Slave labor in gaucho wineries

Image: Henri Guérin


In this case of slave labor in wineries, we see a typical example of absolute surplus value extraction.

The shocking, scandalous and brutal revelation of the use of labor analogous to slavery in Rio Grande do Sul wineries brings implications that go far beyond the specific segment or a CASE​ not representative. It forces us to consider the entire socioeconomic context and recent history of the country, in relation to the global processes of attack on the social and labor achievements of the “Golden Years” (1950s, 1960s and 1970s).

Two revealing examples of the perception of the episode as an expression of a deeper tendency of capitalism as such can be extracted, among others, from an article published by the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, at Caderno Mercado, on March 6, 2023.

The Coordinator of FGVethics, a center for studying ethics, transparency, integrity and compliance at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Professor Ligia Maura Costa, points out that the case is educational on how brands can pay institutionally if they adopt what she calls “selective blindness”. about its service providers and suppliers.

“Why say that they [wineries] didn't know? Spare me. No service provider does miracles, so if a service costs less, it's because you chose not to know how that worker ended up there in your company. No company of this size is naive enough to believe in a free lunch”, says Ligia Maura.

Another example are the statements by labor prosecutor Manuella Gedeon, a member of the MPT (Public Ministry of Labor) group that assesses the extent of the companies' responsibility in the case.

She points to the case of Bento Gonçalves as an undesirable, but predictable, development of the law that allowed companies to outsource core activities. And he says that similar scandals may appear in other sectors if large companies do not immediately review their relationships with outsourced companies.

“This is because complaints are starting to appear from companies, as was the case with this one (Fênix), which do not serve to provide a specialized service, but only to intermediate cheap labor. At the last level, this makes it precarious to the point of reaching slave labor.”

“Since outsourcing is permitted by law, we are moving towards a future in which wineries and other companies can be held responsible for all the people who provide services to them, regardless of whether they are outsourced or not”, says the attorney (Folha de S. Paul, March 6, 23).

There are two possible interpretations for the episode. The first is to identify a “moral and ethical flaw” in the businessmen involved, isolating them from the majority of the business class, which supposedly would not suffer from the same distortion.

The second is to consider an immanent or intrinsic tendency to capital, in its permanent eagerness to seek the maximum accumulation, making use of rules and omissions of the legal, social and cultural order (in the sense of the social culture that always praises entrepreneurship and criticizes the attempts to limit the freedom of business action), levied on economic activities. In this case, there is no way not to resort to the old, but always current, author of The capital.

Karl Marx identified two forms of surplus value extraction by capital in its action to accumulate unlimited. The first is absolute surplus value. It takes place through lowering wages, extending the working day or increasing the pace of work, exhausting the worker's life force more quickly. The drawback, from the global point of view of capitalism, is that it produces social results that contradict the constant purpose of capital.

The purpose of all capitalist action is accumulation through profits, achieved on the basis of surplus value extracted from the workforce. The contradictory results to this end occur because the purchasing power of workers falls or stagnates, while production increases, pointing to a crisis of overproduction. Another contradiction is expressed in the drop in labor productivity with excessive hours worked, low purchasing power and the consequent poor diet, poor health, etc. In this way, the result proves to be less than proportional to the measures of worsening working conditions, it generates growing social malaise with the threat of adverse popular reactions and, at the limit, prematurely exhausts the workforce.

As Marx states, capital destroys the two basic sources of social wealth: nature and labor power (The capital, vol. I). Despite the contradictory and, ultimately, destructive effect on the very socioeconomic basis of accumulation, the attraction for such measures is always present in capitalist society and depends on the social reaction to them to materialize or not. It is a typical case in which the attitude of each capitalist, driven by the logic of accumulation at all costs, comes into conflict with the systemic logic of capitalism, in which the anarchy of production makes it impossible to reconcile it with consumption capacity and leads to growing disproportion between the two.

The alternative – sometimes complementary – is the extraction of relative surplus value, through technical advances, new technologies that increase productivity. In theory, this way of increasing surplus value does not produce the destructive consequences of the previous way (absolute surplus value) in terms of the worker himself, with the exception of unemployment caused by labor-saving technologies. However, the macro effect turns out to be similar: an exceptional increase in production without a corresponding increase in purchasing capacity.

That is, the crisis is always a possibility in the making. The aggravating factor is that the logic of capital leads to an overlap between the two mentioned modalities of surplus value extraction. The most noticeable example, among so many in the last half century of neoliberal attacks on previous achievements of the working class, is information technology.

Does anyone remember the dazzling promises and predictions of the 1980s and 1990s? It was predicted (or prophesied), in the early days of information technology, that this would be the relief tool for the most laborious and exhausting tasks; that the acceleration of all processes, made possible by it, would save working time for the enjoyment of life. The facts are known: capital used computerization to accelerate absolute exploitation, extending the journey into homes, rest periods and individual privacy, in addition to leading to growing pressure for increased work rhythms, to physical exhaustion and psychic, to the loss of personal autonomy of most wage earners.

It has become commonplace to assert that much more work is done, in scope and intensity, in our ultra-computerized age than ever before. The pandemic period increased this trend on an exponential scale. The current campaign, in some countries, to penalize contacts between hierarchical superiors and subordinates at private times, via cell phones or networks, is one of the reactions, still very limited, to this super-exploitation in galloping growth.

In this case of slave labor in wineries, we see a typical example of absolute surplus value extraction. This is not an isolated example. The statements at the end of the article, as seen, relate the case to indiscriminate outsourcing open to the labor reform of Michel Temer's coup government, deepened by Bolsonaro's misgovernment. That is, from the bourgeois and imperialist reaction to the social and labor advances of the twelve years of PT governments (2003-2014).

It can also be called the slaveholders' rebellion, in allusion to the US Civil War: the counter-offensive, led initially by the mainstream media and the judiciary, then by Congress in collusion with these two great tentacles of the ruling class and, finally, by the flood of in fake news through social media, with extensive corporate funding and technical advice from Trump's former partner, Steve Bannon - leading to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the arrest of Lula and the election of the neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro.

The class character of this reaction became clearer precisely in the labor reform, which eliminated historical rights of the working class, made work precarious and weakened the unions. Made at the end of Temer's coup government, it was praised for the fascist mismanagement. What we saw in this case of the Rio Grande do Sul wineries was exactly the culmination of this deconstruction of working class rights. That is, the itinerary of the implantation of a systematic process of extraction of absolute added value in Brazil.

*Roberto Vital Anav is a postdoctoral researcher in economic history at USP.


ANAV, RV Does it make sense to read Marx at this time?! In CONJUSCS, São Caetano do Sul (SP), 16a Conjuncture Letter, March 2021, pg. 207. Available at 471 (

MARX, K. The capital, vol. I. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014.

FONSECA, Caue. Wineries react badly after case of slave labor, say experts in crisis management. Folha de São Paulo, Market section, 6.Mar.2023. Available in Slave labor: Wineries reacted badly, says specialist – 06/03/2023 – Mercado – Folha (

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