Like hundreds of thousands of workers in Latin America, Alexandre Pereira dos Reis collects no wages. He toils six days a week and can’t afford to leave; he doesn’t have enough money to get back to his home in Teresina, 500 miles away in northeastern Brazil.
Over the course of their seven-month investigation, reporters Michael Smith and David Voreacos discovered that these workers labor without pay, producing timber, gold and the charcoal used to make steel. The reporters gathered evidence that slavery not only exists, but is integral to the world’s economy. This “brutal chain,” said Editor Ronald Henkoff, “connects South American slavery to the garages and kitchens of U.S. consumers.”
For Smith, one of the challenges was “traveling for days in the Amazon jungle to find the camps where sick and emaciated men, women and children were working as slaves. I had nightmares about these good people for months.”
Death is a part of the job. Gregorio Maguin, a physician in the Peruvian gold-mining town of Delta 1, near Huepetuhe, says slaves and their children die because they don’t receive timely or adequate medical treatment. Maguin says he examines about 10 miners a day who have malaria. He estimates that about three miners will get tuberculosis each month as they work in the cold, muddy water that pools in the mines.
Voreacos said, “Almost as soon as we contacted Ford, Kohler and Andersen (the window company), and told them we learned they were buying products that started with slave labor, those companies stopped buying from their suppliers.”
The story also “prompted a U.S. congressional investigation into the Brazilian pig iron industry and the companies that buy from it,” Henkoff said.
“We certainly didn’t end the problem,” Voreacos said, “but we made a dent.”