File picture: Independent Media.

RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil is aiming to build a network of social workers nationwide to support people rescued from modern slavery, and help prevent would-be victims from being trafficked, a top prosecutor said.

The social workers would be primed to offer immediate post-rescue care to victims, and provide follow-up assistance such as ensuring that survivors are signed up to government aid schemes and children are enrolled in school, said Lys Sobral Cardoso.

"We (prosecutors) and labor inspectors are limited in our scope, we can ... take all punitive measures against employers," said Cardoso, who was appointed the new head of anti-slavery efforts of the country's Labor Prosecutor's Office last month.

"But we also need to support the workers," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

"And the support we can give is to trigger a network of social workers, which will ... map out his life post-rescue."

Establishing such a system was a top priority for the Labor Prosecutor's Office and would likely happen in 2020, she added.

More than 54 000 workers have been rescued from slavery-like conditions by labor inspectors since 1995, when Brazil formally acknowledged that slave labor existed in the country.

Yet victims do not often know their rights, and struggle to find jobs after being rescued, said Livia Miraglia, coordinator of Clinica de Escravo e Trafico de Pessoas, a program at Minas Gerais Federal University that provides legal help to survivors.

"(They) need to be reinserted into society and the labor market," she said. "They need to know that they have rights and can have a new life. This is the most important thing."

What happens next?

Victims of slavery in Brazil would likely receive better support if social workers were warned in advance of rescue operations led by labor inspectors, and informed when people were trafficked from one state to another, according to Cardoso.

The planned network of social workers would also be expected to play a role in curbing trafficking in local communities, and help prevent victims from being enslaved once again, she said.

When workers are rescued from slavery in Brazil, they receive three months of unemployment benefit, severance and back pay relating to the time that they labored without compensation.

But social workers would also ensure victims get further support by joining social assistance programmes such as Bolsa Familia, which gives impoverished families a monthly allowance.

"We realized over the years that the questions workers had were: 'What happens to me after, where do I go, where will I work, how will my life be?'" Cardoso said.

"We want to give possible answers," she added.

Yet some social workers do not understand what constitutes slavery under Brazilian law, according to Cardoso, who said a training course was underway to boost awareness on the issue.

Slavery in Brazil is defined as forced labor, but also includes debt bondage, degrading work conditions, long hours that pose a health risk or work that violates human dignity.

About 369 000 people are believed to modern slaves in Brazil - representing 1 in 555 of its population - according to the Global Slavery Index by human rights group Walk Free Foundation. 

Thomson Reuters Foundation