Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
June 28, 2010
Hero brother saves peasants from slavery
Dominican Brother Xavier Plassat applauded by the U.S. for his efforts to free indentured Brazilian workers
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
French Dominican Brother Xavier Plassat started working on behalf of rural peasants in northern Brazil and ended up leading a national campaign against modern-day slavery.
The U.S. Department of State's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report names him as one of nine TIP Heroes for his work in Brazil.
Plassat told Catholic News Service June 15 that he is grateful to be considered a hero, but said, "I don't feel (like) a hero."
He said he was a member of "a courageous organization" and just tries to do his job. "I think this title is encouraging to all my colleagues involved in this campaign."
Plassat started working in northern Brazil in 1983 with the Brazilian bishops' Pastoral Land Commission, which works with the rural poor. In 1997 he became the coordinator of the organization's National Campaign Against Slave Labour, which denounces forced labour, gathers and publishes data about the issue and pushes for legal enforcement and public policy to eradicate the crime.
As head of the campaign, he coordinates a nationwide network of volunteers that also provides freed labourers with rehabilitation services, job training and employment.
Plassat said through his initial experiences working with rural communities in northern Brazil, he became aware that many poor workers lacked alternative means of providing for themselves and their families, so they were lured into "accepting degradable conditions of work with false promises."
More than 25,000 Brazilian men are victims of slave labour in the country, according to the State Department report.
Labourers are typically recruited from rural northeastern regions to interior regions of the country by middlemen who promise good pay. These trafficking victims often end up in debt bondage, performing strenuous labour on cattle ranches, on large farms, in logging and mining camps, or in charcoal production, for little or no pay, and under poor conditions.
"In several cases we have cases of a whole family being trafficked," Plassat said.
While Plassat said about 95 per cent of the people his organization works with are male migrant workers, "we also have cases where women are being used to provide the rest of the workers with sexual services."
Brazil has made significant progress fighting child labour trafficking, he said. While it is not as big of a problem as it has been in recent years, it is still an important issue.
Plassat told a story about a young man who escaped from a farm and came to his organization's office to tell them of harsh treatment from a farmer. The escaped labourer said he spoke up for a friend and asked the farmer to respect his companion.
Instead, the farmer forced his friend to eat a salt lick, which is used to feed cattle.
Re-telling the story to CNS, Plassat expressed dismay over "the coldness of the farmer, the inhumanity of these people, treating (labourers) worse than animals."
Upon encountering runaway workers, the brother said his organization makes efforts "to welcome them, to support them, to keep listening to what they have to report." Then his volunteers relay the victim's claim to the police so it can be investigated.
The brother said these escaped labourers usually represent 10 to 20 people still working on the farms who are hoping for help.
"They generally arrive exhausted and have walked a long, long time or they are under some fear of being pursued or being reached by their (former) masters," Plassat said.
"Most of the time they don't even know that this was slavery," he added. "What we try to share with them is that what happened to them should not happen once more."
Empowering victims and urging them to "break the cycle" is an essential part of Plassat's work.
"We try to help them know how they can move to a safer way of working, joining landless groups working for land reform, going to local authorities, finding training, alternatives, not only depending on an offer from middle men."
While there are success stories, not all slave labourers escape trafficking permanently.
NO SAFE HARBOUR
"Ten per cent of them are re-enslaved, because the conditions they meet when they are back home have not changed," said Plassat, who added that these individuals often have no land, little job training and are illiterate. "The same conditions will produce the same effects."
The brother's efforts come with serious risks.
"We are constantly denouncing medium or big farmers on the basis of the claims of workers who have run away from these farms, so we are exposed to retaliation sometimes," Plassat said.
He said six or seven years ago he, two colleagues and a local prosecutor received death threats from a farmer in the region. Although the farmer never acted on those threats, police have never captured him, Plassat said.
The Trafficking in Persons Report focuses on governments' efforts to fight human trafficking. This year, the State Department listed Brazil as a "Tier 2" country, which means it does not fully comply with minimum standards of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, but is making a significant effort to comply with the standards.
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