Rio De Janeiro - Thousands of people are victims of forced labour and inhumane work conditions in Brazil's booming meat and poultry industries, with some forced to work 20-hour days, researchers said on Thursday.
Slave labour in Brazil's poultry sector is "endemic", said the report by the Washington-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) that called for improved working conditions, enforced labour rights and implementation of work contracts.
Brazil is the world's largest exporter of poultry.
Under Brazilian law, forced labour is defined as a form of modern-day slavery that includes debt bondage, degrading work conditions and long hours that pose a risk to workers' health or life and violate their dignity.
In its poultry industry, teams of about 10 labourers known as chicken catchers collect the birds that are crammed onto large farms, working up to 20 hours and catching more than 50 000 chickens a day, the report said.
The back-breaking work of chicken catching is considered dirty and dangerous, as poultry can peck, claw and defecate as it is trapped.
"Workers tasked with catching these chickens and transporting them from farms to slaughterhouses suffer egregious working conditions," said the report by IATP, Berlin-based Heinrich Boll Foundation and Brazilian rights group FASE.
Dozens of companies, including Brazil's JBS SA, a global meatpacking company, signed onto a 2007 National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor, part of an effort to rid supply chains of slavery.
In response to the report, JBS, the world's biggest meat producer, said the company and its suppliers "repudiate" any use of slave labour.
".. all contracts signed by JBS have a specific clause that explicitly prohibits practices that may establish the use of labour analogous to slave and child labour," the company said in an emailed statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Brazil's BRF, one of the world's largest poultry exporters, said in an emailed statement on Friday that it "does not tolerate and strongly condemns all forms of work in degrading conditions and incompatible with human dignity, such as exhausting working days, forced labor and debt bondage."
It said it had a supplier monitoring program to ensure compliance with labor laws.
BRF said it has been working to improve working conditions of chicken catchers through a program launched in 2015 called "Apanha Legal" ("Legal and Humane Catching"). It also said it was a signatory to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals that promote decent work conditions and seek eradication of forced labour and a member of the National Institute for Eradication of Slave Labor (Inpacto).
More than 160 000 people are believed to be trapped in modern slavery in Brazil that includes forced labour, according to the Walk Free Foundation, a rights group.
In the past decade, numerous reports by local campaigners have put the spotlight on slave labour in Brazil's meat and cattle industry, revealing a complex web of suppliers across the globe.
Many cases involve forced labour on cattle ranches across Brazil's remote and jungle areas.
Last year, raids carried out by government labour inspectors identified 885 labourers in slave-like conditions, with more than half found in agriculture and cattle ranching, down from 1 509 in 2014.
* Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org