RIO DE JANEIRO - A surge in cases of urban slavery in Brazil brings new challenges for prosecutors and labor inspectors, top government officials said on Wednesday.
Last year 523 workers were found in slavery-like conditions during labor inspections in Brazilian cities, about 225 more than in 2017, government data released Friday shows.
"We found that there is fragmentation happening. Instead of one big sweatshop with 20, or 30 people, we now have many, with four of five, usually family owned," said Maurício Krepsky, head of the Division for Inspection and Eradication of Slave Labor.
The change makes detection harder, Krepsky said. Last year 42 workers were rescued from slavery-like conditions in sweatshops in São Paulo.
Urban slavery on the move
The country has the world's fourth-largest garment production industry, with 1.5 million direct employees.
In Brazil, the textile industry is fragmented and informal, with thousands of immigrant subcontractors from Bolivia and Paraguay sewing clothes in small shops — some of them sweatshops — for well-known national retailers.
"Working conditions in Bolivia manage to be worse than those in Brazil, so they are very easily groomed (by traffickers)," said labor prosecutor-general Ronaldo Fleury.
Rural enslavement is still more common — 1,200 people were found in slavery-like conditions in rural areas last year — but there are added complexities for cases in cities.
Victims in rural areas usually stay in one place, while urban victims can be moved around quickly, or may even be mobile themselves, as investigators found in 2018.
"To me that is the single-most challenging aspect of it (urban slavery). In a sweatshop you pull up a truck and you can move the sweatshop in a few hours, while a farm stays put," said Fleury.
Dairy workers rescued
Urban slavery isn't confined to sweatshops. More dairy workers were rescued last year than those making textiles.
In 2018 inspectors found 52 people trafficked from Brazil's poor northern states to São Paulo, where they were put in debt bondage and made to work at the bottom of the dairy supply chain, as door to door salesmen.
The numbers last year were high, Krepsky said, which indicates the necessity of continuing to work in urban areas.
"In urban areas we identify more frequently than in rural ones signs of slave labor happening in a more covert way ... like a false formalization of the activity, as to hide the true employer."