Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund



The capitalist reinvention of slave labor in contemporary Brazil [1]

von Leonardo Sakamoto


"Die kapitalistische Wieder-Erfindung der Sklavenarbeit im gegenwärtigen Brasilien": Nico Huhle hat auf deutsch die Inhalte des englischen Originaltextes von Leonardo Sakamoto, erstmals erschienen 2007, kurz zusammengefasst.

In Brasilien sind jedes Jahr tausende Landarbeiter in den armen Regionen gezwungen, auf Farmen und Holzkohlemeilern unter entwürdigenden Bedingungen zu arbeiten, ohne Möglichkeit, die Arbeitsbeziehung zu beenden. Ihre Zwangslage ist bestimmt von Einschüchterung und physischer Gewalt bis hin zum Mord. Diese Abhängigkeitsverhältnisse werden als moderne Sklaverei bezeichnet.

Der brasilianische Politikwissenschaftler und Koordinator der NGO „Reporter Brazil“, Leonardo Sakamoto, argumentiert, dass das Auftreten von Formen der Sklaverei heute nicht ein Fortbestehen archaischer Produktionsmodi neben modernen darstellt, sondern dass die Überausbeutung von Arbeitskraft im Gegenteil unter bestimmten Bedingungen einen integralen Bestandteil des kapitalistischen Produktionsmodus ausmacht. Dies zeigt sich beispielsweise an Betrieben, die einerseits Viehzucht unter hochtechnisierten Bedingungen und gut bezahlten Fachkräften betreiben, andererseits bei der Expansion der landwirtschaftlichen Fläche auf einfachste manuelle Arbeitskraft unter sklavereiähnlichen Bedingungen setzen. Archaische und Moderne Produktionsmodi greifen hier ineinander und ergänzen sich gegenseitig.

Als Bedingungen, die moderne Sklaverei begünstigen, nennt Sakamoto unter anderem den Überschuss an ungelernten Arbeitskräften, der durch die Technisierung der Landwirtschaft, Bevölkerungswachstum und die Ausdehnung der Agrargrenze mittels Rodung und Vertreibungen entstanden ist, ebenso wie die Notwendigkeit auch für unterentwickelte Betriebe in entlegenen Gebieten, auf dem Weltmarkt wettbewerbsfähig zu sein.


Each year, thousands of rural workers from poor regions of the country are forced to work in farms and charcoal kilns, subjected to degrading working conditions and unable to break their employment bond with employers. They are kept trapped until they finish the task for which they were lured into under threat of punishments, which may range from psychological torture to beatings and murders. In Brazil, this degrading form of labor exploitation and non-contractual hiring, which implies a restriction of the individual's freedom, is called contemporary slavery, new slavery or work analogous to slavery. Its economic nature differs from those of classical Antiquity slavery and modern slavery. But the inhumane treatment, restricted freedom and "reification" of human beings are similar.

The number of workers involved is relatively small but not negligible: between 1995 (when the system to fight contemporary slavery was established by the federal government) and 2009, more than 35 thousand people were in that situation, according to data from the Ministry of Labor and Employment, one of government agencies responsible for investigating complaints and freeing enslaved workers. In the same period, the Pastoral Land Commission, a pastoral agency of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops and main civil parameter in the combat against this form of labor exploitation, recorded more than 50 thousand complaints.

Labor overexploitation, of which slavery is the most degrading example, is deliberately used under certain circumstances as an integrant part of the capitalist mode of production. Without it, underdeveloped enterprises in expansion areas would not be able to compete successfully in the global economy. As a result, growth in agricultural products supply for the market would be slower, which would reduce the rate of raw material prices fall on a global scale, and would damage trade and industry. As it will be shown below, to eradicate these forms of non-contractual hiring would go against the interest of the capitalist mode of production. Rather, it absorbs them and recreates their function when they have characteristics that can benefit it.

The Capital always seeks the average profit rate to remain viable, no matter what its organic composition may be. This rate is adjusted from above, by businesses that have a high organic composition, by farms with increasing labor productivity. In other words, those who produce more for less, with a progressively lower cost of labor in face of a progressively higher technological profile, force the competition to adopt the same method of production - which demands investments.

However, there are environments or situations for capital expansion where to make such investment is not feasible or desirable. Scarcity of resources, marginalized character of the economic sector in which the property is inserted or the activity within the farm that needs investment, channeling capital for other areas of business due to strategic issues, search for greater profits are among the factors that operate for keeping a low organic composition of capital.

