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Slavery in the Brazilian Charcoal Production

 Author: Camila Maciel Viana

1. Background information:

It was not until 1993 that the slavery problem actually entered in the Brazilian National Agenda, denounced by the Brazilian Lawyers Association (OAB), trade unions, OIT, United Nations and other institutions. In 1995, the Ministry of Work created the Special Working Group in Mobile Fiscalization.

According to the semiannual update of the Slave Labor "Dirty List", in December 2010, 53 of the 220 employers included in the list were linked to the coal production chain. The Dirty List is a register maintained by the Federal Government with the employers caught committing crimes and is systematically monitored by the Labor Inspection Secretariat.

At the beginning of January (2019), the Federal Government published an update on the Slave Labor DirtyList. This new version brings 204 names of employers from 22 Brazilian states. In total, 2.463 workers are affected. The list includes occurrences of work analogous to slavery in rural and urban areas. There still have occurrences in farms, charcoal camps, extraction areas, and construction sites. In only one case, in a farm that covers four municipalities in the interior of Minas Gerais, 348 workers were rescued. There was also a construction site in Conceição do Mato Dentro (MG), with 173 workers.

              2. Conflict type: 

The charcoal burning stage is sometimes done by forced laborers, including men from the poverty-stricken north of Brazil who are lured with false promises to remote camps. 

In addition to the common absence of a formal contract, slave labor in the charcoal industry is identified because there are cases of excessive journeys, insufficient food and hostile housing to a minimum quality of survival. Even more serious situations involve geographic isolation, armed surveillance and so-called "peonage" for debts, that is, when the worker is coerced to remain in the service to pay for alleged debts, illegally collected, food, transportation, and others.

In other cases, violations include food preparation without basic hygienic conditions and with salt intended for cattle, not cooking. Meals were held in the middle of the bushes, near coal kilns or with logs used as benches. The employees had no protection from sun or rain, domestic or wild animals. The water consumed was not drinkable. On some work fronts, there were no toilets and employees worked without PPE, exposed to high temperatures, smoke, dust and the impact of coal loads, loaded directly on the shoulder. In addition, several irregularities were found in the dormitories.


  Figure 1: Workers exposed without protective equipment at Fazenda Pedra Branca. Photo: Press Release / MP
            3. Evaluation of the conflict

More than a century after abolishing official slavery in Brazil, crime continues to be practiced, especially in areas of difficult access in the Amazon. Contemporary slavery dispenses shackles, but it is more perverse, for the captive is not considered an asset: it is enticed, exploited and discarded. This archaic system feeds a globalized production market that makes intensive use of energy, technology, and capital, but cares little for human lives.

It is shameful that we still find slavery cases going on in Brazilian charcoal production until recent days. Efforts have been made by the Brazilian Labor Organization, Ministry of Economy to inspect, punish and expose coal camps owners and companies who trade charcoal made by slave workers. 

In March 2003, the government of former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva launched the National Plan for Slave Labor Eradication and set up a national commission to put it into effect. The plan included 76 measures to combat the practice. Among them are bills to confiscate lands where slave labor is found, to suspend the credit of slave-owning farmers, and to transfer crimes against human rights to the federal level. The publication of the Dirty List of Slave Labor also fortifies the fight against these practices as it exposes the criminals. The 2019 list is available for open consultation HERE

In 2012, WWF-Brazil, with the aim of making the production chain of steel plant charcoal more sustainable, joint efforts with enterprises institutes and foundations to combat slave labor.  Meetings were held with companies linked to the steel production chain, which led to an unprecedented agreement in the country: pig iron producers, steel and iron have committed themselves, through a common agenda, to join efforts to eradicate the environmental devastation and slave labor of their productive chains.

Among other actions, the group developed principles and criteria for the sustainable production of charcoal, as well as independent tracking and auditing systems. Below is a summary of the commitments made by the group:

- Develop, through a multi-sectoral process, the definition of principles and criteria for the sustainable production of charcoal;

- Establish protocols for independent auditing and classification, according to objective, verifiable and qualifying criteria for the use of charcoal in steel production;

- Establish a transparent tracking system that allows the identification of all wood used in production;

- Identify the potential socio-environmental impact of this product at each stage of the chain until it is processed;

- Establish a program to promote and expand the forest base planted and managed to ensure the full supply of charcoal on sustainable bases by 2020;

- Generate decent jobs and create green jobs, as established in the Decent Work Agenda (ILO), prioritizing the reintegration of workers freed from actions to combat slave labor;

- Monitor and analyze the effectiveness in the implementation of existing public policies and propose complements, modifications or new public policies and revision of regulatory frameworks.

With these actions in progress, we expect the unacceptable slavery practices to reduce to zero in a near future. Thus we can expect laborers in this, and in other sectors, to achieve their rights of working with dignity in healthy environments. 

Figure 2: Coal Camp owner being audited and fined, and slaves release in Minas Gerais - 2013 (Photo: JUAREZ RODRIGUES/EM/D.A. PRESS) 

     4. References




2 Trabalho Escravo no Brasil - O drama dos carvoeiros, a responsabilidade das siderúrgicas e a  campanha para a erradicação. 2004. Instituto Observatório Social Available at:


3 Entidades e empresas se unem para combater trabalho escravo na produção de carvão vegetal. 2012. Available at:


4 Combate à devastação ambiental e trabalho escravo na produção do ferro e do aço. 2012. pela Repórter Brasil. Available at:


5 Escravos do carvão são libertados em fazenda de Minas. 2013. Available at:,387567/escravos-do-carvao-sao-libertados-em-fazenda-de-minas.shtml


6 'Lista suja' tem 204 empregadores com 2.500 pessoas em situação de escravidão. 2019. Available at:


7 Charcoal slaves. 2012. Al Jazeera. Available at