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Brazil Refuses To Weaken Slavery Law, Sets An Example For Other Nations

05/03/2016 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Omar Havana via Getty Images
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - JUNE 11: A young scavenger wearing a Brazilian national football team t-shirt walks near a burning pile of trash in the Anlong Pi landfill on June 11, 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Dozens of children work every day in the Anlong Pi landfill, which is situated only few kilometres aways from the world famous Angkor temples, visited by more than 3 million tourists every year. Despite the Cambodian government's commitments and legal responsibilities to end child labor - enshrined in its ratification of relevant international covenants, domestic laws and the implementation of several national policies aimed at ending child labor - it remains a significant concern in Cambodia, where almost a third of the population lives on less than a dollar per day. Child labor is a consequence of this poverty, often resulting from a family's inability to support itself. According to a recent report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an estimated 19.1% of the close to 4 million children in Cambodia between the ages of 5 and 17 engage in economic activities. An estimated 56.9% of those children are child labourers, with a third of them being involved in hazardous activities mostly in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors. (Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images)

It is ironic that legitimate political discourse is being used to cripple human rights legislation and laws designed to safeguard and protect the weaker sections of society. In 2014, Bolivia made regressive amendments to its child labour law. It reduced the age of employment to 12 years and under certain conditions to even 10 years, a step so obscurantist that it left the world in major disbelief and shock. India is also faced with a similar problem as there exists a section in our political class which is vying hard to weaken the child labour law. These are all examples of powerful interests at work. Recently, the South American country of Brazil, too, faced similar pressures.

Brazil has a well-framed, progressive law on slavery which is much more comprehensive and far-reaching than the ILO convention and protocol on forced labour (this sets an international legal standard to protect children from some of the most extreme forms of exploitation). The prevalent law in Brazil includes strenuous work and unacceptable, exhausting or degrading working conditions as a form of modern-day slavery. However, in the past few years, there have been strong appeals by major political parties and several influential individuals to introduce Federal Senate Bill No. 432. If passed, it would have demolished the strength of the labour force and diluted the slavery law on authorization by the Senate and President.

The response and outcome of my visit to the HRSC has truly been beyond my expectations. The Parliament has decided to pass the bill through an ordinary regime...

There was strong lobbying particularly from the construction, agriculture and food-processing industries who argued that changes were required since the country was hit by global recession and facing severe economic conditions. These industrialists have even managed to get the suspension of the notorious 'dirty list' of companies caught using slave labour, which creates the possibility for a rise in modern-day slavery. Their plea, in specific, was regarding the "exhausting working conditions" clause that carried stringent penalties.

The bill was being moved under an urgency regime to the senate, highlighting the distress of forces behind it. I was extremely fortunate to have arrived in Brazil just when it was undergoing discussion, in the last week of January. My address to the Human Rights Senate Caucus (HRSC) which comprised senior senators and civil society leaders turned out to be tremendously rewarding. After much contemplation and debate, the moral, legal, and political imperative to act was acknowledged by most. This enabled further dialogue on the bill through an Official Demand and facilitated my presence at the Parliament Podium and subsequently the Supreme Court for Labour.

The response and outcome of my visit to the HRSC has truly been beyond my expectations. The Parliament has decided to pass the bill through an ordinary regime instead of the currently applied urgency regime. The ordinary regime is much more detailed and participatory in its operations and thus, the passage of this bill anytime in the near future seems like a distant reality.

The need of the hour, in all nations, is a mechanism of conducting businesses with compassionate intelligence.

Brazil has pioneered the protection of its citizens, especially the less-fortunate, through its programs and has created as well as sustained one of the most widely acclaimed and imitated social welfare schemes under the 'Bolsa Familia' programme. The model emerged more than a decade ago, and successfully broke the cycle of intergenerational transmission of poverty by getting parents to invest in their children compulsorily.

In spite of such exemplary progress, the nation has 486,000 children engaged in the worst forms of child labour and slavery. Most of them are victims of trafficking. To prevent further growth and abuse of bonded labour and slaves, we need all countries and stakeholders to act in collaborative partnerships and develop an amalgamation of business, compassion and intelligence. Countries vary in name and not in character. The need of the hour, in all nations, is a mechanism of conducting businesses with compassionate intelligence. People of power and capacity need to be made morally responsible for the less fortunate.

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff is of the belief that the fight against poverty is fundamental to the promotion of development, and I couldn't agree more. Our discussion revolved around the need to create, and implement holistic child-friendly policies. Unless, the children feel empowered and protected, true and sustainable development cannot be achieved. A landmark development resulted from my meeting with the President. She agreed to host the next Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa convention, commonly known as BRICS, to prioritize the needs and development of children.

I am optimistic that one day child labour laws in my own country will become as progressive and that our Members of Parliament will heed my call-to-action...

I am hopeful that the emerging economies of the world will come to a consensus to provide provisions for ending violence against children. I am optimistic that one day child labour laws in my own country will become as progressive and that our Members of Parliament will heed my call-to-action and strengthen the obsolete law governing this problem.

The efforts and consent of the government of Brazil will go a long way in providing respite to the vulnerable and left-behind sections of society and, I hope, serve as an inspiration to many countries to do the same.

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