Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for freedom of association for all workers (except members of the military, military police, and firefighters); the right to bargain collectively with some restrictions; and the right to strike. The law limits organizing at the enterprise level. By law the armed forces, military police, and firefighters may not strike. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, including the dismissal of employees who are candidates for, or holders of, union leadership positions, and it requires employers to reinstate workers fired for union activity.
New unions must register with the Ministry of Economy, which accepts the registration unless objections are filed by other unions. The law stipulates certain restrictions, such as unicidade (in essence, one union per occupational category per city), which limits freedom of association by prohibiting multiple, competing unions of the same professional category in a single geographical area. Unions that represent workers in the same geographical area and professional category may contest registration.
The law stipulates that a strike may be ruled “disruptive” by the labor court, and the union may be subjected to legal penalties if the strike violates certain conditions, such as if the union fails to maintain essential services during a strike, notify employers at least 48 hours before the beginning of a walkout, or end a strike after a labor court decision. Employers may not hire substitute workers during a legal strike or fire workers for strike-related activity, provided the strike is not ruled abusive.
The law obliges a union to negotiate on behalf of all registered workers in the professional category and geographical area it represents, regardless of whether an employee pays voluntary membership dues. The law permits the government to reject clauses of collective bargaining agreements that conflict with government policy, and it includes collective bargaining rights, such as the ability to negotiate a flexible hourly schedule and work remotely.
Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were generally respected. Collective bargaining was widespread in establishments in the private sector. Worker organizations were independent of the government and political parties. In the view of expert NGOs working in this field, the government usually effectively enforced applicable laws, and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits “slave labor,” defined as “reducing someone to a condition analogous to slavery,” including subjecting someone to forced labor, debt bondage, exhausting work hours, and labor performed in degrading working conditions.
Many individuals in slave labor, as defined by the country’s law, were victims of human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor. The government took actions to enforce the law, although forced labor occurred in a number of states. Violations of forced labor laws are punishable by up to eight years in prison, but this was often not sufficient to deter violations. The law also provides penalties for various crimes related to forced labor, such as illegal recruiting or transporting workers or imposing onerous debt burdens as a condition of employment. Every six months the Ministry of Economy publishes a “dirty list” of companies found to have employed forced labor. Although fewer names were included during the year due to COVID-related processing delays, in April the updated list included 19 new companies and owners from a range of sectors such as cattle ranching and livestock, agriculture, mining, and construction; in October an additional 13 entities were added, including a retired attorney, a former mayor, and a construction service company. Public and private banks use the list to conduct risk assessments, and inclusion on the list prevents companies from receiving loans from state-owned financial institutions. The Labor Prosecutor’s Office, in partnership with the International Labor Organization (ILO), maintained an online platform that identified hotspots for forced labor. The Ministry of Economy’s Mobile Labor Inspection Unit teams conducted impromptu inspections of properties where forced labor was suspected or reported, using teams composed of labor inspectors, labor prosecutors from the Federal Labor Prosecutor’s Office, and Federal Police officers. Mobile teams levied fines on landowners who used forced labor and required employers to provide back pay and benefits to workers before returning the workers to their municipalities of origin. Labor inspectors and prosecutors, however, could apply only civil penalties; consequently, many cases were not criminally prosecuted.
Forced labor, including forced child labor, was reported in jobs such as clearing forests to provide cattle pastureland, logging, producing charcoal, salt industries, mining, raising livestock, and other agricultural activities. Forced labor often involved young men, notably Afro-Brazilian men, drawn from the less-developed northeastern states – Maranhao, Piaui, Tocantins, and Ceara – and the central state of Goias to work in the northern and central-western regions of the country. In addition there were reports of forced labor in the construction industry. News outlets reported cases that amounted to forced labor in production of carnauba wax. Cases of forced labor were also reported in the garment industry in the city of Sao Paulo; the victims were often from neighboring countries, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Paraguay, while others came from Haiti, South Korea, and China.
Media also reported cases of forced labor of domestic workers in wealthy urban households. In November 2020 the Public Ministry rescued 48-year-old Madalena Gordiano from domestic servitude 38 years after she began working for a Minas Gerais family as a child. The victim was exploited by a university professor and his family, working from 2 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily without a salary, benefits, or days off. Later, in her twenties, she was forced to marry an elderly relative of the employer with a pension, which was taken by her employers after his death. Although the total amount due to the victim was calculated to be R$2.2 million ($394,000), at a July virtual regional labor court hearing, she accepted an offer of R$690,100 ($124,000) to be fulfilled by the transfer of the family’s apartment to her, the purchase of a new car, and an additional R$20,000 ($3,600). The victim was also to receive the monthly pension to which she is entitled through the marriage, worth R$8,400 ($1,500) per month. The agreement was the largest individual agreement made to a person rescued from slave labor. The victim filed administrative and criminal proceedings against other family members, which the Federal Public Ministry was investigating.
