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The Constitutional Guarantees Commission of the National Assembly of Ecuador received a group of former agricultural workers from the Company Furukawa Plantaciones C.A. del Ecuador, in order to narrate their life testimonies and the events that took place in their facilities. Photo: Mauricio Muñoz / National Assembly of Ecuador

Slave labor in Latin America: Ecuador: Criminal proceedings for labor exploitation against company representatives

03 March, 2023

At the end of February 2023, a criminal trial began in Ecuador against representatives of the Japanese capital company Furukawa accused of the crime of human trafficking for labor exploitation purposes.

The conditions denounced by more than one hundred and twenty former employees (mostly of African descent) of this company, which was the main fiber producer in Abaca, are terrible.

Among other aspects, they worked long hours well above the legal maximun, without drinking water, electricity or sanitation and without employment contracts or social security rights. In addition, many people were maimed by the inappropriate and unsafe use of machinery, among other serious violations of basic human and labor rights[1].

In April 2022, the company had already been sentenced at the workplace to the payment of material and moral compensation for these practices.

But the Ecuadorian State was also condemned for the gross violation of its obligations to protect labor rights since there were no labor inspections that realized the reality that these people were living. Not only that, but in 2005 the company had received the “labor merit” award from the Ministry of Labor, which has now been withdrawn.

No one will be able to say that this is a novel situation or that there were not multiple alerts about it. For example, already in 2010 the then UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery who visited Ecuador stated in her report that

“”… contemporary forms of slavery persist in Ecuador and are directly related to pervasive instances of discrimination, social exclusion and poverty. They affect sectors of the population that have faced historical wrongdoings, such as Afro-descendents and indigenous peoples, as well as those whose conditions make them the easy prey of exploitation, such as children of impoverished families, asylum-seekers, refugees and irregular and smuggled migrants and women”.”[2]

The problem of slave labor extends to a large part of the American continent.

For example, in Brazil, the Ministry of Labor has reported that 2,575 workers who were subjected to slavery were detected and rescued during the year 2022, a number 31% higher than in 2021. Of these people, 2,427 were Brazilians and 148 foreigners (101 Paraguayans, 25 Bolivians, 14 Venezuelans, 4 Haitians and 4 Argentines).

Most of them were victims of owners of sugar cane, wood, charcoal, coffee and soybeans companies, among other agricultural and mining sectors.

According to official data, the State has identified more than 60,000 people working in conditions similar to slavery, having registered a significant increase in detections in recent years[3].

Also in Paraguay the issue is highly worrisome. The report of the Special Rapporteur who visits that country concludes in her report that:

“… remains concerned at gaps in protection, particularly with regard to groups in a situation of vulnerability, such as indigenous peoples, children from poor or rural households, and female domestic workers. She is also concerned that the prevailing economic and development strategies of seeking foreign investment potentially at the expense of labour market protections could create conditions that lead to a shortage of decent work, inequality, and severe exploitation, including contemporary forms of slavery”[4].

Even in countries like Costa Rica where the level of respect for human rights would seem to be above the regional average, the problem of contemporary forms of slavery is still present.

The UN Special Rapporteur visited the country at the end of 2022 and in his first conclusions stated that

“Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery in Costa Rica. Some have temporary work permits before their arrival, but many others do not and work irregularly (…) workers in irregular migration status make up the majority of the workforce on some plantations, and they are in a worse situation. They are hired by subcontractors who work with employers and have been known to exploit workers by charging high fees, deducting their wages or not providing insurance. The Special Rapporteur is concerned that there is currently no legal framework that regulates these subcontractors”

As for the Afro-descendant and indigenous population, he also expressed concern since the lack of compliance with current legislation, including that related to indigenous lands and territories, “threatens their own survival and makes them vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation due to limited livelihood options. These lands have been taken, controlled and commercialized by non-indigenous people with the acquiescence of the Government, and indigenous populations have to work for them without sufficient and independent access to natural resources in the absence of meaningful consultations and the provision of Prior, Free and Informed Consent. Informed Freely and in Advance”[5].

As stated in the mandate of the Office of the Special Rapporteur, in order to truly eradicate slavery in all its forms, it is necessary to address the root causes of this practice, such as poverty, social exclusion and all forms of discrimination.

This includes making decisive progress towards Goal 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals that aims to eradicate forced labor, end contemporary forms of slavery and human trafficking and ensure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025, put an end to child labor in all its forms.

The data and information included in this article make us see that we are very far from it. To promote and protect the rights of all people, especially the most vulnerable people in our society, profound changes are required, not only at the declarative level but in the social and economic systems that prevent changing this sad reality.

It is also paradoxical that, 92 years after the ILO adopted Convention No. 20 against Forced Labor (1930), slavery continues to live among us.


[1] Details and timeline of the process can be seen at https://www.fiscalia.gob.ec/caso-furukawa/

[2] UN, General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, Ms. Gulnara Shahinian, Mission to Ecuador, A/HRC/15/20/ Add.3, 5 July 2010. https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/15session/A.HRC.15.20.Add.3_en.pdf

[3] For additional statistical information, see https://sit.trabalho.gov.br/radar/

[4] UN, General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, on her mission to Paraguay, A/HRC/39/52/ Add.1st, 20th of July 2018. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G18/230/00/PDF/G1823000.pdf?OpenElement

[5] End of Mission Statement to Costa Rica: Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, 25 November 2022, which can be found at https://costarica.un.org/es/208822-declaraci%C3%B3n-de-fin-de-misi%C3%B3n-costa-rica-tomoya-obokata-relator-especial-sobre-formas