Welcome to Brazil? Venezuelan workers exploited under aid program
What’s the context?
Operation Welcome's resettlement program in Brazil found exposing Venezuelan migrants to exploitation and slave labor
After crossing the border from crisis-hit Venezuela into Brazil in late 2019, Henrique had one goal: find work to provide for his wife and children and send money to relatives at home.
The 45-year-old secured a job in February 2020 as a truck driver via Operaçao Acolhida (Operation Welcome), the government program that provides humanitarian aid to Venezuelans who have fled turmoil and helps them to resettle in Brazil and find work.
Yet Henrique's relief turned to despair after he left Boa Vista - the capital of Brazil's northern Roraima state - and travelled across the country to start working for trucking company Transportadora Sider Limeira in Sao Paulo state.
As labor inspectors would later find, Henrique and other Venezuelans were forced to work illegally long hours, up to 18-hour days, denied time off and made to sleep in their trucks.
A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation analyzed six such cases where complaints were raised about or probes were launched into suspected exploitation or slave labor involving Venezuelans hired by companies via Operation Welcome's resettlement program.
Interviews with various officials, workers' testimonies, and exclusively obtained data and documents reveal how the program is routinely failing to vet hiring businesses, coordinate with local authorities, or monitor the welfare of the Venezuelans.
"I slept in a truck for 11 months and 20 days," said Henrique, who quit his job before a raid by officials in March found 23 Venezuelans working for Sider in slave-like conditions.
"All my clothes were dirty ... I did not have time to shave ... (the conditions) were terrifying," Henrique - who did not give his real name for fear of reprisals - said by telephone from Sao Paulo state, where he is now looking for a new job.
A lawyer for Sider said the labor inspectors' findings were "reckless", and denied that the conditions were poor or working hours excessive. The company's intentions when employing the Venezuelans via Operation Welcome were "altruistic", he said.
In response to a list of questions and details of the six cases, Brazil's Federal Committee for Emergency Assistance (CFAE) - which oversees Operation Welcome - said adjustments to the resettlement program "can and should be done" eventually.
"Yet the importance of this process for social peace in our country is undeniable," the CFAE said in an emailed statement.
Operation Welcome is led by the military, with help from non-profits, the private sector, and United Nations agencies.
Government and army officials have said the program receives about 300 million reais ($60.6 million) a year in public money, and it is also funded by major donors such as the United States.
Brazil has received more than 250,000 Venezuelans who have fled political and economic turmoil since 2018. At least 50,000 of them have been resettled via Operation Welcome and about 4,000 have been helped to secure jobs, government data shows.
Yet academics, labor inspectors and state officials said a lack of government coordination and oversight meant Venezuelan workers were vulnerable to abuses at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has fueled exploitation and hindered law enforcement.
Minutes from meetings of the government committees that oversee Operation Welcome - obtained by a freedom of information request - show concerns were raised about the employment process and the fact many migrants lost their jobs soon after starting.
An analysis of different datasets also revealed that of more than 250 companies - both Brazilian and multinational - which have signed up to employ Venezuelans, about 41 are being investigated by prosecutors for suspected labor violations.
It is unknown if these probes relate to migrants hired via Operation Welcome. While an investigation does not prevent firms from employing Venezuelans, the findings raise questions about the army's lack of any vetting process, labor authorities said.
Although it would be impossible to examine every company, according to labor prosecutor Cristiane Sbalqueiro, she said companies in sectors such as agriculture and construction should always be inspected due to the higher risk of poor conditions.
"The army has soldiers all over Brazil. They can send (someone) to check, and see if ... conditions are dignified," added Sbalqueiro, who said she had followed Operation Welcome closely and spoken about the program at several public forums.
The CFAE said conclusions could not be drawn until such investigations were complete, but that it would follow guidance from labor inspectors if they advised against allowing certain companies to hire Venezuelan workers through Operation Welcome.
Border to Brazil
In Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, tens of thousands of Venezuelans live in refugee reception centers, shelters, or on the streets while they await resettlement across Brazil via Operation Welcome or look for opportunities and jobs locally.
Since 2018, the operation has overseen humanitarian aid and a resettlement program that helps Venezuelans to relocate to better shelters in other parts of Brazil, move in with family or friends, or find work with companies that apply to participate.
Prior to the pandemic, Venezuelans who crossed the border into Brazil were issued basic documents and the right to work, offered shelter and healthcare in Roraima, and encouraged to apply for resettlement - a process that can take several months.
Brazil closed its border with Venezuela in March 2020 - before which more than 300 people were crossing daily - but reopened it last month.
In total, about 19,390 Venezuelans were resettled via Operation Welcome last year, down 12.8% on 2019. So far this year, the figure is at least 5,145, government statistics show.
Of these people, about 1,480 were employed in 2020, and more than 785 have secured work through the program so far in 2021.
Julio Cesar Vivas left behind his mother, daughter and three granddaughters when he crossed the border last year hoping to find work in Brazil to send money home to his family.
