When you have been forced to work most of your life for no wages, under a cloud of constant threat from your boss, it is a struggle to maintain hope. That is the plight of the approximately 20.9 million people worldwide who are the victims of forced labor. It was also the plight of Francisco, a 39-year-old former victim of forced labor in Brazil, who had given up hope for a brighter future until Brazil’s Ação Integrada (“Integrated Action”) program gave him an opportunity to build one.
Francisco had been working under forced labor conditions, tapping rubber and paid only with food. When the Ação Integrada team met him, he could not see beyond that awful situation and wanted only to find more work as a rubber tapper. He was reluctant to participate in the program.
However, the team convinced Francisco’s wife that a better life was possible for both of them. In turn, she convinced Francisco to join Ação Integrada and learn how to bake. Now, they own their own bakery. “For somebody who didn’t have anything, now we have our own house!” Francisco says. “First I thank God, then the labor inspectors and police, and the Ação Integrada team who helped us.”
Having worked for the past five years on forced labor issues at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, I have witnessed the passion and dedication that so many bring to solving this problem.
One of the most dedicated leaders I have met is Valdiney Arruda, the regional director of the Ministry of Labor and Employment in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso and the force behind Ação Integrada. For many years, Mr. Arruda worked as a labor inspector, visiting isolated areas to find workers who were threatened, unpaid, indentured or in bondage.
In 2008, after realizing that many of the people he rescued from forced labor ended up returning to the same predicament, Mr. Arruda and his team decided that inspections were not enough: they needed to focus more of their efforts on law enforcement and on finding real alternatives for these workers. This meant helping them to learn new trades, find good jobs and most importantly, gain the self-confidence they needed to build a brighter future for themselves.
This “integrated” approach is the idea behind Ação Integrada, a program developed to help prevent workers from falling into the same traps that previously had led to their exploitation again and again. The Labor Department is providing technical support to Ação Integrada as it consolidates in Mato Grosso and extends into other parts of Brazil. Thanks to the commitment of hundreds of people like Mr. Arruda, more than 44,000 people have been freed from forced labor in Brazil since 1995.
Pilar Velasquez is an international relations officer in the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.