During the first six months of the year, labor inspectors rescued 772 victims of slave labor – 80 percent of the previous year’s total. In 2020 authorities conducted 266 labor inspections and identified 942 victims of labor exploitation, compared with 280 labor inspections and the identification of 1,130 victims of labor exploitation in 2019. According to expert NGOs working in this field, penalties for slave labor were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping. A study published in 2020 by the Slave Labor and Trafficking in Persons Clinic of the Federal University of Minas Gerais showed that only 4.2 percent of those accused were held criminally responsible for the crime of subjecting workers to contemporary slavery.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The definitions of crimes involving child sex trafficking require the use of threats, violence, coercion, fraud, or abuse, which does not meet international standards. The minimum working age is 16, but apprenticeships may begin at age 14. The law bars all minors younger than 18 from work that constitutes a physical strain or occurs in unhealthy, dangerous, or morally harmful conditions. Hazardous work includes an extensive list of activities within 13 occupational categories, including domestic service, garbage scavenging, and fertilizer production. The law requires parental permission for minors to work as apprentices. The Ministry of Economy’s Special Mobile Inspection Group is responsible for inspecting worksites to enforce child labor laws. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Most inspections of children in the workplace were driven by complaints brought by workers, teachers, unions, NGOs, and media. Due to legal restrictions, labor inspectors remained unable to enter private homes and farms, where much of the child labor allegedly occurred. The government did not always effectively enforce the law.
In 2020 labor inspectors found situations of child labor during 279 investigations, involving 810 children. According to data collected by UNICEF in Sao Paulo among vulnerable families, child labor worsened during the pandemic. UNICEF conducted a survey of data on the income and work situation of 52,744 vulnerable families from different regions of Sao Paulo who received donations from the organization and its partners. The data collected from April to July 2020 identified a 26 percent increase in child labor when comparing May and July.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Labor laws and regulations prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, religion, political opinion, natural origin or citizenship, age, language, and sexual orientation or gender identity. Penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Discrimination against individuals who are HIV positive or suffer from other communicable diseases is also prohibited. The government generally enforced the laws and regulations, although discrimination in employment occurred with respect to Afro-Brazilians, women, persons with disabilities, indigenous persons, and transgender individuals. The Ministry of Economy implemented rules to integrate promotion of racial equality in its programs, including requiring race be included in data for programs financed by the ministry. According to the ILO, women not only earned less than men but also had difficulties entering the workplace: 78 percent of men held paid jobs, compared with 56 percent of women. Although the law prohibits gender discrimination in pay, professional training, working hours, occupations, tasks, and career advancement, according to NGO representatives, the law was rarely enforced, and discrimination existed.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The law provides for a minimum wage. The minimum wage was greater than the official poverty income level. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, however, in 2019 approximately 60 percent of workers had incomes below the minimum wage. The Ministry of Economy verified enforcement of minimum wage laws as part of regular labor inspections. Penalties alone were not sufficient to deter violations.
The law limits the workweek to 44 hours and specifies a weekly rest period of 24 consecutive hours, preferably on Sundays. The law also provides for paid annual vacation, prohibits excessive compulsory overtime, limits overtime to two hours per workday, and stipulates that hours worked above the monthly limit must be compensated with at least time-and-a-half pay; these provisions generally were enforced for all groups of workers in the formal sector. The constitution also provides for the right of domestic employees to work a maximum of eight hours per day and 44 hours per week, a minimum wage, a lunch break, social security, and severance pay.
In July a labor inspection at a coffee farm in Minas Gerais State found that farm owners were illegally deducting nearly one-third of workers’ wages to cover the cost of the machinery workers use to harvest coffee beans, which should have been provided to workers for free under the law. The farm owners signed an agreement with the Labor Prosecution Service and the Public Defender’s Office agreeing to pay the deductions back to the 19 affected workers, along with an additional R$2,000 ($350) payment to each worker for moral damages.
Occupational Safety and Health: The Ministry of Economy sets occupational, health, and safety (OSH) standards that are consistent with internationally recognized norms, although unsafe working conditions were prevalent throughout the country, especially in construction. The law requires employers to establish internal committees for accident prevention in workplaces. It also provides for the protection of employees from being fired for their committee activities. Workers could remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, although those in forced labor situations without access to transportation were particularly vulnerable to situations that endangered their health and safety. In the view of expert NGOs working in this field, officials enforced OSH laws. Penalties for violations of OSH laws were commensurate with those for crimes, such as negligence. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.
The Ministry of Economy addressed problems related to acceptable conditions of work such as long workdays and unsafe or unhygienic work conditions. Penalties for violations include fines that vary widely depending on the nature of the violation. Fines were generally enforced and were sometimes sufficient to deter violations. The National Labor Inspection School held various virtual training sessions for labor inspectors throughout the year. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to deter violations. During the year the Ministry of Economy launched an online database to monitor workplace accidents nationwide.
Informal Sector: According to data collected by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics as a part of its August Continuous National Household Survey, 37 million Brazilians participated in the informal sector, representing 41 percent of the employed population. Although workers in the informal sector enjoyed some labor protections, including minimum wage, hour limitations, and OSH laws and workplace inspections, they lacked access to unemployment insurance and social safety nets.