FILE - Inspectors check the work area on the roof of the Arena Amazonia stadium under instructions from the local prosecutor's office in Manaus, Brazil, Dec. 17, 2013.
FILE - Inspectors check the work area on the roof of the Arena Amazonia stadium under instructions from the local prosecutor's office in Manaus, Brazil, Dec. 17, 2013.

RIO DE JANEIRO - A main government body responsible for the fight against slavery and labor infractions in Brazil is in a "calamitous" state, leading to a lower number of victims being rescued in recent years, top government officials told Congress on Thursday.

The Labor Inspection Secretariat, which works with prosecutors and police to rescue victims, is understaffed and underfunded, said labor judge Guilherme Guimaraes, head of Brazil's National Association of Labor Judges.

"The [working] conditions for labor inspectors, which are at the front in the fight [against slavery], is calamitous," said Guimaraes during a public hearing in the Brazilian lower house of Congress.

According to officials, labor inspectors lack funds to pay for basic necessities like gas and maintenance for their cars or money to pay for their stays in cities where they travel to do inspections.

The hearing, held by congressman Tulio Gadelha, invited representatives of government and judicial bodies responsible for Brazil's anti-slavery efforts to present their views. The top officials repeatedly said labor inspectors lack the means and personnel to do the field work necessary to rescue victims.

FILE - Former slaves work at a construction site i
FILE - Former slaves work at a construction site in Cuiaba, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, Feb. 7, 2012.

Government data show that the number of workers rescued from slavery has steadily fallen in Brazil since 2012, when about 2,708 victims were rescued.

In 2017, the number reached a record low of 639, before rebounding in 2018 to 1,153.

Lack of funds

The lower numbers are due, in part, to lack of funds, said the labor inspector's representative at the hearing, Carlos Fernando da Silva Filho.

"In 2016 and 2017 ... we could not go into the field due to lack of money," da Silva Filho told lawmakers.

In 2017, during a crippling recession, the Secretariat's budget was cut by 70 percent, the inspector's union said.

Brazil formally acknowledged to the international community that slave labor existed in the country in 1995.

To fight it, a special unit — inside the Secretariat — was launched. Coordinated by labor inspectors, they work with prosecutors and police to find and raid farms, construction sites and companies suspected of using forced labor.

Since 1995, more than 53,000 people have been found in slavery-like conditions by government agents.

In 2018, 370,000 people were living in slave-like conditions in Brazil, according to the Global Slavery Index from the Walk Free Foundation.

Lack of inspectors

In recent years, however, it's hard to get labor inspectors to do field work, said federal prosecutor Adriana Scordamaglia, who specializes in forced labor cases.

"Either it's lack of money, or the plane tickets are not supplied in time, or we lack labor inspectors," she told lawmakers.

In the past decade, labor inspectors have been retiring at a faster rate than the government can replenish them, official data shows.

In 2010, there were some 3,059 active labor inspectors. By 2018 that number had fallen to about 2,303.

Funding for labor inspectors comes from the Special Secretariat of Pensions and Labor.

A representative of the secretariat at the hearing, Matheus Viana, recognized that lack of funds is an issue, but emphasized that no operations by the group were canceled in 2018 and 2019 due to it.

Viana, however, agreed that the lack of labor inspectors is a serious problem.

"We have less and less people. It's a critical situation."