According to the Brazilian publication Revistaforum.com which has followed the widely-reported story closely, the rescue operation was in reaction to testimony by three workers who had escaped from the premises where they were allegedly held captive by Oliveira & Santana, the company that had recruited them mostly from Bahia, 3,000km further north.
The men — like the others who were rescued, had, it was claimed, been lured for the harvest to Brazil’s ‘wine capital', Bento Gonçalves, by the prospect of working for three giant Brazilian wine companies: Salton, Aurora and Garibaldi. They had been promised above-average salaries with free accommodation and food. The appeal of this in Bahia where unemployment in November 2022 was 33% — compared to a national figure of 22%) was easy to understand.
The reality, however, was of “totally unhealthy accommodation, late payment of wages, exhausting hours, physical violence, inadequate food and even false imprisonment [and constant] punishments with electric shock and pepper spray”. The workers reported 12-hour days, having to pay for the use of cutlery and even water.
Allegations of death threats and police involvement
It was also alleged that complaints about these conditions led to beatings with truncheons and death threats. Worse still, it was alleged that military police were involved acting as “accomplices” and that "anyone who complained or filmed the conditions of the [accommodation] would be killed". According to Revistaforum “Workers reported that workers had already been killed.”
The companies suspended by ApexBrasil are among the biggest in the country. Salton, a family-owned company, was founded in 1910, making it the longest-running winery in Brazil. Annual production is over 25m litres. The Aurora cooperative, Brazil's largest producer, which dates from 1931, is of a similar size, at 24m litres, while the Garibaldi cooperative produces around 15m. This combined production of around 65m litres compares to an average total for the entire industry of 245m litres between 2014-2020.
All three companies have issued press releases disclaiming any awareness or responsibility for the workers’ treatment and attributing responsibility to Oliveira & Santana, the contractor with whom they had signed contracts. Aurora, said it sympathized with the workers “hired by the outsourced company” and stressed that it does not condone any type of activity legally considered analogous to slavery. It also pointed out that it had paid Oliveira & Santana over R$ 6,500/month per worker, plus meals and overtime and that “there is no distinction in treatment between company employees and contracted workers.”
The police stated that the boss of Olivera & Santana, a 45 year-old man from Valente Bahia, the region where they were recruited, was arrested before being released on bail. According to press reports, his company "had contracts with several wineries in the region."
Salton, whose website talks about having launched a ‘social legacy’ programme in 2020 and an ‘Ethics Channel’ in 2021 to ensure “the highest standards of ethics and integrity” also declared that “The company and all its representatives are in solidarity with all workers and their families, who were treated in an inhumane and cruel manner by a contracted service provider.” Luciana Salton, one of the directors of the business separately told Meininger’s that, of the 200 workers, only 14 worked at Salton and that they did regular hours with breaks and were not picking grapes, just up/downloading trucks. "Nobody had come to inspect and nobody complained."
The economist and market consultant Adão Morrelatto, is confident that the case will blow over. “I believe that it is a localized and occasional event and should not have repercussions of great magnitude either internally or even image abroad… This… was a recent and occasional, perhaps post-pandemic, event in which companies are still structuring themselves economically and possibly found a loophole in the legislation to hire outsourced labor, through another company that did not observe the due rights of these workers.”
Others in Brazil see it differently. Leading sommelier, Gabriele Frizon who is also Chief Operating Officer of importers Belle Cave Importadora, said “I believe it is a very negative stain on the history of Brazilian wine... Unfortunately, there will be consequences for the entire production chain… in the domestic and export markets, especially if there is no proper investigation and punishment.”
Frizon continued that “I imagine that more stories like this can emerge, but perhaps there is no collective ‘interest’ for this to actually happen.
It takes a lot of courage to tell more stories like this around here... Even ‘clean’ wineries cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for improving market practices. If a large part of the industry uses outsourced labor, then it is very important and urgent that the industry itself propose improvements in the temporary and outsourced hiring system.”
Influential wine educator, Thiago Mendes, CEO of Eno Cultura, agrees.
“On the local market it will certainly impact on image perception of how ethically Brazilian wines are produced.”
Like Frizon, he sees a threat to Brazil’s efforts to develop export markets. “The question is, ‘Is it worth the risk of importing a product of questionable quality and seriously social issues, which can easily became headlines?’ I am sure buyers at every level will question the risk of having money tied to an unsaleable product.”
Slavery still a live issue
The elephant in the room is that while other countries review their historic responsibility for slavery, in Brazil it is still very much a live issue. As the Brazil Institute reveals, Brazil did not abolish the practice until 1888, making it the last nation to do so. Prior to that, for over three centuries, slavery was a major part of the economy. Of the 10m Africans brought against their will to the Americas, 40% were taken to Brazil.