The "alternative" in this case is to reduce costs: to increase the absolute surplus value by exploiting labor to a degrading extent and reducing resources that would be used for the survival of workers. Thus, the participation of the variable part in the composition of capital is decreased instead of increasing the constant part, as it would be expected in a process of expanded reproduction. This emulates a high organic composition, a modern composition of capital, which makes the average profit rate possible and allows keeping competitiveness.

The accumulation of capital through expanded reproduction should occur in contexts where there are social relations governed by the principle of legal equality and freedom. That is to say, such conditions under which it is possible to establish contracts for the purchase and sale of labor power through salary payment, contracts which can be terminated. But in extreme cases of reduction of the variable capital, remuneration will be insufficient for the social reproduction or, at worst, biological reproduction of workers. There are cases where workers have to obtain their food through hunting and build their own accommodation with leaves of palm trees.

As Martins[2] states, in peripheral areas of underdeveloped economies, which tend to have low organic composition of capital, the primitive accumulation of capital tends to become a component of constant original accumulation. That is, because the overcome of original accumulation by other forms of capital accumulation, not necessarily very advanced, is slow. The form of original accumulation could be another one, but its function remains, it is recreated in sectors and territories where the capital is poorly expanded, where capitalist expansion means creating the conditions for expanded reproduction of capital from non-capitalist production relations. It is on that plane that the resurgence of slavery or recreation of non-contractual forms of employment of labor force occurs.

Samir Amin sees a similar process[3]. He says that this kind of domination of the capital over farming is not particularly advanced, but is highly profitable because in spite of its low levels of productivity, remuneration for work is so low that prices remain competitive. There lies the secret of backwardness of the "green revolution" in tropical Africa. The problem is not restricted to the expansion of capital in Brazil, but occurs globally.

The function of original accumulation is recreated in those environments and situations to contribute to the process of expanded reproduction. It is no longer just the initial capital needed to develop the reproduction process and becomes a concurrent element to such a process.

There are social conditions "external" to the mode of production that facilitate the provision of labor for constant primitive accumulation. In fact, they are results of the system itself, such as the growth of the reserve army of labor due to the gradual reduction of participation of the variable part in the composition of capital, which occurs at the same time as the population increase. Or the process of land grabbing and expulsion of homesteaders and other traditional peoples from their lands in the region of the Amazon agricultural border - which happened very often during the military regime in the 70's and 80's and goes on today.

This creates a surplus population that is deprived of the means of production and employment, which reduces the market value to be paid for a job. Workers are compelled to accept job offers of the "gato" (a farmer middleman, like the Mexican “coyote”), even without any guaranty that the promises given at the time of recruitment will be fulfilled. Based on this context of social fragility created by the mode of production itself, capitalists can use the required labor and pay whatever amount they wish, which can tend to zero in the case of work analogous to slavery.

This capitalist accumulation process that is based on non-capitalist forms of production operates at the time of expansion of the system, when it consumes external forms to grow and then brings them into the capital and continues its advance. These forms of integration are not automatic, but a process that varies in time and intensity according to the type of enterprise and its former level of modernization. We have divided it into three situations:

a) There are some activities that, for technical reasons, are still overly dependent on manual labor, either because their mechanization is not possible, or because the use of labor demands a lower initial investment. In the recorded cases of contemporary slavery for clearing and cleaning of old abandoned fields, and other previous situations concerning the preparation of the soil for introducing farming or charcoal camps. The labor power is used for felling the native forest, building fences, planting grass pastures, producing charcoal, culling roots for cultivation of soybeans and cotton.

These enterprises can already generate resources at their very beginning. An example of such are the ranchers who own lands in the region of influence of the Polo Carajás, in Pará State, who have produced charcoal from deforestation (most often illegal), carried out for creating or expanding pastures. The charcoal is sold to pig iron industries steel mills in Maranhão and Pará for the production of pig iron, raw material for steel, mainly exported to the United States. The land is cleared for planting of pasture grasses and resources from the sales of charcoal are used to build infrastructure and buy cattle. In such cases, the two stages, charcoal production and introduction of livestock farming, have been carried out by labor analogous to slave labor. There is minimum spending for the maintenance of labor, which is overexploited, while savings generated can be used to make competition viable or increase the constant capital. In this case, the gain in production has been transferred to some plants that accept the goods even with irregularities. This author's field research found cases where the selling prices offered by businesses that used contemporary slave labor were lower than those of the market, but only for sugar cane and charcoal, which are not included in the commodities market like the other products that have been analyzed. Otherwise, the actual producer kept the gain.

b) Another situation is represented by enterprises that are already established, but that are expanding their areas, such as rural properties that are producing and increasing their arable area through the felling of native trees, cleaning of old abandoned fields, changing of economic activities, among other means.  In this case, contemporary slave labor functions as the motor of the expansion for consolidated enterprises.