"Work is the main and most necessary (thing) because we left our families in Venezuela," the 52-year-old said at a shelter in Roraima where he is awaiting resettlement and hoping to secure work. "Here (in the camp) ... we are depressed."
Yet for Venezuelans who do find a job via Operation Welcome, the reality does not always match expectations or promises made.
When Rodrigo joined transport company Transzape Transportes Rodoviarios in 2019, the workers had to sleep in trucks, pay was deducted without explanation, and they received no help to move their relatives to live with them as had been promised, he said.
"(Transzape) said: 'you have to work a lot, because in your country you were starving, and we are helping you,'" Rodrigo, who did not use his real name, said by phone from Sao Paulo.
"But they weren't helping us. They charged us for ... the diesel ... for the road toll. They charged us for everything."
Rodrigo was fired in September of 2020 and filed a labor lawsuit against Transzape seeking money owed. The firm did not comment on the nature of his dismissal or merit of the lawsuit.
Transzape, which is currently being investigated by labor prosecutors, denied that it had mistreated any workers and said many Venezuelans are still happily employed by the company.
"It is gratifying to know that many of the hired migrants find new life thanks to this opportunity," a spokesperson said.
Resettlement and responsibility
Firms that want to hire Venezuelans via Operation Welcome can file job postings online, or speak to army representatives.
Many of the participating companies have links with the military or have publicly backed President Jair Bolsonaro, who has praised the program and sought to increase resettlement, according to several sources with knowledge of the matter.
The Brazilian military said it required applying businesses to send paperwork proving their legitimacy, including a signed document stating that the business does not use slave labor.
"(A document) saying they promise not to employ slave labor has no effect at all," said Luiz Scienza, a labor inspector and head of Instituto Trabalho Digno, a worker's rights non-profit.
Various labor experts questioned the lack of a system to vet interested companies or audit them after they hire Venezuelans.
"Sending people ... (the military) can manage," said Joao Carlos Jarochinski, a professor at the Federal University of Roraima and expert on migration including Venezuelans in Brazil.
"But monitoring them after resettlement demands a number of administrative bodies, and that's very complicated."
In response, the CFAE said that once Venezuelans were resettled, they fell under the care of local authorities.
When a firm in Brazil hires someone who is not local, they are meant to submit a document to labor inspectors with details about transport to work and the terms offered to the employee.
Yet Sider failed to file the "Declaratory Certificate of Transport of Workers" (CDTT) for its Venezuelan workers, said labor inspector Livia Ferreira, an omission she said left the Venezuelan workers it hired vulnerable to labor exploitation.
"(Sider) abused the workers' status as migrants," said Ferreira, who was involved in the raid on the firm in March.
Sider is a contractor for Brazilian beermaker Ambev and Dutch giant Heineken NV, who were also found to be at fault by labor inspectors, according to Ferreira.
Heineken said it fully supported the Venezuelan workers who were rescued and would review its hiring policy for contractors.
An Ambev representative said it disagreed with the labor inspectors' findings but that it would reassess its contractor policies and maintain contact with Sider to help the workers.
In response, the CFAE said it was monitoring "the accountability of the companies involved in the case."
The lack of a CDTT was cited in another labor conditions dispute involving Operation Welcome in Maringa, in Parana state.
Trucking company Transpanorama Transportes hired about 30 Venezuelans via the program in July 2019, but workers said the firm did not fulfil its promises of good pay, free housing, and a stipend for food, a May 2020 report by labor inspectors found.
About six workers quit just months after starting work as they felt misled, labor prosecutor Fabio Aurelio Alcure said.
"If (the transfer) had been documented, we would not have had this problem," he said, referring to the absence of a CDTT.
A spokesperson for Transpanorama said that since the army was responsible for transporting the Venezuelan workers to Maringa, the company had assumed that "everything was correct".
The business has since signed a deal with labor prosecutors to submit a CDTT whenever it hires foreign workers, she added.
In response to a question about the lack of a CDTT in the Sider and Transpanorama cases, the CFAE positioned itself as a matchmaker without responsibility for the migrants as workers.
"Operation Welcome does not transport workers ... (instead) it offers opportunities for migrants and refugees to be sent to different parts of the country in order to facilitate the hiring of these people by companies," the CFAE said in its statement.
When 60 Venezuelans arrived in Venancio Aires - a small city in southern Rio Grande do Sul - in January 2020 to work for Special Brazilian Tabacos, local officials were caught unaware.
"We heard about it ... through the city newspaper," said Leticia Wilges, then an official at the city's housing and rural development department who has since changed roles.
Tasked with checking the welfare of the migrants, Wilges said she discovered that they had been housed by the military in a building with poor water supply and slept 30 people to a room.
When labor inspectors visited months later to investigate reports of modern slavery, they found the house empty and that only six of the Venezuelans were still working for the company.
Special Brazilian Tabacos said it had not misled workers.
"There was no failure in (our) communication with the Venezuelans," the company said in a statement.
