CINCINNATI (TDB) -- U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-OH-02, claims falsely that China is drilling for oil off the coast of Florida. She refuses to retract the claim, and fired off a letter to Cincinnati Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke this week that says, "I will do everything in my power to increase the supply of gasoline in this country . . ." She wants lower prices at the pumps, and is co-sponsoring a House bill that repeals federal taxes and tariffs on imported ethanol. The source of much of that foreign ethanol Schmidt wants: Brazil.
But there are reports of slavery in Brazil's ethanol industry. And does her pledge to do "everything in my power to increase the supply of gasoline in this country" mean that she has overlooked or downplayed the existence of forced labor? Does she think that Americans are so callous and thirsty for gasoline that they will condone slavery to fill their fuel tanks? The Wall Street Journal took note of the human bondage earlier this year. So did the U.S. State Department, which issued its annual country report on human rights four months ago. American ethanol used as motor fuels is distilled from corn; Brazil's is made from sugarcane. The complete text of the government's report on Brazil is available here. This description of ethanol and working conditions in Brazil seem pertinent:
"Violators for forced labor laws enjoyed virtual impunity from criminal prosecution, and no landowner has ever been convicted and imprisoned for using slave labor . . . In July MTE inspectors [government inspectors] freed 1,108 forced laborers from a sugar cane farm producing can for ethanol in Ulianopolis, Para. Several improper adjustments had been made to the workers' paychecks, often leaving workers owing money at the end of the pay period. The living quarters of the workers were overcrowded and unsanitary. The owners agreed to pay what was owed, and ethanol distributors said that they would not buy ethanol from the firm until the workers' rights were respected."
There are numerous other reports, including disclosures earlier this year that former Democratic President Bill Clinton invested in a Brazilian ethanol firm accused of mistreating workers. Clinton's connection is here, and spokesman Matt McKenna said the former president "finds these allegations deeply troubling" and expected an immediate end to the degrading conditions for the ethanol workers.
In fact, there have been a string of similar incidents in Brazil which are recounted here on McClatchy, here on FOX news, and here in the UK's Guardian. An English language Brazilian publication also raised the issue of slavery and harsh working conditions. And there's this from the Catholic News Service:
"Harvesting jobs are a magnet for unemployed laborers from other parts of Brazil, The Catholic Church office that ministers to migrants estimated that about 40,000 migrant workers help with the sugar cane harvest in Sao Paulo state. Many are bused to the farms by middlemen who charge them inflated fees for transportation, meals and supplies, creating debts that the workers cannot repay and forcing them into a form of slavery."