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Friar Xavier Plassat has been struggling to end modern day slavery for over three decades. The 2008 winner of the prestigious Harriet Tubman Freedom Award discussed the dynamics of contemporary slavery, and his efforts to challenge it, in a November visit to the Bay Area.

Modern slaves do not wear chains. They are deprived of water, food, and other basic necessities. They often sleep outside with nothing more than a plastic tarp stretched over branches as protection from the elements. They are often kept on worksites by armed, violent henchmen of property owners. Their overseers deny them basic work equipment and subject them to physical injury. They lack gloves and boots while they work in difficult and exhausting conditions in hostile environments.

The United Nations estimates that between 27 and 30 million people are victims of forced labor. Other organizations, such as Walk Free, consider this an underestimate and place the actual figure at 46 million.

Brazil, a country in which land has been poorly distributed ever since colonization, is estimated to have anywhere from 50,000 to 160,000 slave laborers. Many of them work in agriculture, with the majority leading deforestation efforts and clearing land in the Amazon for soy and sugar cane plantations.

Plassat was born in France and moved to Brazil when he was 38 years old. He came to work with the Catholic Church based Comissão Pastoral da Terra, or CPT (Pastoral Land Commission), created 40 years ago. The CPT’s principle objective is to defend the rights of rural laborers. Since 1995, the CPT has expanded to nine states and has been able to rescue over 50,000 people from forced labor.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Plassat to hear his reflections on his life’s work and the challenges posed by forced labor today. We spoke in Portuguese. Below is my translation of the highlights of our discussion.

Mara Cavallaro: What is the objective of the Pastoral Land Commission?

Xavier Plassat: Our main goal is to defend the rights of rural laborers. We want communities to be vigilant. The name of one of our campaigns is De olho aberto para não virar escravo (Stay alert to avoid becoming a slave). That’s fundamental. Another goal of ours is to redistribute land. Rural farmers that do have land are often forced off of it, by processes that treat them as though they were ‘things’ preventing progress. In many cases, these farmers don’t have a title to the land, because land distribution was done spontaneously and in disorganized fashion, often without clear titles. So large projects, like soy cultivation, for example, clear everything in their path. The small farmer ends up being the victim of the big company.

“The small farmer ends up being the victim of the big company.”

So, our organization has this goal, of being a voice for the voiceless. Of helping people organize resistance. Of offering legal assistance to them.

In doing this type of work, I ended up focusing on a more specific area: we discovered that many landless workers undergo seasonal migrations to work in the forest or on a large farm far away. As far as another state, sometimes a thousand kilometers away. Without knowing what they’ll encounter, they are often victims of forced labor, in which they don’t even receive a minimum wage, and in which, above all, they are placed in completely degrading situations. Violence and allegations of their debt to patrons prevents them from being able to escape.

This became my main focus and an important part of the CPT’s work. I coordinate an anti-forced labor campaign, which has the objective of alerting workers. Alerting authorities. And alerting society in general, and churches, so that they mobilize and help ensure this stops happening. And if forced labor does happen, we must denounce it and take necessary measures to liberate the people who are treated like slaves, punish those who exploited them, and create mechanisms that enable rural laborers to find work and to find land, so they can cease their current perpetual migration. So that they can live with dignity.

“So that they can live with dignity.”

In addition to helping those in situations of slave labor, we must also demand the state adopt policies that effectively prohibit forced labor.

Cavallaro: What motivated you to do this type of work?

Plassat: I’ve always been someone that has been disturbed by injustice. I’ve witnessed many situations that made me feel I had to denounce it. In the 80s I had the opportunity to visit Brazil, in a moment in which it was struggling to end the military dictatorship. The regime greatly increased the injustice that already existed and generated a lot of violence.

I visited a northern state in Brazil, where one of my friends was working for the CPT. The reality that I discovered was one of challenges, of violence, of communities in struggle. I decided to come back to Brazil, and stay for good. I wanted to be part of the solution.

Cavallaro: I understand you are a friar. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Plassat: I’m a member of a religious order called the order of the Dominicans. It’s a Catholic order. I’m not exactly a priest, but my work is motivated by my faith. My faith, thank God, aligns with the demands of those who are suffering oppression.

“My faith, thank God, aligns with the demands of those who are suffering oppression.”

Cavallaro: What type of work do contemporary slaves do in Brazil?

Plassat: Many of them work in agriculture. Most of them use machetes to clear-cut the Amazon rainforest to provide space for plantations of soy, sugar, and other plants and foods.

Cavallaro: What about forced labor in the United States?

Plassat: Here in the United States, I have seen instances of slave labor in orange and tomato picking. Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to North Carolina and Florida to meet with American organizations that combat modern slavery. In Florida, there’s an organization of migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti known as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that works to ensure human rights at work.

In North Carolina, I met with Mexican laborers that lived in mobile homes. They explained that for part of the year, they move to another region to cultivate tobacco. Their work had severe consequences on their health. Many diseases are linked to exposure to tobacco and the workers were not protected at all from this. Before Christmas time, these laborers would cut Christmas tree saplings. The conditions of this type of work have been determined to be those of forced labor, exploitation of workers, and illegal treatment of migrants.

In Florida, it’s tomato picking. When I was visiting, there was a battle between the Immokalee workers and large fast food companies, who are some of the largest tomato buyers. If these companies were to increase the amount they pay per pound of tomatoes by only two or three cents, it would lead to a significant wage increase for laborers on tomato farms…

We must continue to press and be in solidarity with the Immokalee workers.

Cavallaro: How are you able to pressure large companies to take action?

Plassat: Products have productive chains: if you follow the path of a product beginning when it leaves a farm, cattle, for instance, you are able to trace it. It’ll go to a slaughterhouse, and from there, a large supermarket like Carrefour or Walmart. It’ll be sold. Because of this, we are able to meet with these large operators or large companies that control the food industry and explain that they are buying from farms that exploit their workers and that they have a responsibility to take action to stop it.

Cavallaro: Can you tell me a bit about the Stanford conference you attended?

Plassat: This is the fourth year the Anti-Slavery Forum has taken place, but the first time I’ve attended. Its purpose is to organize and unite those of us who participate in this struggle — whether through prevention, legal defense, reintegration of victims into society, or protection and reparations for victims of forced labor or prostitution. Victims of forced labor need to be cared for. They have experienced trauma and in many cases, treatment is necessary to help reintegrate victims into society and recuperate. So, all these different types of activists that combat forced labor are invited to this forum, as are researchers, professors, and experts who have studied the problem. The forum allows us to share successful practices and errors, and thus learn from each other.

Cavallaro: How can students help?

Plassat: All of us can help by taking this problem out of the shadows and making it visible. Everything that raises awareness helps, whether it’s writing an article, getting the news out, or informing people about the laws that prohibit this, about the best practices. We have to spread the message. That’s why I’m here today. It also helps to volunteer for an anti-forced labor organization or contribute resources so that they can continue to do their work.

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