By Rowenna Hoskin | Science Editor
According to a new report, Brazilian companies and slaughterhouses including the world’s largest meat producer JBS, have sourced cattle from farms that have kept workers in slavery-like conditions.
The workers are reported to be earning as little as £8 a day and are forced to live in improvised shacks with no bathrooms, toilets, running water or kitchens, according to a report from Brazilian investigative agency Repórter Brasil.
The report says that, since 1995, 55,000 Brazilian workers have been rescued by government inspectors from “situations similar to slavery”. In recent years the number of investigations have decreased, but this does not mean that situations have improved, the report identifies. In 2018, 118 workers were freed, compared with the 1,045 in 2008.
“We see this as an urgent problem that the big companies have to resolve,” said Marcel Gomes, executive secretary of Repórter Brasil and the report’s editor.
Many meat companies have been challenged by the report, including JBS who have already been criticised for sourcing meat from illegal meat farms in the Amazon.
The Guardian, Repórter Brasil, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others have investigated and found that JBS had bought cattle from alleged “direct supplier” farms who had actually sourced the cattle from indirect suppliers who had been involved in illegal deforestation.
In September, JBS promised to control its entire supply chain by 2025, 14 years after it and other Brazilian companies Minerva and Marfrig had originally promised to do so. They signed a deal with Greenpeace in 2009 in which they agreed to not buy cattle from farms “engaged in slavery.”
Despite this promise, government inspectors found nine unregistered workers clearing pasture on the Copacabana farm in Mato Grosso do Sul state in 2019. They were being paid £8 a day, the report said. Their accommodation consisted of improvised shacks made of logs, plastic, palm fronds and corrugated iron without toilets, kitchens or running water. The farm and its controller, Fernanda Thomazelli, were included in the 2020 “dirty list” collated by the government. The farm had sold cattle directly to two JBS slaughterhouses in 2019 and 2020.
The report also cited a farm in Tocantins state that sold to another farm in December 2018, two months after being included on the “dirty list” for keeping a 65-year-old worker in “deplorable conditions”. The farm they sold it to then sold directly to Minerva slaughterhouse, bypassing the ban.
Minerva, Brazil’s second largest beef exporter, deny that they did business with the offending farm and that their supplier farm was “qualified” to supply cattle. The company is still investigating the case. “If any irregularity is found,” MInerva said, “we will take appropriate action.”
Minerva is testing a tool called Visipec to control indirect suppliers. This tool functions to include indirect suppliers into the meatpacker’s systems; it aims to close the gap in the supply chain traceability that has plagued brazil’s cattle sector for years.
Cattle farms in Brazil are not only causing deforestation, but also creating inhumane conditions for workers. They are forced to live and work under these dire circumstances because the alternative is not having a job or an income. Traceability of indirect supplier farms will help to control the meat industry but it is clear that the big meat companies are not prioritising their promise. Having already failed to meet their first promise from 2011 and extending it by 2014 does not bode well for the future of their 2025 goal.
Science and Technology Rowenna Hoskin