Employers use state-of-the-art technology at one end of production at the same time that they depreciate labor at the other. The mobile inspection group of the federal government, responsible for freeing enslaved people, found 54 workers in labor conditions analogous to slavery at "Peruano" farm in Eldorado dos Carajás, in the southeast of Pará in December 2001. They were working on activities such as expansion of infrastructure and pastures on that farm, which raises cattle and is considered a model in developing brood cows, artificial insemination and marketing of embryos. The rancher was one of the biggest Nellore breeders in the state. This is not the only case: there are several examples of soybean and cotton farms which use cutting edge technology on the production side of grains and fiber while preparation of land and expansion of area is carried out in an archaic manner that requires low investment.

In an inspection operation started on 20 November 2003, 22 workers who were working under slave-like conditions for producing rice and soybeans at Entre Rios farm were freed. This farm was located 125 kilometers from the town of Sinop, in the north of the State of Mato Grosso. The action was prompted by complaints of ill-treatment and restriction of freedom. Some workers had not been paid for months, and would receive only food and lodging - small tents of canvas under which entire families piled up and slept in hammocks. The water they used was inappropriate and was used at the same time for consumption, bathing and washing clothes. Initially, 40 people had been hired for the job. But as they could not stand such harsh conditions, many fled before the inspection team arrived at the place. The farm owner, Manoel Barbosa Lopes Júnior, of Rota-Oeste Veículos group, a  representative of the Scania company, tried to convince the workers to return to Entre Rios, saying that he needed them for the work. However, despite his alternative job offers, workers refused to return. They feared Clovis, the farm manager and his violent behavior and constant threats of beatings. According to Ministry of Labor and Employment auditors, the workers were also constantly threatened by two "gatos" that worked for the farm, who like the manager, also carried weapons. According to Valderez Monte, labor inspector and coordinator of the operation, workers would often hear the manager say "people from Maranhão have to be beaten with a machete." Once chainsaws had felled the region’s forest trees, waves of workers would go through the deforested area to pull out stumps and roots of trees, clearing the ground for soybean or rice crops.

Two modes of production work in a complementary and simultaneous manner. The archaic mode serves the modern mode to ensure an expansion of the capital (land and improvements). But at the same time without capitalizing large amounts of surplus values from the modern part, thus ensuring that it maintains its competitiveness as the market grows. This expansion could occur within the expanded reproduction, but owing to the conditions described above, the landowner makes a rational decision and chooses this path, by keeping an area with high productivity, and one with low productivity.

In other words, after depreciating his variable capital by overexploiting seasonal workers or non-skilled workers and considering that the capitalist has a particular stage of production operating in archaic mode of production (such as using labor for manually cutting sugar cane, instead of using harvesters, while the rest of the enterprise works with advanced technology, such as in the production of sugar, alcohol and electric power), while the other remains under capitalist relationships, the savings can be used to gain competitive capacity (ensuring that commodity prices are at the market levels) and the surplus value gained in the process can be reinvested. With this, the producer can increase his capital and even his labor force in order to remain competitive or accumulate resources to invest and operate in a fully capitalist way.

c) The same applies to enterprises whose process of modernization is too slow or has stalled out. Planting and harvesting of crops such as coffee, sugar cane, pepper, fruits, rice, tomato or vegetable extraction activities can be included in such activities.

Contemporary slavery can be found not only in activities in areas of farming expansion but also in enterprises whose modernization has not been complete, when compared with the rest of the sector. In other words, the capitalist development of a rural property may have stalled and without increase in labor productivity, it depreciates the variable capital in order to continue operating in a feasible manner.

In the regions of the agricultural border there is the highest incidence of slave labor, but this kind of labor exploitation is not restricted to the Amazon region or the Cerrado (the Brazilian savannah). The concept of border is not only geographical, just as the concepts of center and periphery are not either. They also refer to the degree of implementation and consolidation of the hegemonic system and relations that are established between different levels. It is worth remembering that the capital does not develop in a universal manner, but in "islands" in accordance with the peculiarities of each region or historical moment. Therefore, it is not surprising that businesses with incomplete modernization use labor analogous to slavery, as in the crops of sugar cane in Campos dos Goitacazes, State of Rio de Janeiro, or on farms for extraction of resin in the interior of São Paulo State. Both states are the most developed in Brazil.

