By Chris Arsenault
RIO DE JANEIRO, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazilian prosecutors are demanding answers after the names of 17 employers profiting human trafficking disappeared from the country's "dirty list" which names and shames companies engaged in modern slavery.
Launched in 2003, the publicly available "dirty list" is one of the government's most effective tools for fighting human trafficking, said Tiago Muniz Cavalcanti, National Coordinator for the Eradication of Slave Labour with Brazil's Public Prosecutor's Office (MPT).
Companies or individuals who appear on the list are barred from accessing credit from state banks or other public financial support in a bid to undermine the economic rationale for trafficking workers into modern slavery.
"There are entrenched economic interests that are against the publication of the list," Cavalcanti told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The MPT has requested information on the reasons for the removal of the 17 names."
Prosecutors still aren't sure if the removals were due to administrative errors or an attempt to "suppress" information in order to protect businesses benefiting from modern slavery, Cavalcanti said.
This list is maintained by the Ministry of Labour. Officials from the ministry did not respond to interview requests.
Cavalcanti said it was not clear when prosecutors will find out what happened to the missing names as inter-agency disputes within the Brazilian state are often drawn-out affairs.
"Concealment of information is only of interest to those on the list," Cavalcanti said.
"To all others, especially good employers, the dirty list is a very important tool," so they can avoid doing business with companies involved in the modern slave trade, the prosecutor said.
The call for information from prosecutors is part of an ongoing dispute over the "dirty list" within Brazil's government.
Publication of names onto the list was suspended in 2014 after Brazil's Federal Supreme Court granted an injunction at the request of the Brazilian Association of Real Estate Developers.
The Labour Ministry began publishing names again last month, following a 2016 decision by the Supreme Court to suspend the previous injunction.
As of April 1, more than 65 employers had been caught by labour inspectors for subjecting workers to conditions akin to slavery, according to the Labour Ministry's website. Most of the exploitation happened on farms, with the construction and timber industries also flagged as hot spots for abuse.
More than 50,000 people have been freed from slavery type conditions in Brazil since 1995, according to the U.N.' s International Labour Organization, that estimates 21 million people globally are trapped in forced labour.
"The dirty list is still under heavy pressure from large employers who appear on the list," the prosecutor said.
More than 161,000 people in Brazil are living in modern slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index produced by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.
"Since it directly affects the image of the exploiter, the list is currently the most feared punishments of employers," Cavalcanti said.
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)