Officials from various cities said there was little to no transparency from Operation Welcome regarding the jobs it arranged, and that information from the military often lacked details such as a migrant's arrival date or the employer's name.
Marcia Ponce, president of the council for migrants in southern Parana state, said Operation Welcome was transferring responsibility for the Venezuelan migrants to local authorities "without any idea of the impact".
And Rebeca Almeida, migration and refuge coordinator for Rio de Janeiro's state government, said that the employment process was the "Achilles heel" of the program's resettlement efforts.
"We ask for a report, for information, for anything. And (Operation Welcome) say: there's nothing," she said, adding that she had voiced concern over the resettlement program since 2018.
In response, the CFAE said many cities signed deals to receive migrants through Operation Welcome and received funding.
"In addition to federal co-financing, technical support (for resettlement) was also organized for local teams," it said.
Minutes of meetings of the government committees that oversee Operation Welcome show praise by then-President Michel Temer in May 2018, followed by an order from his office to increase the resettlement of Venezuelan migrants.
During that meeting, Army General Eduardo Pazuello said the program's main aim was not to provide aid but resettle migrants and find them jobs in order to relieve the pressure on Roraima.
However, against a backdrop of ever-higher resettlement targets, senior officials later raised concerns in separate committee meetings about Operation Welcome's employment process.
"(The job system) is effective at first, however, many (Venezuelans) are losing their jobs after (six months)," Antonio Jose Barreto, a leading official at the President's Chief of Staff's Office, said during a January 2020 meeting of the CFAE.
At another meeting in January this year, the head of the subcommittee for resettlement, Niusarete Lima, said it was "important (to do) preliminary research before sending immigrants to the job opening," according to the minutes.
In response, the CFAE said Lima's remarks - made nearly two years after the resettlement process began - were not critical but outlining measures already being taken by the subcommittee.
On the same day that Lima addressed the subcommittee, nuns from a catholic group in Breves - a town in northern Para state - were alerted to and asked to help care for several Venezuelans who had fled a vegetable factory due to the working conditions.
The seven Venezuelans had been employed via Operation Welcome five months earlier - in August 2020 - and sent to work for Industria e Comercio de Conservas Moliz Palmeiral at a remote factory located deep in the Amazon.
The migrants had to work long days without breaks and were docked wages for time off while sick, according to the nuns - who are part of the Peace and Justice Commission, a charity.
"They were visibly scared, exhausted ... without sleep, and it had been three days since they showered," the nuns said.
The Labor Prosecutor's Office in the state of Para said it had launched a preliminary investigation into the matter.
The owner of the firm, Mauricio Quagliato, said the workers were "troublemakers" who missed too much work and trashed their lodgings. He said their complaints of labor abuses were "lies".
After the workers fled Moliz Palmeiral, Quagliato said he went to Roraima to speak with the military about the issue, and was told that he could still hire Venezuelans through Operation Welcome as long as they worked at any of his other enterprises.
"The doors are still open to us," said Quagliato, who has Venezuelan employees in Santa Catarina and Sao Paulo states.
The CFAE said it was not aware of any wrongdoing by Quagliato and therefore had no need to alert labor officials to the fact he had Venezuelan workers hired via Operation Welcome.
'My situation is critical'
While the pandemic has slowed resettlement via Operation Welcome, labor officials say it has left Venezuelan workers across the country at greater risk of abuses and COVID-19 infection, and less likely to be discovered or receive support.
Brazil's anti-slavery taskforce was disrupted by a two-month freeze in operations and travel restrictions last year, while the labor inspector's office has been stretched thin due to a high number of workplace violations reported since the pandemic.
"The pandemic made things worse, obviously," said Ludmila Paiva, an anti-trafficking coordinator for Rio de Janeiro state.
In one such case, about 68 Venezuelans hired by trucking company Cia Verde Logistica were found in an overcrowded hotel in Araucaria - a town in Parana - by officials in May last year.
Some of the Venezuelans were found sleeping on the floor in the hotel's restaurant, others were housed five to a bedroom. About 20 of them tested positive for COVID-19, authorities said.
The Labor Prosecutor's Office said that Cia Verde ultimately resolved the issues to the satisfaction of health and labor officials. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
In response to the Cia Verde case, the CFAE said there had been no "case of a Venezuelan migrant or refugee who tested positive (for COVID-19) soon after moving to another city".
From the nuns in Breves to city officials and labor inspectors across Brazil, there is widespread concern for the welfare of Venezuelans who have been resettled through Operation Welcome in recent years - whether they are employed or jobless.
Henrique, the former Sider truck driver, is set to receive compensation from the company but worries that the money will not suffice as he is unemployed and expecting a baby soon.
"I'm not working, so I have no money to send to my family (in Venezuela)," he said by phone from Sao Paulo state.
"I have my wife here, she's pregnant. I already don't have enough (money) for rent, for food. My situation is critical."
Reporters: Fabio Teixeira and Emily Costa
Text editing: Kieran Guilbert and Zoe Tabary
Illustration: Chia Ho
Producer: Amber Milne and Shanshan Chen
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