Brazil government to rework controversial slavery decree

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s government will issue a new decree changing the country’s definition of slavery following an earlier order that was widely criticized as a reversal in the fight against forced labor, a presidential aide said on Friday.

In Brazil, forced labor has been defined as a form of modern-day slavery. This includes debt bondage, degrading work conditions, and long work hours that pose a risk to a worker’s health or life, and violate their dignity.

Human rights campaigners said a decree issued by the labor ministry on Monday changed the way slavery was defined, limiting it to a victim’s freedom of movement but disregarding other abuses.

The new decree, sought by Brazil’s powerful farm lobby, would derail enforcement efforts that have freed 50,000 workers from slavery-like conditions since 1995, according to federal prosecutors and labor inspectors.

Responding to the criticism, President Michel Temer said on Friday the decree would be modified but not revoked.

In an interview with the Poder360 news website, Temer said the measure would be “perfected” with suggestions by prosecutors, among them the creation of a police department for slave labor crimes.

A presidential aide later said the suggestions would be used to reissue a new decree. “The president instructed the labor minister to study them and see which can be incorporated in a new decree,” the spokesman said.

Rights groups estimate hundreds of thousands of people work in slave-like conditions on farms, sugar cane plantations and cattle ranches across Brazil’s remote and jungle areas, as well as in urban factories and construction sites.

The government decree as issued would close 506 of 706 working conditions cases under investigation, which would no longer be considered slave labor, a spokesman for Brazil’s federal prosecutors office said.

Temer bowed to pressure from the farm lobby to modify the decree at a time when he is relying on the group’s votes in Congress to block corruption charges next week.

The farm lobby praised the decree for clarifying the definition of slave labor and eliminating “excesses” by inspectors.

Temer told Poder360 the decree needed changing because it contained irrelevant details for defining slavery, such as the need for a soap bar holder or a ladder to a top bunk in workers’ sleeping quarters.

Reporting by Ricardo Brito, Lisandra Paraguassú and Anthony Boadle