Over 20 years, more than a thousand people were rescued from slave labor in Brazilian mining

Underreported, number exposes difficulty in monitoring rights violations in a sector marked by illegality

Translated by: Lucas Peresin

Brasil de Fato | Lábrea (Amazonas, Brazil) |
"Armadillo men": workers are rescued from a kaolin mine in Rio Grande do Norte in 2021 - Divulgação/Detrae

In the heat of the caatinga, a biome in the Brazilian semi-arid region, a group of 11 workers earned between R$ 200 and R$ 250 a week (approximately US$ 45) for digging huge holes in the ground. Held only by an improvised pulley with ropes and wooden logs, they descended to depths equivalent to a five-story building, without safety equipment, with a high risk of being buried.

The goal was to collect kaolin, a white ore used in the manufacture of ceramics, paper and paint. The group was working in a slavery-like situation, until they were rescued by a federal operation in January 2021. 

The “homens-tatu” ("armadillo men" in free translation), as the kaolin miners are known in the region called Seridó, in Rio Grande do Norte (northeast region of Brazil), are among the 1082 enslaved workers rescued from mines in Brazil since 2005. The number includes legal and illegal mining fields and was provided at the request of Brasil de Fato by the Division of Inspection for the Slave Labor Eradication (Detrae), linked to the Ministry of Labor.

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The rescues took place in all regions of Brazil and involved men and women who work at the base of the production of strategic ores for the Brazilian economy, such as iron, gold, cassiterite, basalt and sand.

Enslavement in the Brazilian productive system is not exclusive to mining and it happens similarly on sugarcane farms and clandestine factories or wineries in Rio Grande do Sul. In the case of the "armadillo men" from Seridó (RN), the accommodations for the workers were made of tarpaulin and plastic, without any bathrooms. They were even forced to relieve themselves in the bushes. There was no potable water, nor structure for cooking and eating. Labor rights or fair wages? Not even in a dream.

The difficulties of inspecting mines 

Labor auditors face extra difficulties in detecting slavery in mining fields, compared to other sectors. In Brazil, the activity is marked by informality and illegality. Rescued miners often even consider the inspections to be an obstacle to their dream of finding precious minerals.

According to Maurício Krepsky, coordinator of the Inspection Division of Inspection for the Slave Labor Eradication (Detrae), inspection of mining fields is more difficult because it involves an entire organization and a culture of exploitation, whether legal or illegal. The reports of rescued people show that many of them have normalized the degrading working conditions they were in and cannot see themselves as victims.

Another barrier is employers who remain anonymous. There are rescued miners who cannot identify the true owner of the mining fields. "This makes it very difficult for inspections to be carried out routinely, as in a coal plant, a coffee farm or an onion plantation", adds Krepsky.

Underreporting hides a criminal network linked to mining fields

As there are few complaints coming from clandestine mines, most rescues took place in legalized areas. In order to obtain mining permission from the National Mining Agency, it is common for employers to juridically organize themselves into fraudulent cooperatives, which serve as a front for business activities. Behind the false cooperativism, there are owners of large machines used in mining activities or investors linked to companies that buy ores.

Linked to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the National Campaign to Combat Slave Labor says that the official numbers are underreported. The entity claims that labor inspection already works with the support of other security agencies, but defends the expansion of these partnerships. Among the key agencies are the Federal Police and the environmental police in the states, as mining is often part of a broader criminal network.

Francisco Alan Santos, from the National Campaign to Combat Slave Labor (linked to CPT), considers that there is a difficulty for the Brazilian State to be able to better articulate itself to obtain data on slave labor in mining. He also believes that it is the role of the State to provide public policies so that these workers cannot fall into this network of human trafficking that also harms the environment and indigenous peoples.

Krepsky recognizes that the official numbers do not reflect the reality of the sector. He points out that one of the reasons for this problem is the lack of sharing of information by the agencies that give permission to mining activities. According to the head of the slave labor inspection, this situation worsened under the government of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who publicly defended illegal miners.

Edited by: Flávia Chacon e Rodrigo Durão Coelho