Professor and family face up to eight years in prison for their treatment of woman given to them as a child
Brazillian officials say domestic servitude is difficult to tackle. Photograph: FG Trade/Getty Images/iStockphoto
The Guardian- Reuters in Rio de Janeiro
A Brazilian woman enslaved as a maid from the age of eight for almost four decades and forced into marriage has been rescued in a rare crackdown on domestic slavery.
The 46-year-old was found living in a small room in an apartment in Patos de Minas, in the south eastern state of Minas Gerais. She had worked for the family for most of her life without pay or any time off, according to labour inspectors.
The victim was given up as a child by her destitute parents to a professor at Patos de Minas University, Unipam, and raised by his mother, inspectors said.
“They gave her food when she was hungry, but all other rights were taken from her,” Humberto Camasmie, the inspector in charge of the rescue, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The woman’s name has been withheld to protect her identity.
Domestic servitude in Brazil is difficult to identify and tackle because victims rarely see themselves as modern slaves, officials said. Of 3,513 workers found in slavery-like conditions between 2017 and 2019, only 21 were held in domestic servitude.
A lawyer representing the professor’s family said that they had been presented as guilty before their case was heard in court. A spokesman for Unipam said the professor had been suspended by the university and that “all legal measures are being taken”.
Labour prosecutors said they were trying to strike a deal with the family to pay compensation to the victim. If charged by criminal prosecutors of employing slave labour and found guilty in court, the professor faces up to eight years in jail.
While labour inspectors can visit workplaces at will to check for slavery, they must obtain permission from a judge to enter a home and said evidence of abuse from victims was a prerequisite.
Neighbours alerted authorities after receiving notes from the 46-year-old asking them to buy food and hygiene products since she had no money, according to labour inspectors.
During her captivity, the woman was forced to marry an elderly relative of the family so that it could continue to receive his pension after he died, authorities said.
Following her rescue at the end of November, the woman was taken to a shelter where she is being assisted by psychologists and social workers. Officials said they were trying to reunite the woman with her biological family.
The woman is now keeping the monthly pension of about R$8,000 ($1,560) – which is seven times higher than Brazil’s minimum wage – according to labour inspector Camasmie.
“She did not know what a minimum wage was,” he said. “Now she’s learning how to use a credit card. She knows that every month she will be paid a substantial amount (from the pension).”
Domestic servitude hit the headlines in Brazil in June when authorities rescued a 61-year-old maid who they judged to have been enslaved by a woman working for beauty company Avon.
Avon fired the executive and said it would support the victim. The ex-Avon employee, who along with her husband and mother was charged with enslaving a worker, denied the charges.