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Is worker abuse a dark secret behind Brazil's food safety lapses?

Apr 22 2019 18:45
Paul Dillon

Two months ago, on Valentine’s Day, one of Brazil’s biggest meat producers – BRF – announced a 450 ton recall of fresh chicken because of potential salmonella contamination.

At around 0.1% of the company’s total monthly production, the recall was small, but its significance cannot be underestimated. Brazil is one of the biggest exporters of chicken in the world, and this is only the most recent example of recurring food-safety issues that have been plaguing that country’s chicken producers for years. The broader production environment in Brazil merits close scrutiny for this very reason.

According to James Ritchie of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Association, the link between sound occupational health and safety (OHS) practices and food safety is an intuitive one: good worker safety implies adherence to other safety practices. In a webinar hosted by the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP), he suggested that it would be useful to investigate the link between OHS practices and food recalls, specifically in the Brazilian chicken industry.

Human rights abuses in the Brazilian supply chain, which are both well-documented and abundant, present the dark side of the country’s much-vaunted international competitiveness. These exploitative labour practices may, in some cases verge on outright slavery.

According to the Global Slavery Index that tracks modern slavery across the globe, 161 100 Brazilians were trapped in modern slavery in 2016. Some of the major food producers have signed the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour, which supposedly binds them to avoid abusive suppliers. However, monitoring whether they live up to their promises, and exposing them, has become more difficult due to state meddling.

In December 2014, the Brazilian Supreme Court ordered the Ministry of Labour to stop producing the "dirty list" of violators of Brazil’s anti-slavery laws. After a long judicial battle, the Ministry of Labour was ordered to issue the list under new technical rules as of March 2017. Since the resumption of publication, there has been criticism that the list has not been updated, raising concerns about its validity and usefulness.

Legislative changes

In 2017 a number of concerning legislative changes either came into effect or were proposed.

The Labour Exploitation Accountability Hub reported that in July of that year, the Brazilian government approved a major Labour Code Reform that, in at least two cases, increased workers’ vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. The first expanded subcontracting from support services only to core staff, such as factory workers. Sub-contracted staff in Brazil earn 25% less than those directly employed, and tend to work longer weekly hours under more precarious health and safety conditions.

The second change allowed collective bargaining to take precedent over the law. Following this reform, negotiations over salary, working hours and conditions would be decided between employers and workers, and could be enforced even if conditions leave workers worse off than what is legally guaranteed. In practice, it legalises payments inferior to the national minimum wage and allows employers to impose lower salaries and working standards.

READOPINION: How dumping is threatening your access to safe, locally produced chicken

In addition to the Labour Code Reform, legislation was proposed that would remove "degrading work conditions" and "excessive hours" from the definition of "conditions analogous to slavery", which really only means that those working in poor conditions would no longer have access to protections they used to be entitled to.

International violations

A second bill awaiting ratification would allow Brazilian employers to pay rural workers in food, accommodation, commodities or land, instead of a salary. In addition, workers would no longer be entitled to mandatory weekly days off and it would become legal for them to work 18 consecutive days. Quite simply, the absence of salary and time off present a violation of workers’ rights as set out in international treaties.

Looking at the chicken industry specifically, an investigation into the industrial meat complex in Brazil, published in November 2017 by the IATP, highlights three examples of worker abuse.

The first deals with poultry catchers. These young men, mostly migrants, are transported from farm to farm to catch the chickens that are ready for slaughter. Their shifts exceed legislated working hours as a matter of course; wages are often withheld and they do not have contracts. Their labour brokers routinely house them in dreadful circumstances, including a disused mine.

The second example relates to workers in processing plants. The report noted that the below-par working conditions were illustrated by repetitive-strain injuries and sick leave – statistics for both are far higher than the national average.

Undermining unions

Only in 2013 was legislation passed that enforced rest periods, ergonomic design and mandatory union participation in health and safety matters in the processing plants. However, trade union representatives reported that companies responded by increasing the speed of the production lines to make up for the perceived productivity losses. It is claimed, furthermore, that the current government’s active undermining of trade unions has resulted in a weakening of their ability to monitor and enforce health and safety regulations.

Family farmers are the third example of worker abuse. Contract farming is dominant in chicken production in Brazil, with more than 130 000 family farmers integrated into the supply chains of major meat-processing corporations through contracts. The IATP researchers found that small farmers often receive a price per kilogram for the slaughter-ready birds that is below their input costs.

Sweat shops?

Katishi Masemola, general secretary of South Africa’s Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), says that his union holds a strong view that the South African government should highlight these repugnant labour conditions that are analogous to slave-trade labour practices in many of the Brazilian poultry operations. These alone are reason to block the predatory imports of chicken from that country.

"Given that we fight for the rights of workers and for their decent working conditions, as FAWU we are horrified by reported practices of long hours of work, unsafe and unhealthy working environments, and other sweat-shop type conditions – there are even reported allegations that Brazilian workers may be denied freedom of assembly and the right to join unions as supported by various conventions of the International Labour Organisation. If people in the chicken supply chain are indeed treated this poorly, the breaches in food-safety standards should not be a surprise."

What is a surprise, is that the South African government – which is in a tripartite alliance with a labour federation – has not expressed concern or called for investigations into the country that supplies most of our chicken imports. It is an offence against local workers who lose their jobs as imports displace local production; against local consumers who are exposed to potentially unsafe food; and against Brazilians who work as slaves to produce meat for export.

Dillon is a member of the FairPlay antidumping movement.

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