Remembering the Unaí Massacre

On January 28, 2004, four public servants were brutally murdered while inspecting rural labor conditions in Unaí, Minas Gerais, Brazil. They were Erastóstenes de Almeida Gonçalves, João Batista Soares Lage and Nelson José da Silva, labor inspectors, and Ailton Pereira de Oliveira, their driver. They were ambushed and shot by hired gunmen, allegedly on the orders of local landowners who exploited workers in slave-like conditions.

The crime shocked the country and the world, and became a symbol of the struggle against modern slavery and labor rights violations in Brazil. It also exposed the risks and challenges faced by labor inspectors, who often work in remote and hostile areas, without adequate protection and support.

To honor the memory of the victims and demand justice, various civil society organizations, trade unions, and public institutions have organized commemorative events and campaigns over the years. The most recent one took place on January 28, 2024, when a ceremony was held at the site of the massacre, with the presence of relatives, friends, colleagues, and authorities.

Among them was Maria da Ajuda dos Santos, project manager at Fundacentro, a public institution dedicated to promoting occupational health and safety. She represented the institution and highlighted its commitment to work in partnership with other agencies and entities to ensure that every worker is safe and respected in their workplace, especially in cases of rural labor inspection.

She also denounced the impunity and the delay in the judicial process, which has not yet resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of the masterminds and perpetrators of the massacre. “This territory is sacred to us, because the people who fell here will always be remembered by us. Comrade Ailton, comrade Nelson, comrade João Batista, comrade Erastóstenes will always be with us all. God wanted me to be your boss and I couldn’t prevent this from happening here,” she said, recalling the nights when she apologizes for what happened, even though she is not responsible for the murders.

She also criticized the current government’s policies, which have weakened the labor inspection system and the fight against slave labor. “They didn’t just fall four here. The problem wasn’t solved. Every day more people fall. These crosses symbolize these events and call us all to this place. What kind of place do we live in and what kind of defense do we make of the life of the other?” she asked.

The date of January 28 was officially declared as the National Day of Combat against Slave Labor in 2009, as a tribute to the victims of the Unaí massacre and a reminder of the persistence of this scourge in Brazil. According to official data, more than 55,000 workers have been rescued from slave-like conditions since 1995, when the government created a special task force to deal with the issue.

However, the actual number of victims may be much higher, as many cases go unnoticed or unreported. Slave labor is often associated with rural activities, such as agriculture, livestock, logging, and charcoal production, but it can also occur in urban settings, such as construction, textile, and domestic work.