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Our impact, their voice

Young apprentices escape forced labour in Mato Grosso

The “Ação Integrada” (“Integrated Action”) project guarantees access to vocational training for people working in slavery-like conditions, to offer the opportunity for decent life.

Feature | 03 August 2016
CUIABÁ, Brazil (ILO News) – Jeferson couldn’t read. When heading to another village and reaching an intersection, he needed to ask a passer-by for directions, as he was not able to understand any of the signs. Nevertheless, his life has recently changed.

“My routine consisted in working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., then I went to school from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. In these two hours I learned many things, a little bit of everything. I was qualified as an Administrative Assistant. I purchased a piece of land and a motorcycle, thanks to the opportunity to go and work, to become literate… It changed my life,” Jeferson said.

The Ação Integrada project has been in place since 2009 in the Mato Grosso region (Brazil), with technical and institutional support from the International Labour Organization (ILO). The programme offers professional training during two to six months for people in high-risk situations or rescued from slavery-like working conditions.

According to Antonio Mello, ILO project officer, four out of five participants are illiterate. “Normally, they are young men from rural areas who fall into the self-reinforcing cycle of forced labour during their childhood.”

It is great to have a qualification and have access to guaranteed work nowadays."

Wellington Leopice Diogo, 23, participated in this project with his brother, looking for an alternative life. The young man says he was forced to work from the age of 11 to help his parents. He feels happy about the certificate he just received, hoping it will open a lot of doors: “It is great to have a qualification and have access to guaranteed work nowadays.”

The main purpose of Ação Integrada is to provide access to education and professional training for people like Wellington and Jeferson, in order to break the slave workforce exploitation cycle and offer victims and vulnerable people an opportunity for decent life.

The participants receive psychosocial assistance, basic education, professional qualification and advice about different social development, education and healthcare governmental policies they can benefit from.

Connecting people and decent work through training

The technical-professional education which young apprentices receive includes: training in business management; citizenship; I.T. competency; health and safety at work; first aid; and labour rights and duties.

At the end of the training period the programme offers work opportunities in business in different sectors (such as agriculture and construction). According to Mello, the main point is that the work opportunities be located near to the communities where the beneficiaries already live. The goal for the second half of this year is to help at least 160 people by promoting their integration in decent work through this programme.

Beneficiaries are usually identified based on cross referencing and additional information provided by the Social Development Secretariats and the Social Assistance Reference Centres from the state municipalities. Using this information, a population focus is developed in order to identify the project’s “target public”, i.e. people vulnerable to be exploited in slavery-like working conditions.

In agreement with the participants’ professional aspirations and preferences, the coordinators select and organize collaborations between institutions and partner businesses. “We support this process in order to avoid these workers falling victim to degrading work,” says Mello. Some of the courses offered are bricklaying, agricultural mechanization and civil construction.

According to Thiago Gurjão, Ministry of Public Work of Brazil procurator, this project is all about “building a bridge between people who want a decent work opportunity and businesses who want to offer such opportunity”.

Institutional acknowledgement, key in the fight

Another facet of the programme is the integration of already existing actions, provided for by the law, and the coordination of efforts of the institutions involved.

Gurjão points out that “the Project was born from the common work of various institutions which fight against slave labour in order to facilitate emergency alternatives, particularly regarding prevention and victim’s assistance”.

In 1995, the Brazilian State acknowledged the existence of forced labour and adopted legislation and policy to battle it. As a consequence, the Ministry of Labour of Brazil founded in the same year the Special Mobile Inspection Group and the Executive Group for Combatting Forced Labour, who between them by 2015 have been able to rescue a total of 49.816 people.

The National Plan for Eradication of Slave Labour (as forced labour is called in Brazil) was launched in 2003. The National Commission for Eradication of Slave Labour was created for monitoring the implementation of the Plan, with the participation of civil society institutions.

The profile of workers freed thanks to the Brazilian government’s strategies coincides with that of the beneficiaries of Ação Integrada. Most of them are male (95 per cent) and young (83 per cent belongs to the age group of 18-44). 33 per cent are illiterate, and 39 per cent have completed their primary studies only up to fifth grade.

Commonly they are external or internal migrants who leave their homes, either in search of new opportunities, or fooled by deceptive promises. They are usually destined to regions where the agriculture and livestock sectors are expanding, or large urban areas.

From 2003 to 2014, 30 per cent of these workers were rescued from the livestock sector, 25 per cent from the sugarcane sector, 19 per cent from other agriculture sectors and 8 per cent from the charcoal sector.

Happy endings

In Brazil, we had the chance to prove that it is possible to tackle the challenges to offer more decent work opportunities and fight against unacceptable forms of employment, like forced labour or child labour."

Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder travelled to Mato Grosso in October 2013 and paid a visit to the Ação Integrada headquarters. He had the chance to meet and talk to beneficiaries of the programme who were able to join the formal labour market.

“In Brazil, we had the chance to prove that it is possible to tackle the challenges to offer more decent work opportunities and fight against unacceptable forms of employment, like forced labour or child labour,” said Ryder.

The Director-General highlighted the importance of replicating successful experiences like Ação Integrada. “We can develop other programmes elsewhere to help millions of people who have not been able to exit child labour and forced labour, and who don’t have access to decent employment,” he added.

The success of Ação Integrada has become apparent with the number of people assisted from 2009 until nowadays by the project at more than 700 and rising.

Geraldo José da Silva is one of those who has written his own happy ending. “I was working and this guy told me they were recruiting people for a six-month project in Arena Pantanal, which enabled you to take a civil construction course. I started as a student, earning minimum wage. I got my pay check every month, I had accommodation, good food, everything decent…. When I left, I had a qualification and I earned BRL 2500 (US$770) every month. Everything I have in my house was achieved with much struggle, thanks to my job within the project.”

Geraldo became a family farmer and launched his own business. Fortunately, Geraldo’s success story is one of many.

All photos: © Antonio Rodrigues