Bento Gonçalves, journalism and modern slavery

Image: Jill Wellington


The first function of journalism in fulfilling the task of clarification is to properly name the facts.

The brilliant journalist Rodrigo Menegat, graduated from the State University of Ponta Grossa (UEPG), with a specialization in data journalism at Columbia University, did a great experiment. Asked ChatGPT for a crisis management note for the trade association representing companies in the City of Bento Gonçalves. Informed Artificial Intelligence about the crisis situation: three major wineries in the city were involved in a slave labor scandal with third-party contractors. The note should be directed to the general public, showing that the entity does not condone such practices.

The result of the text is completely different from the note actually produced by the association. In the statement made by ChatGPT, there is a vehement condemnation of the denounced practices and a request for the authorities to take the necessary measures to guarantee justice and reparation to the workers involved, in addition to reaffirming ethical commitment and social responsibility with a fair business environment and sustainable in the city. In other words, a note full of reasonableness and capable of mitigating the damage to the reputation of an entire region. The real note was a disaster. But it is moving in its sincerity, evidencing the way of thinking and the political culture of an elite that considers itself superior due to the achievement of a certain economic prosperity. This is where the role of journalism comes in. Artificial Intelligence is not, it seems, capable of capturing the subjectivities, the culture, the thinking that is reflected in the most diverse practices, with a racist and xenophobic tone. That's what journalism can find out. What is the spirit of the leaders of these communities, how do their practices reflect the type of thinking they defend? But is this what journalism is producing?

In my reading, the frameworks of the articles and the opinions conveyed are divided between disclosing the statements of each side (leaderships, producers, authorities, government) and warning that one cannot generalize an entire region for the misdeeds of a few, much less preach a boycott to an expressive segment of the economy in the State, in what they are correct. However, is it enough? Does it report and express the type of mentality that presides over this event and with that contributed to overcoming it and preventing it from happening again?

I don't think so. I listed a series of questions that I would really like journalism to investigate and answer about Bento's case. For this, it is not enough to compare notes or compare statements. It is necessary to go there to investigate and find out, leaving aside commercial interests, advertisers' moods and fascist debris. I thought of 10 questions that refer to the public interest to which journalism must bow:

  1. Is it possible in a community of this size, intertwined in direct and broad relationships, to claim that no one knew about slavery? 
  2. Are the inappropriate declarations of leaders (councillors, presidents of associations, mayor) given out of stupidity or because they really dialogue with the majority of those they lead and represent?  
  3. What is the community's opinion of this episode? 
  4. What do they think about the value of work and the violations committed? 
  5. What business ideas and what memory of your immigrant ancestors are cultivated? 
  6. Is there racism? Are they xenophobic?
  7. How long has this been going on and to what extent? 
  8. Who condemns and has different practices that can serve as a counterpoint? 
  9. How are workers from the region and other immigrants treated?
  10.  How is the wealth generated invested to promote what kind of businesses and what form of society?

The subject of modern slavery is a plague in the world. Therefore, its coverage is repeated by several countries. In 2020, the Spanish newspaper El País stamped on the cover: The thousand slaves of the orange, drawing attention to the discovery of slave labor, with immigrant workers from Romania to the Castellon region, near Madrid, which lasted for five years in the harvest of orange crops. The first headline of Zero hour about the discovery of the infra-human conditions of workers in Bento stamped on the cover: free from irregular work. The first function of journalism in fulfilling the task of clarification is to properly name the facts. Bento's case was not about irregular work, although irregularities are plentiful and possible due to the advent of outsourcing without measures (another issue to be investigated). But, in the reported event, it was about forced labor, modern slavery and an absolutely cynical reaction from those responsible, blaming the lack of qualification of the workforce and welfare policies. Alleviating crime and not understanding the phenomenon is not acceptable for journalism that intends to exercise its social functions. A headline is never a distraction, it's always a thoughtful choice. 

The world estimates of modern slavery, released at the end of last year in Geneva, are terrifying: 49,6 million people lived in conditions of modern slavery in 2021, of which 27,6 million in forced labor and 22 million in forced marriages. Of the 27,6 million people in forced labor, 17,3 million are exploited in the private sector; 6,3 million are in forced commercial sexual exploitation and 3,9 million are in state-imposed forced labor.

Twelve percent of people in forced labor are children. More than half of these children are victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

Addressing decent work deficits in the informal economy, as part of broader economic formalization efforts, is a priority for advancing the fight against forced labour. Investigating, denouncing, holding accountable and reporting in all letters should also be.

* Sandra Bitencourt is a journalist, PhD in communication and information from UFRGS, director of communication at Instituto Novos Paradigmas (INP).

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