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Lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday that strengthens punishments for landowners and others who force people into slave-like working conditions, in which thousands of Brazilians are trapped.
The amendment allows the government to confiscate without compensation all the property of anyone found to be using slave labor, which is most common on remote farms but also occurs in urban sweatshops in places like Sao Paulo, South America's largest city.
The measure says that besides having their property confiscated, offenders will also be subject to penalties for using slave labor that are already in Brazil's penal code, including fines and jail terms of up to eight years, congressman Domingos Dutra said.
Xavier Plassat of the Roman Catholic Church's Land Pastoral Commission, a watchdog group on rural rights, said confiscation of property will serve as a new weapon to persuade landowners to stop using slave labor. It targets "one of the most sacred values of the country's elite -- the sacred right to property," he said.
Leaders in the Senate, which previously adopted the amendment, and in the Chamber of Deputies agreed that a Senate commission will draw up legislation determining how the confiscation of property will be carried out and also strictly define what constitutes slave labor.
The constitutional amendment will fully take affect only after those decisions are made, but that's not expected to encounter any delays and the measure that passed the lower House on Tuesday was its biggest hurdle.
Slave-like working conditions are somewhat common in many parts of Brazil where poor laborers are lured into arduous jobs that they cannot leave because they rack up debts to plantation and factory owners who charge exorbitant prices for everything from food to transportation.
The Labor Ministry says just over 42,000 workers have been freed from slave-like conditions by government policing teams since 1994, when the government began cracking down on the practice.
Both Dutra and Plassat said there are no precise figures on how many Brazilians work in such conditions, but estimated that at least 20,000 people become stuck in slave labor each year in Latin America's largest country.
Since 1994, landowners using slave labor have been fined about $35 million, but Dutra said those fines largely go unpaid and the offenders unpunished as the cases get tangled in Brazil's complex legal system.
Most cases of slave labor are found in rural areas where sugarcane and other crops are grown, but Labor Ministry inspectors have also found workers toiling in slave-like conditions in the textile and clothing sector in urban areas.
The Labor Ministry said in January that it had a "dirty list" of 294 employers using slave conditions. Until the employers on the list stop the practice, they are blocked from obtaining credit from all banks.
The "dirty list" was created in 2005 and is updated twice a year. To be taken off the list, an employer must pay fines and unpaid labor-related taxes.