Dam Slaves

Slaves in Egypt
Slaves in Egypt
During Brazil's military dictatorship, critics of the regime referred to its "pharaonic" projects, including huge dams built as monuments to the despots who lined the pockets of their political cronies. Now, the "pharaoh" has arisen from his tomb, and once again, it was two dam projects, part of President Lula's Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), that were using slave labor to get the pyramids erected.

Federal police found 38 workers in degrading conditions at the Jirau Dam, being built by the French company Suez (consistent with our Egyptian motif), along with three Brazilian companies on the Madeira River, at a site called either the Priest's Island or Hell's Island, depending on who you talk to. The workers, lured from their native Maranhão state more than 4,000 km away by shady employment contractors, or "gatos", said they were promised salaries of $350 - $650 per month, but their work contracts were for only the minimum wage of $250/month. They were forced to work overtime, without receiving extra pay. Many of the workers had run up debts in order to pay for their transportation to Rondônia.

The workers were found sharing shacks with the carpenter's shop. At least five workers slept in each room, with insufficient ventilation for relief from the searing heat, and inadequate food.

The company was ordered to return the workers to their homes, and to pay $50,000 in back salaries and a fine of $800 to each of the workers. These horrible conditions and low wages on the Madeira dam projects triggered a brief strike this week of workers at both dams under construction, but union leaders quickly  negotiated a temporary settlement to avoid bringing the project to a halt.

The Madeira bust came several days after it was revealed that a dam being built by Votorantim, one of Brazil's largest industrial groups had also been found to use slave labor. In this case, 98 workers deforesting the area of the future reservoir of the Salto do Rio Verdinho Dam, in Goiás state were housed in barracks without beds or bathrooms, working in exchange for food, and running up debts for their transportation, food and lodging instead of being paid a salary. The dam is being financed by the BNDES public bank, which provided $130 million for its construction.

As in the case of Jirau, the workers had been contracted by middlemen who did not permit them to leave before settling their accounts.

The Votorantim Energy company said it "lamented what had taken place" and agreed to pay $230,000 to send the workers home.

José Neto, coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission of the Catholic Church said the cases demonstrate that slave labor in Brazil is not restricted only to the agricultural sector. "The problem is clearly not only with sugar cane and other plantations. A situation like this shows that large companies (in civil construction) such as Votorantim are often involved as well."