Blood And Iron: Volkswagen And Modern Slavery In Brazil

On June 14th, labour prosecutor Rafael Garcia Rodrigues pressed charges against the German car-manufacturing giant Volkswagen for having owned a farm worked by slave labour in the 1970s and 1980s.

Law professor and cleric, Father Ricardo Rezende, told Le Monde that he has spent four decades gathering information on Volkswagen’s complicity in the Brazilian slave trade. This farm, known as Hacienda Vale do Rio Cristalino, allegedly held indebted, itinerant workers against their will. They were neither paid nor provided with adequate accommodation or sanitary facilities. Mr. Garcia Rodrigues is certain that Volkswagen “was perfectly aware of the criminal practices underway.”

These shameful accusations emerge less than a decade after the company finally agreed to compensate retired factory workers in São Paulo for having handed them over to the secret police under Brazil’s military dictatorship. Another chapter in Volkswagen’s scandal-prone history is about to begin.

Scholars like Ulrike Lindner, Steven Press, Jan-Georg Deutsch, Andreas Eckert, and Michael Long have aptly demonstrated that German companies and missionaries have a long and disturbing history of slave labour. In the early 1900s, shortly after waging a genocidal counterinsurgency war against the Herero and Nama peoples in South-West Africa (present-day Namibia), the German Colonial Corporation for Southwest Africa press-ganged Ovambo tribesmen to extract diamonds in the fittingly named “Forbidden Zone”. Hundreds died of exhaustion and disease as a result.

Similar scenes unfolded in Togoland and Kamerun, African colonies of the German Empire until 1914 and 1916 respectively. Professor Philippe Blaise Essomba told journalists that when German soldiers pacified unruly villages or regions, defeated locals ended up in forced labor camps. Papa André Pegha Kooh Mbous never forgot building a German railway line: “Some of us started working as soon as the sun came up […] This work was carried out in chains and with lashes so that no one rested […] Whenever we went from one place to another, our bodies would convulse under the blows of sticks. Some collapsed and many died. That’s how it was with forced labour.”

In the 1890s, the German East Africa Company transported 500 Chinese “coolies” from Singapore to work on major infrastructure projects in modern-day Tanzania. Terrible mistreatment at the hands of German foremen convinced many workers to return home after barely two years’ service. The Maji Maji rebellion (1905-1907) saw German troops using scorched-earth tactics that killed between 250000 and 300000 indigenous people due to starvation or disease. Legal scholars Klaus Bachmann and Gerhard Kemp say that at the rebellion’s height, Commander Theodor von Hirsch confessed in his diary that he felt “like a murderer, arsonist, and slave trader.”

German firms based in the Pacific, such as Deutsche Handels und Plantagen Gesellschaft (DHPG), often “collected” Melanesians from the Solomon Islands or Papua New Guinea. According to Gerard Hindmarsh, they then shipped them to coffee, coconut, and pineapple plantations in German Samoa. Lurking beneath the façade of a fairy-tale landscape, to paraphrase author Robert Louis Stevenson, plantation overseers whipped Melanesians and controlled every facet of their lives. A German commissioner casually admitted in his correspondence that Germans preferred imported Melanesians to native Samoans because “they hardly ever complain, even when ill-treated.”

Colonial cruelties nominally reserved for “lesser races” in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific soon made their way to mainland Europe during World War 2. From June 1940 onwards, Volkswagen conscripted captured Russians, Poles, Scandinavians, and Jews, among many other nationalities, to work as slaves in German factories. Ulrich Herbert estimated that, depending on the week and month, 70% of the company’s workforce was Eastern European.

Additionally, Volkswagen managers and executives implemented their own extermination program without external input from Nazi authorities. A company-run nursery in Rühen, according to journalist and historian Neal Gabler, sadistically and systematically starved to death hundreds of infants born to Polish and Russian slaves. Nurse Kathe Pisters exclaimed to fellow staff, “We will take care that not so many Russian and Polish children will grow up.” The company even made mothers like Anna Snopczyk pay for the burial of her murdered son.

Christopher Kopper’s extensive research proves beyond doubt that Volkswagen do Brasil welcomed the Brazilian military coup d’état in 1964. For the directors, the ouster of a left-leaning president marked not a brutal blow to democracy or freedom of speech, but the “restoration of a rational political order.” VW board member Friedrich Wilhelm Schultz-Wenk rejoiced when secret police arrested trade union leaders on factory premises. In so doing, he endorsed a regime that perceived its own citizens as mindless automatons, that committed widespread torture, that ran hidden concentration camps to repress uncooperative indigenous tribes and precipitated the environmental destruction of the Amazon.

However, Volkswagen is not the only multinational corporation with Brazilian blood on its hands. Many other companies handsomely profited from the military regime’s abhorrent conduct towards factory workers and indigenous peoples. Journalists like Santiago Navarro emphasise that Mitsubishi, Anderson Clayton, Goodyear, Nestlé, Swift, Ludwig, Mappin & Webb, Bordon, Codeara, Camargo Corrêa, Bradesco, and Bamerindus all benefited from the dictatorship’s suppression of labor rights and genocidal occupation of the Amazon. Most of these have thus far escaped the methodical scrutiny and relentless media condemnation faced by Volkswagen in recent years.

