By Laurie Kazan-Allen, February 20, 2004.
When it comes to upsetting the economic status quo, little seems to have changed since Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became President of Brazil. Despite the hopes of many of his supporters, powerful vested interests continue to set the agenda, silencing opponents one way or other. The use of physical violence is not unusual. It is widely believed that the execution-style murder of Labour Inspectors Nelson José da Silva, Eratostenes de Almeida Gonsalves and João Batista Soares Lage on January 28, 2004 was related to a raid on a soybean plantation which was, it is alleged, using illegal slave labour. According to Reuters, "Labour Ministry inspectors travel around Brazil's interior, usually accompanied by armed federal police officers." The lack of protection which enabled the assassins to attack the inspectors on a public highway illustrates how cut-backs are compromising both the physical safety of Labour Inspectors and their ability to protect Brazil's workers.
During a public service career of more than twenty years, Labour Inspector Fernanda Giannasi has received death threats; her participation in the campaign to ban asbestos in Brazil and obtain justice for injured workers has gained national attention. As a founding member of ABREA, the Association of Asbestos-Exposed Workers in Brazil, and the Coordinator in Latin America of the Citizens' Virtual Network Against Asbestos, she has become a familiar face on TV, in magazines and at public meetings. Asbestos interests, aware of Ms. Giannasi influence and international reputation, would like to silence her. In 1998, Ms. Giannasi was sued for defamation by Eternit S.A., a leading Brazilian asbestos manufacturer, for statements she made in an article entitled: Misleading Propaganda of the Asbestos Industry in the Medical Journals of the Third World. Eternit also objected to Ms. Giannasi's public condemnation of hundreds of "highly questionable" extra-judicial agreements with former asbestos employees. On January 23, 1999, Judge Francisco Eduardo Loureiro of the Second Criminal District of the Pinheiros Forum, Sao Paulo City, dismissed all charges against Ms. Giannasi. Although the company threatened to appeal, they chose not to do so.
Since the collapse of that court case, ABREA's influence has grown and new victims' groups have been formed in Bahia and Pernambuco. Ms. Giannasi has worked closely with the former asbestos workers and miners from Bahia and has travelled to the North of Brazil to study asbestos contamination near derelict asbestos mines on a number of occasions. In November, 2003, as she was waiting to board the plane for Pernambuco, she was told that permission for her journey had been rescinded by the Labour Ministry. On February 20, 2004 she was officially informed that she was no longer authorized to carry out inspections or mobilize workers; henceforth, Labour Inspector Giannasi would be confined to the Sao Paulo office.
The timing of this decision is not coincidental, coming just a few weeks after the irretrievable breakdown of negotiations between ABREA and Brazil's major asbestos companies. Protracted discussions to work out a package to provide compensation and medical care for 2,500 affected workers had been on-going for three years. Ms. Giannasi played a major role in these talks; she characterized the final offer made by the companies as "derisory and insulting." Also taking part in these discussions was Emilio Alves Ferreira, the representative of a trade union Sindicato dos Trabalhadores nas Industrias de Ladrilhos Hidraulicos e Produtos de Cimento de Capivari. This union was founded by Saint Gobain, a major asbestos player in Brazil, in 1985 after workers belonging to an independent union had organized a strike at the company's biggest factory. These days the company union purports to represent all asbestos-cement workers in Brazil; neither the "yellow union" nor its representative is well-regarded by ABREA members. During the settlement discussions, the union routinely adopted a hostile stance towards the victims' demands; Ferreira verbally attacked Ms. Giannasi on a number of occasions going so far as to boo her in public. Eventually, the union spokesman was disqualified from acting as a victims' representative.
A dossier compiled by Inspector Giannasi about this union and the individuals involved in its history was distributed to the victims; the support provided by Almir Pazzianotto Pinto, a former Brazilian Labour Minister, for this company union was mentioned as was the fact that ABREA members whose names appeared on the list of union members denied they had ever supported the "yellow union". The ex-Minister, objecting to Ms. Giannasi's use of the word "manoeuvre," instigated a criminal claim under Article 139 of the Penal Code claiming that she had offended his honour. On February 17, 2004 the parties in this proceeding returned to court for Pinto's testimony only to be informed that the case could not proceed as the presiding Federal Judge João Carlos Da Rocha Mattos had been jailed! The Judge was arrested during Operation Anaconda, which has revealed one of Brazil's biggest scandals involving judicial corruption and organized crime! The temporary judge who was in court on February 17 did not feel inclined to replace Mattos and announced that no further hearings would be held until September.
In the aftermath of the murderous attack on the Brazilian Labour Inspectors, there is every reason for Brazilian inspectors to be afraid. When viewed against this threatening backdrop, the criminal lawsuits against Ms. Giannasi and the Labour Ministry's decision to imprison her in the Sao Paulo office are exposed as distinct pieces of an overall strategy, one designed to marginalize her work and expose the asbestos victims to the whims of negligent and greedy corporations. Further proof of the malevolent role of asbestos forces was contained in a menacing letter which Inspector Giannasi received two weeks ago; it blamed the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the Brazilian asbestos industry not on increasing awareness of the hazards of asbestos nor on declining public demand but on the intervention of Ms. Giannasi and ABREA in the domestic asbestos market!
A criminal case such as the one brought by Almir Pazzianotto Pinto against a public servant performing her job to the best of her ability would never be sanctioned by an impartial judiciary in a democratic country. The fact that the Judge selected to administer justice in this case has been accused of gross corruption and links with organized crime is further evidence, if it were needed, of the lengths to which some sections of the Brazilian establishment will go to silence this troublesome Inspector. When Lula, head of the Workers' Political Party, became President of Brazil he gave hope to millions of voiceless and impoverished workers; hope that the first left-wing president for four decades would acknowledge their needs and work with them to create a country in which social justice was a reality and not a dream. The persecution of Inspector Giannasi is a leftover from the nightmare years of military dictatorship and not a worthy act of a government dedicated to creating a more just society.