between 25,000 and 40,000 Brazilians every year are trafficked into slavery. On average, government anti-slavery teams free 4,500 people per year.
"When I went to Brazil for the first time (in the 1990s) I was far from imagining that slavery was still existing," said French-born Dominican Brother Xavier Plassat. "For me it was a discovery."
Brother Plassat heads the anti-slavery efforts of the Commissao Pastoral da Terra, an agency of Brazil's conference of Catholic bishops that campaigns for land reform. He was in Canada to speak to parishes about Brazil's fight against modern slavery, work that is supported by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
His efforts have earned him awards from the international NGO Free the Slaves and from the U.S. State Department.
Labour that is unpaid, forced, and done in subhuman conditions is an old problem in Latin America. It's an issue of human dignity and therefore an issue for Christians, said Brother Plassat.
"I cannot say I am human if my brother is treated less than humanly. Something of my humanity is denied. I cannot look at myself in the mirror."
Over the last 15 years there has been a growing awareness of forced labour in Brazil's agricultural sector, particularly on giant plantations carved out of the Amazon rain forest on what is considered Brazil's frontier. While the old military dictatorship in the 1980s denied there was any slavery, beginning in the 1990s civilian administrations acknowledged the problem.
In 2003 newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva launched an anti-slavery program as one of his first acts in office.
Slavery can be found not only in agriculture. Illegal immigrants are held captive in Sao Paulo sweatshops, making clothes and shoes; construction workers are building roads and dams throughout the country for wages that never arrive.
"We are discovering that the problem is all over Brazil," said Brother Plassat. "Everywhere you have subcontracted workers you have the possibility of such treatment for workers."
In many cases company owners claim they had no knowledge that slaves were even present on their property. They paid a subcontractor with the expectation labour laws would be respected.
There are farms where the official employees work to the highest standards in the world, with the latest technology and all the protections of union and government regulation, while beside them subcontracted labour is carried out under dangerous conditions with little or no hope of payment.
In a country with the world's biggest gap between rich and poor, people have come to accept that some people's lot in life is to be desperately poor, said Brother Plassat.
"It's an argument that these are poor; they were born poor and they must be poor until the end," he said. "The misery is the justification of continuing misery."
The solidarity of Christians everywhere is important in the battle for human dignity, he said.