For posterity’s sake, academics, reporters, and concerned citizens need to pool their resources and expertise to carry out thorough investigations and uncover the true extent of corporate malfeasance under military rule in Brazil.

Yet it is worth stressing that slavery never disappeared in Brazil. The German confectionary giant Haribo allegedly still relies on slave labor to harvest carnauba wax. Westdeutscher Rundfunk released a documentary in 2017 revealing that Brazilian carnauba pickers live in squalor, sleep outside in adverse weather conditions with no access to clean drinking water, and receive pay amounting to barely twelve dollars a day.

Environmentalist Binka Le Breton is the author of “Trapped: Modern-Day Slavery in the Brazilian Amazon” (2003). She has witnessed firsthand the experience of itinerant and often illiterate labourers whom deceitful gatos (contractors) lure into the Amazon with false promises of fortune and glory. An anonymous enslaved person vividly recalled his hellish experience in a far-flung estate: “It was a nightmare. There was one day I was so hungry I ate a dead rat […] They thrashed me with a whip; I can still remember the pain of it.”

This practice is ongoing. Foremen armed with guns force slaves like Batista to get up before dawn and toil till nightfall. He rarely complains about the shortage and terrible quality of food, knowing that he would be punished by torture or worse. Beatings and wanton brutality paralyse dissent and prevent slaves from fleeing isolated plantations. Worse still, unbearable working conditions ensure numerous slaves never return home. Le Breton writes that illicit gold mining operations are especially dangerous. Rumours abound about the existence of clandestine cemeteries in Rondônia where, in the early 1990s, 15-20 labourers would perish weekly in cassiterite mines.

Professor Kevin Bales argues that if Brazilian authorities truly wished to combat modern slavery, there are many options. A well-funded national task force spread out across the Amazon’s frontiers could make a real difference on the ground. Federal courts should deliver quicker and harsher sentences to punish human traffickers and slaveholders. Sweeping legislative reforms must take aim at endemic police corruption as well: it is not uncommon for policemen to warn slaveholders about an impending raid on their property.

Above all else, anti-slavery bodies like GERTRAF (Executive Group for the Repression of Forced Labour) and the Flying Squads (consisting of labour inspectors and federal policemen) are in desperate need of funding. Le Breton found that between 2010 and 2020, the annual budget allotted to eradicating slavery fell from 65 to 25 million Brazilian real.

Moreover, the number of federal labour inspectors continues to plummet—not one has been hired since 2013. At least 1544 out of 3644 labour inspector positions remain unfilled. Considering the department investigates approximately 20% of suspected slave labour cases at the best of times, and only 45% of those prove the existence of slavery, these staff shortages are a disaster.

Additionally, powerful agricultural lobbies in the Brazilian Congress block the publication of the “Lista Suja”. This is a registry of offenders which exposes individuals or businesses guilty of owning slaves and forbids them access to state, federal, or bank funding for two years. Labour inspectors still compile extensive databases despite this obstruction, yet the list is useless if no one can see it.

Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has done nothing to alleviate these problems. On the contrary, the president believes the sanctity of private property trumps human dignity – much to the delight of the Parliamentary Agricultural Front (FPA), a lobby whose members rank among Bolsonaro’s staunchest supporters, according to Reuters.

Globo reports that the president is adamantly opposed to legislation allowing for the confiscation of land where slaves are exploited. In May 2021, Bolsonaro declared his government would not put constitutional amendment 81 (which states that rural properties hosting forced labour must be expropriated) into law, claiming that such a decision would pose a serious threat to private property in Brazil.

The Intercept added that Bolsonaro first expressed his disdain for amendment 81 following the trial of Cyro Pires Xavier, a member of the wealthy agribusiness-owning Xavier family in Mato Grosso. Xavier was found guilty of keeping 23 workers (including a pregnant woman) in conditions “analogous to slavery” on a farm. The labourers had no protective gear for handling pesticides and no sanitary products. The pregnant woman had no choice but to defecate in a ditch covered in banana leaves.

This is certainly not the first time the Xaviers have taken advantage of vulnerable labourers and their children. The Public Ministry of Labour in Mato Grosso reports that five separate raids have saved 324 workers from slavery on Xavier family property over the years. The “Lista Suja” includes the names of patriarch Sebastião Bueno Xavier’s two sons. Ultimately, a labour court in October 2018 jointly condemned seven members of the Xavier dynasty to pay six million reals in damages. In a bid to further bolster his burgeoning popularity among rural elites, Bolsonaro, then a presidential candidate, castigated judges rightfully clamping down on slavery for their “judicial activism”.

Furthermore, according to iG Brasil, Bolsonaro claimed on his 2018 campaign trail that he would dismantle anti-child labour laws. He proclaimed that “The ECA (Brazilian Child and Adolescent Statute) needs to be torn up” for being “a stimulus for vagrancy and childish trickery”.

The PT (Workers’ Party) could make a difference in the war on slavery should it return to power after this year’s presidential elections in October. The “Institute of the Pact for Eradicating Slavery” made great strides towards identifying and eliminating slave labour in the value chains of various products and industries during the premierships of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. If elected, the PT could build upon these achievements and finally banish slavery into the past where it belongs.



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