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Brazil rescues more than 100 slavery victims in nationwide swoops

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A maid enslaved for decades was among dozens of slavery victims rescued in coordinated raids across Brazil, government officials said on Thursday, hailing the operation as a “milestone” in anti-trafficking efforts.

Most of the 140 workers freed in “Operation Rescue” were found in rural areas - many picking oranges in the central state of Goias, but several others were toiling in sweatshops in Sao Paulo and two worked as maids in Rio de Janeiro.

“This operation is a milestone,” said Romulo Machado e Silva, undersecretary of Brazil’s Labor Inspector’s Office, describing the simultaneous swoops as the country’s biggest such joint anti-slavery operation.

More than 500 government officials took part in 64 raids as part of the crackdown, Silva told a news conference on Thursday, which marked Brazil’s national day of the fight against slave labor.

“The profile of those rescued is the most varied,” said Silva, mentioning that elderly, indigenous people, teenagers and people with special needs were among those rescued.

Authorities said the maid found in Rio had been enslaved for about 40 years, but gave no further details.

Last month, officials rescued a 46-year-old maid who had been enslaved since the age of eight and forced into marriage.

About 942 people were found in slavery-like conditions in Brazil last year, a decline of only about 10% from 2019 despite a two-month freeze on labor inspections due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Since Brazil first started its anti-slavery taskforce in 1995, more than 55,000 people have been found in slavery-like conditions in the country.

In Brazil, slavery is defined as forced labor - but this also covers debt bondage, degrading work conditions, long hours that pose a health risk, and work that violates human dignity.

In the past it was not uncommon for a single raid to result in the rescue of more than a hundred workers, but enslaved laborers are often more spread out today, making detection more difficult.

“This doesn’t mean there has been a reduction (in slave labor)” said Alberto Bastos Balazeiro, head of Brazil’s Labor Prosecutor’s Office. “There’s still much work to be done.”

Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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