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Debt bondage (or bonded labor) has been classified by many countries as a modern-day form of slavery. Debt bondage has been linked to multiple sectors such as agriculture, logging, construction, and domestic work. Debt bondage occurs when a person’s labor acts as a means to repay some form of loan. As the worker is trying to pay off their expenses the debt only becomes larger, leading to a never-ending cycle.

In Brazil, the vast majority of workers in logging, ranching, deforestation, agriculture, and charcoal are in debt bondage. Workers are often persuaded to leave their towns to work in the Amazon. Without the worker’s knowledge, employers then charge them for things like travel to the worksite and lodging at the worksite. These costs are then further enhanced by high interest rates creating a large debt that the laborer cannot get out of.

In October of 2017, the Brazilian government issued a decree attempting to limit the definition of slave labor in order to lessen the instances in which debt bondage could be defined as slave labor. The proposed change would limit the definition of slave labor to instances where workers are restricted in movement. Under the proposed definition change, a person who is not fed, has no place to sleep, and makes no wages could not be classified as a slave if they were physically able to walk away from their place of work but chose to remain in those conditions. The proposed change received immediate pushback from human rights groups and was later retracted.

Debt bondage as a whole has been used for centuries to control vulnerable populations through human, labor, and sex trafficking. These forms of trafficking have recently been labeled as modern-day slavery by the United Nations via the Palermo Protocol. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights expressly states that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all other forms.” While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is not binding on nations through an individual enforcement mechanism, it is customary international law which creates a sense of legal obligation to uphold the tenets of the agreement. In addition to the UDHR, Brazil has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1992. The ICCPR is legally binding and is based on the UDHR. Article 8 of the ICCPR echoes the obligation under the UDHR by prohibiting all forms of slavery and forced labor.

In addition to the UDHR and ICCPR, Brazil further agreed to be bound by the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) by ratifying the Convention in 1992. Article 6 of the ACHR explicitly states that “no one shall be subject to slavery or involuntary servitude” and that “no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labor.” Unlike the UDHR, which was more of an initial foundation for international human rights recognition, the ACHR is binding on its signatories through a designated Commission and Court. The Commission on Human Rights and Court of Human Rights hears violations and renders judgment on nations who violate the Convention.

When signing the ACHR, Brazil authorized the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to have jurisdiction on all matters relating to the Convention indefinitely. The Convention specified that slavery and forced labor were forms of prohibited conduct in the signatory nations. Brazil did not attempt to reinterpret slavery or forced labor as defined by the Convention, only providing its alternate interpretation of Articles 43 and 48(d) regarding site visits and procedures for investigation of violations.  Therefore, Brazil is legally bound by this Convention and its interpretations of slavery and forced labor.  At the core of defining slavery under the Convention is whether the deprivation of liberty is present absent any prison sentence, military service, immediate danger to the community, or civil obligation. Further, the Convention specifically highlights trafficking in women as a form of slavery, which is regularly accompanied by debt bondage of some form. Because of this link between debt bondage and modern-day slavery by the ACHR, its extensive usage in Brazil for labor in logging, ranching, deforestation, agriculture, and charcoal is in violation of international human rights obligations.