Brazil is a source country for men and boys trafficked internally for forced labor which accounts for most instances of modern slavery in Brazil. It is particularly prevalent in manual labour sectors such as construction, manufacturing, factory and domestic work and occurs in rural and urban areas, mainly through debt bondage schemes. In rural areas workers are immobilised in estates until they can pay off debts often fraudulently incurred; their identity documents and work permits are frequently retained; they are often physically threatened and punished by armed guards and some have been killed while attempting to flee. Debt bondage involves abusive labour contracting schemes operated by contractors known locally as empreiteiros or gatos, often engaged in other types of seasonal labour contracts.
Nelson, 46, was trapped with his family in forced labour on a coffee farm in Brazil.
I was born here in Tanhaçu, where it hardly ever rains. The droughts are terrible. There’s no water, no food, and no point having land that you can’t grow anything on.
Some friends told me there was work on a coffee farm down in Minas Gerais, about 1,200km from here, so we decided to go. I called the farmer and arranged for us all to work on the coffee harvest. There was a group of us: me, my wife Leni, our niece Keila, who lives with us, and a couple of friends. We all travelled down together.
As soon as we got there, we realised we were in trouble. Our “lodgings” were a decrepit house that had been left to rot by the farmer; it was close to collapse and totally unfit for living. There were no beds. No mattresses. No kitchen. No cupboards to store any food in or closets to hang any of our belongings. No toilets. It stank of something rotten, and the air was so humid that we had to line the floor with a black tarpaulin just to keep the moisture off of us as we slept. We had no bedding, so we just slept on the floor like that.
The work was exhausting: 11 hours a day, seven days a week, without even a drop of water to drink – there was no drinking water on the farm. We became hostages, with no food or payment for any of the harvesting we were doing. The owner just bullied and humiliated us.
Three months went by like this. Then, one day, when I went into the city to find food, I called a local union for help. They complained to the ministry of labour, which eventually rescued us from that hell.
Today we’re back on our own land, relieved that those moments of terror are behind us. Water is still scarce. Even though I dug a well, the little trickle that comes out isn’t drinkable. A municipal truck delivers drinking water once a month, so we have to rely on that.
While we wait for rain, I tend the watermelon plantation that I started, and Leni likes to look after the small garden beside the house. Life is still precarious, but we are back home and we are free.
Interview by Lilo Clareto for the Guardian