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From legal slavery to contemporary slavery: new forms of an old problem

By Bianca Pistorio - Posted on 15 December 2022

As part of her PhD research, Bianca Pistorio recently travelled to Brazil to learn more about modern slavery in the Amazon. Here, she discusses her research and the benefits of travelling to the region.

The most recent global estimates indicate that around 49.6 million people are in a situation of modern slavery in the world. Among them, 27.6 million were in forced labour and the other 22 million were in forced marriage. In other words, for every thousand people there are 3.5 in forced labour. Of this total, 11.8 million are women and girls, and of this total around 3.3 million are children. 

Slavery in the contemporary world is linked to human rights violations in the workplace and the reduction of workers to subhuman conditions; restriction of the worker's freedom, either by coercing them to work through mechanisms such as indebtedness to force them to stay at work, or even by restricting the means of locomotion, or by using ostensive surveillance; and exhaustive working hours. 

Faced with the seriousness of the persistence of this problem today, the need for global efforts to end slavery is evident. Therefore, ending slavery in today's world is one of the objectives of the Agenda 2030, for Sustainable Development Goals, mentioned in target 8.7. 

To join efforts, researchers from Brazil and also international researchers who carry out academic investigations on the subject of contemporary slavery have met annually at the 'Scientific Meeting of Contemporary Slave Labour and Related Issues', organised by the Contemporary Slave Labour Research Group (GPTEC), of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). 

In 2022, the scientific event took place between November 16 and 18 in Sergipe, located in Northeast Brazil. This year, 45 papers were presented, written by 49 female researchers and 22 male researchers. Researchers from 26 universities were present including 19 Brazilian and 7 researchers from Uruguay, Italy, Luxembourg, Vienna, USA, England and Scotland. The areas of activity that presented research were anthropology, social sciences, political science, communication, law, education, geography, history, social work, public health, psychology, international relations and work, employment and organisation. 

In addition, organised civil society and government bodies, such as representatives of the Public Ministry of Labour, Labour Inspection Audit, Labour Court, National Association of Magistrates of Labour Court, NGO Reporter Brasil, Public Debt Network, Union of Domestic Workers of the State of Sergipe and Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT) also took part in the event.

This was the first time the University of Strathclyde has participated in this event, and the work that represented the University is part of the doctoral research that I have carried out under the supervision Dr Brian Garvey and Dr Pratima Sambajee from the Department of Work, Employment and Organisation (WEO). 

The research in progress aims to reflect on the process of slavery on the Legal Amazon, in Brazil, and how the imposition of the productive model of agribusiness is making rural and traditional communities vulnerable to contemporary slave labour, because the implementation of monocultures, environmental contamination and large undertakings are degrading the land, the waters, and ending the livelihoods of the communities that live in these territories. 

I received funding from the University of Strathclyde through the PGR Travel Award and the WEO Department Funding, which together enabled me to travel to Brazil to present my work and participate in other conference activities. 

My participation, in addition to contributing to academic debates, also greatly equipped the development of the research, as it was possible to observe research trends in the area, as well as to learn about the interdisciplinary actions that are being carried out in Brazil and in the world, to eradicate the slavery. 

After the GPTEC, I went to the state of Bahia, where it was possible to participate in field work activities with the researchers of the Project “Promotion of Healthy and Sustainable Territory in a Traditional Fishing Community”, in the Mare Island, and also in the “I Workshop of the Territorially Based Popular Surveillance Project: experiences, networks and training for action”, both activities coordinated and executed by FIOCRUZ. 

As a result, it was possible to observe methodologically how researchers have worked with traditional communities that are socio-environmentally and economically impacted by the installation of large enterprises in their territories. 

As part of this researcher exchange, I connected with a large network of Brazilian researchers who contributing to the achievement of goals of Sustainable Development Agenda with their research projects. In this way I could do collaborative networking for my fieldwork, which begins this month, in the Mato Grosso state, that has high level with soya, cotton, corn and cattle production, high level of consumption of agrochemicals, deforestation, slavery, social inequalities, and one of the biggest exported of commodities of Brazil. 

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