RIO DE JANEIRO, Sept 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - M anserv, a contractor for fertilizer giant Mosaic Co, has employed dozens of workers in slavery-like conditions, labor inspectors said on Friday, violations blamed in part on measures taken to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
About 60 workers were found last week in a rural area of Minas Gerais state in degrading conditions, waiting to start working on annual maintenance of a Mosaic factory in the city of Araxa and forced to sleep in an open shed and on a balcony, they said.
Manserv, a large industrial maintenance and logistics firm, was charged with keeping workers in slavery-like conditions, while Mosaic, a global producer of concentrated phosphate and potash, was not cited.
Hired last month in the states of Sao Paulo and Bahia, the workers had not been paid, their working papers were withheld, and they were forced to sleep exposed with inadequate bedding, the inspectors found.
Manserv workers are usually housed in hotels, but the city banned migrant workers out of fear they would spread COVID-19 and allowed in only those in “leadership positions,” they said.
“This is all illegal,” said Humberto Camasmie, an inspector who led the investigation. “They were tricked, they migrated and then were kept in conditions analogous to slavery.
“We understand that to be a discriminatory practice,” he said, adding that the city agreed to review its policy.
The workers were kept in unsanitary conditions at two ranches, with no efforts at social distancing and no protective gear, the inspectors said. At one ranch, more than 30 workers had to share two showers.
Mosaic will not be charged, as the inspectors said it hired Manserv in good faith.
The leading producer of concentrated phosphate and potash, used to fertilize crops, Mosaic has five phosphates mines and five chemical and fertilizer facilities in Brazil, according to the company website.
Slavery in Brazil is defined as forced labor but also includes debt bondage, degrading work conditions, long hours that pose a health risk or work that violates human dignity.
Manserv risks being added to Brazil’s dirty list, a registry of companies found to have employed slave labor, that is a powerful enforcement tool.
Companies on the list are barred from receiving state loans, and the list is used by private banks to gauge credit risk and by international buyers watching their supply chains.
While Mosaic will not be charged with slavery, it can be made responsible for other labor-related infractions found, Camasmie said.
Mosaic said in a statement that it did not endorse any degrading work practices and required similar compliance from its business partners.
Manserv said in its statement that the workers were hired in Araxa and that it rejected the claim that they were subjected to a degrading situation.
Manserv said it was obeying the city’s rules and housing workers properly, observing a quarantine period so they could start their jobs.
"Protective measures to prevent the spread of COVID have been strictly enforced," it said. (Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)