RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A major Brazilian tobacco exporter has been accused of using slave labor in the country’s first government action against a tobacco company because of conditions on a farm, labor inspectors said on Monday.
Nine workers, five of whom are children aged nine to 16, were rescued last week from a farm in Venancio Aires in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul which has an exclusive contract with the CTA Continental Tobaccos Alliance.
Labor inspectors said workers were found living in poor conditions on the farm where they were paid less than a third of Brazil’s minimum wage. They also lack protective gear, exposing them to high concentrations of nicotine.
“(The workers) are acutely poisoned, they are nauseous, they are vomiting,” said labor inspector Lucilene Pacini. The children also suffered from symptoms of acute poisoning.
Pacini said the rescue was the third since 2019 in Venancio Aires, one of Brazil’s largest tobacco-producing regions. Brazil is one of the largest tobacco producers in the world, with exports worth $ 1.6 billion by 2020, according to industry group SindiTabaco.
The CTA, the main exporter that ships to more than 50 countries, said it was not responsible for workers but had contracts with farm owners who were responsible for hiring.
The company – which also owns a factory to process tobacco – added that its relationships with tobacco producers are “exclusively commercial” and have programs to combat child labor in the tobacco industry.
“CTA Continental Tobaccos Alliance SA reaffirms that they conduct all of their operations in accordance with the law,” the company said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Brazil, slavery is defined as forced labor but also includes debt bondage, degrading working conditions, long working hours that pose a risk to health, and any work that violates human dignity.
Since Brazil first started an anti-slavery task force in 1995, more than 55,000 people have been found in slavery-like conditions in the country.
According to labor inspectors, the entire tobacco industry in the region operates in a manner similar to a CTA in which a company signs an agreement with farmers to provide credit, seeds and equipment in exchange for exclusive rights to agricultural produce.
The contract states that the company can audit the farm and dictate how to develop crops.
The CTA has such contracts with about 12,000 farmers in three states in southern Brazil, according to its website.
But labor inspectors say this level of control means companies have to take responsibility for working conditions on the farms they contract.
“The current position of the (tobacco) industry that is not responsible for the illegal exploitation of labor … must be confronted. Companies should be held accountable, ”said labor inspector Leandro Vagliati, who is also part of the raids on the farm.
If found guilty of using slave labor after a government review, the CTA could be added to the “dirty list” of Brazilian companies involved in forced labor.
The company remained on the list for two years and was prohibited during that period from receiving state loans. This list is also used by international buyers who are concerned with the supply chain.
Reported by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Edited by Belinda Goldsmith; Please acknowledge the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Thomson Reuters charity, covering the lives of people around the world who struggle to live free or fair. Visit news.trust.org