Day and night the men roll up outside the Correntao supermarket, a roaming army of impoverished workers, searching for a better future and for work. Any work.
Wearing rubber flip-flops, ragged T-shirts and carrying their possessions under their arms in plastic bags, they gather at the meeting point on the outskirts of Maraba, a gritty Amazon city, at Kilometer Six of the Trans-Amazonian highway and wait.
Some are picked up almost immediately and transported to remote jungle camps and farms where they are often forced to work by cattle ranchers and illegal loggers in dangerous and squalid conditions for little or no pay.
Others string hammocks up around the local bus station, waiting for a possible employer to arrive. The rest pile into dozens of tatty boarding houses, known in the Amazon as “pioneer hotels,” where they await recruitment.
“They are adventurers,” said farmhand Jose da Costa, 49, as he sits outside one of the many pioneer hotels at Kilometer Six, or “Six” as locals call the area. “They come from all over [Brazil] — all of them looking for work. People say, ‘If you are looking for a job go and look for a farmer at Six.”
While some pioneer hotels are legitimate flop houses, human-rights activists believe many are effectively slave houses; places where impoverished workers are exploited by unscrupulous hotel owners and middlemen known as gatos, or cats, who force them to work until they have off paid their debts for food and housing.
Last year the Brazilian government’s anti-slavery taskforce freed 4,634 workers from “slave-like conditions,” about 600 of them here in the often-lawless Amazon state of Para. Officials believe many of the men began their life in slavery in such hotels — cramped, mosquito-ridden dens that can be found in most corners of the Amazon. The government calls such places pontos de compra, or “buying points.”
“People say, ‘Go there because you’ll find a job,’” Claudio Secchin, a work ministry labor inspector, said during a recent anti-slavery operation in Maraba. “They put themselves up in these guesthouses and people take advantage of their fragility and trick them [into going] to the farms where they find a hostile environment of abandon and exploitation.”
In recent years, Brazil’s government has made efforts to stamp out modern-day slavery, sending teams of inspectors on regular missions to the Amazon accompanied by rifle-toting federal police officers.
Secchin said progress was being made: The raids were helping the government gradually claw back control of a region that had become a place of “virtual anarchy.”
But the practice of debt slavery continues across the Amazon and Brazil’s mid-west. Activists say there could be as many as 40,000 workers living in slave-like conditions across the country and hundreds of pioneer hotels continue to operate.
In 2007, the owner of one pioneer hotel in the Amazon town of Paragominas was charged with involvement in a slavery network, but activists say few such cases are ever heard.
“[These workers] go anywhere they hear there might be a chance of work to support their families,” said Jose Batista, a Maraba-based anti-slavery campaigner from the Pastoral Land Commission of Brazil’s Catholic Church. “They are people who arrive thinking there is work for everyone, drawn by the propaganda. But they arrive, can’t find work and don’t have anywhere to go and they end up staying in the hotels waiting for someone to hire them.”