These two moments collide or complement each other due to their physical proximity. During an inspection operation on a farm in Mato Grosso, Ministry of Labor inspectors have witnessed aircrafts spraying the field with pesticides while root collectors were still in the area, covering them with poison.

In ranches, cowboys are better treated by ranchers, farm managers or agents than rural workers, and they often have employment contracts. This is because cowboys are skilled workers and trusted by landowners (since investment of the capital depends on them). On several occasions, the mobile inspection group saw cowboys surveilling workers recruited for working on pastures, in order to prevent them to flee before the end of the job.

The use of extreme forms of labor exploitation, in which costs of the maintenance of labor are insufficient for biological or social reproduction of the individual, is restricted to a small portion of the economically active population. The existence of work analogous to slavery has been small compared to the universe of rural workers. This cannot directly reduce prices of products at national and international level, but can reduce individual costs of capitalists, when those sell commodities, i.e. goods with a common standard and price.

However, as a tool for reducing individual costs, it contributes to making the establishment of new enterprises viable and thus facilitating the expansion of farming into areas that are outside the mode of production. More areas of production means increasing the supply of goods. Rosa Luxemburg said that slave labor tends to survive as long as areas or situations outside the system continue to exist.

The primitive accumulation of capital, used as a tool of capitalization, has been used extensively in the Amazon to set up farms during the military dictatorship, as Octavio Ianni states[4]. And it was not due to a supposed absence of the state that this form of exploitation was able to develop, but on the contrary, it is the direct action of sectors of the State that were accomplices or conniving, which allows and encourages the laissez-faire in rural areas. Historically, such enterprises have achieved resources through the spheres of federal, state and local governments in order to ensure a level of constant capital that allows its action in the market. Signs showing the funding by the Superintendency for the Development of Amazonia (Sudam), Bank of the Northeast of Brazil (BNB) and Bank of Amazonia (Basa) at farm gates, prove that the state is present in the agricultural frontier for the capital through tax incentives, tax exemptions, subsidies and infrastructure for rural producers, and that there is a public policy supporting those practices. Even with the existence of a current federal policy that denies loans to those who were caught exploiting slave labor, this is only one form of social exploitation at the agricultural border funded with public resources.

Contemporary slaves and salaried workers, old and new elements, live side by side within capitalism in a supplementary form and for the good of capitalism. Marx stated that "the dead takes possession of the living". Based on more than a century of capitalist experience, with the maintenance of old practices within the system, we can see that it is not only the old forms that are integrated into the new ones, but new ones resort to the old practices.

To eradicate contemporary slave labor calls for a structural change. Given the level of domination of the capital over society and the lack of prospects for change in a visible horizon of events, it is necessary to adopt a pragmatic attitude. There is the possibility of alleviating the problem by reducing the occurrence of slave labor and even non-contractual forms of work, through changes in the mode of production and its way of expansion. It is not the purpose of this article to examine the policies for the eradication of slave labor, but to succeed they need to hit unequivocally the economic base of this structure.

Land distribution is not the panacea to the problem of exploitation of labor in the country. But it is the most important change in such structures and in the model of expansion of the mode of production in the Brazilian countryside. The socialization, even partial, of the means of production in the rural areas would mean a heavy blow to the capital, which, directly or indirectly, takes advantage of the reserve army of labor in order to overexploit such labor. An agrarian reform would not mean the end of the use of human beings as disposable working tools. But it would be a sign that it would not be necessary to expect that the expansion of capital could absorb all realities external to itself, finally closing the last agricultural border on the planet and leading to a collapse of the system. The historical process has its way, but the working class can intervene in this seemingly inexorable march, freeing up from the capital and producing its own destiny.

Translator's notes:

"Casa-grande" was the plantation owner's house in colonial times in Brazil


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[1]  This article is based on a portion of the author's Political Science doctoral thesis defended at the University of São Paulo in June 2007.

[2] MARTINS, José de Souza. A sociedade vista do abismo: novos estudos sobre exclusão, pobreza, e classes sociais. Petrópolis: Vozes, 2002. p.154 e 155.

[3] AMIN, Samir; VERGOPOULOS, Kostas. A questão agrária e o capitalismo. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1977. p.38.

[4]  IANNI, Octavio. Ditadura e Agricultura: o desenvolvimento do capitalismo na Amazônia 1964-1978. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1986. p.248.


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