Despite abolition, slavery persisted in isolated rural areas. In 2003 President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva introduced measures to help an estimated 25,000 people still living in slave-like conditions, mostly in the north of the country.
Five years later, the government’s anti-slavery task force reported that it had visited 255 different farms and undertaken 133 missions, freeing 4,634 workers from slave-like conditions. 2008 was a bad but not particularly exceptional year. Indeed, between 2003 to 2018, an initiative called the Observatory of Slave Labor in Brazil launched by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Brazilian Labor Prosecutor's Office recorded 45,028 rescues of people who were working under conditions similar to slavery.
A Constitutional Amendment passed in 2014 sought to improve matters by allowing the expropriation of properties from landowners found to have relied on "work analogous to slave labor."
Bolsonaro says no
Throughout the Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff, and Michael Temer presidencies, the Ministry of Labor was charged with combatting slavery. Soon after Jair Bolsonaro became president in October 2018, he abolished the ministry which had been founded nearly 50 years earlier. A year later, he publicly questioned the Constitutional Amendment. “What is slavery?” he asked in a speech suggesting that workplace standards should be adapted to increase competitiveness and attractiveness to investment from overseas. Slavery had only become an issue, he claimed "because, until recently, the state we were building was a totalitarian or socialist state. Through the laws, we were getting closer to socialism and communism.”
In the 2022 election campaign that saw Bolsonaro being replaced by Lula da Silva, as the Human Rights organisation Conectas reported, no fewer than seven presidential and a number of candidates for state governor all signed a statement it had co-authored that included the following commitments against slavery:
- Combat contemporary slave labour and human trafficking as one of the priorities of my administration
- To not allow influences of any kind in my decisions that could prevent the signing of laws or implementation of actions necessary for the eradication of slave labor;
- To recognize and defend the definition of contemporary slavery contained in article 149 of the Criminal Code, characterized by forced labor, debt bondage, degrading conditions and/or exhausting work days;
- To not promote businesses or companies that have used slave or child labor, and support companies so they can develop and implement actions and measures to combat contemporary slavery in their value chains;
- To support political negotiations aimed at approving laws that can contribute to the eradication of contemporary slavery;
- To seek and provide protection for human rights defenders and social leaders who work on the combat of slavery and the defense of worker rights.
No social security - no slavery
The fact that these were considered necessary in 2022, and that some candidates saw no need to sign them, speaks volumes. As does the final paragraph of a statement about the current case by the Bento Gonçalves Center for Industry and Commerce (CIC-BG), an organisation with 700-members, that describes itself as "the most representative business entity of the city."
“Situations like this" the statement concludes "unfortunately, are also related to a problem that has been emphasized and worked on for a long time by the CIC-BG and the local public authorities: the lack of manpower and the need to invest in projects and initiatives that make it possible to minimize this huge problem. There is a large portion of the population with full productive conditions and which, even so, is inactive, surviving through a welfare system that is not healthy to society.”
Brazilian observers including Revistaforum presumed that "social welfare" referred to the Bolsa Família - family allowance - programme supported by the World Bank and dedicated to helping 50m of Brazil’s poorest citizens. In return for R$70.00 (a $35), usually paid directly to women, recipients commit to keeping their children in school and taking them for regular health checks. According to the World Bank “Success [of Bolsa Família] has sparked adaptations in almost 20 countries—including Chile, Mexico, and other countries around the world, such as Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, and Morocco.
The town of Bento Gonçalves is inextricably associated with wine. Large numbers of tourists from nearby São Paolo, pass through a huge concrete barrel to get to its centre. For its officials to blame a widely-praised social security programme for abusive working conditions seems less than wise. Especially at a time when consumers across the world are said to be increasingly concerned about the methods, standards and behaviour of the companies from whom they buy. And at a time when Brazil is seeking to boost the proportion of wine it exports from its current 2%.
Fortunately, for Brazil’s wine industry, the swift reaction from ApexBrasil, suggests that the new Brazilian administration takes this story rather more seriously than the Bento Gonçalves Center for Industry and Commerce.
Brazil has over 1,000 wineries. After a relatively flat period from 2010-2020, exports grew by over 80% in 2021 and in 2022, the BBC ran a news report about its ambitions for overseas sales. Among the people quoted are Giorgia Mezacasa, export supervisor for Aurora. "When it comes to wine" she says "Brazil is still relatively unknown, so our wines seem exotic... And that's what draws people's attention."