In 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. However, even today, many Brazilians – some say as many as 250,000 – are working under conditions not so dissimilar to those faced by slaves over a century ago.

In the northeastern state of Pará, slaves are commonly the ones who do the backbreaking work of turning wood into charcoal.

The men and women are often from neighboring states, most of which are extremely poor and have high unemployment rates. The charcoal farms send recruiters to poor villages, where the men are promised high wages: instead, they find that the companies have created massive debts for them at company stores, and the majority of their wages goes into paying it off. The conditions they live under are just as horrendous: they are not given any protective gear, live in wooden shacks, and many are constantly sick from malaria-infected mosquitoes that are rampant in the newly deforested jungle.

The Brazilian government has been vehement in pursuing those who use forced labor, setting up a Mobile Inspection Unit. The unit has freed 40,000 slaves since its inception, often only fifteen to twenty at a time. They compensate and send home workers and fine the farmers. This approach has discouraged some farmers from using forced labor by reducing their profit margins, but the fact remains that no one has ever been arrested or had their property confiscated. Furthermore, the sheer size of the area that the unit has to inspect makes total eradication of the practice unlikely: Pará is one of the largest states in Brazil, and its inner sanctum is practically inaccessible to most vehicles.

Pig-iron, an essential component of steel, is often produced using charcoal from these farms. These producers are extremely powerful. Brazil exports about 10 million tons of pig-iron each year, and the industry is worth over two billion dollars. There are some industry-based efforts to stem the flow of tainted charcoal: when evidence of slave labor was revealed in 2004, the government and producers established a national pact to monitor the entire production chain, and fifteen companies created the Charcoal Citizens’ Institute (CCI), a way for companies to ensure that no part of their production is supported by slave labor.

However, membership is completely voluntary, so many companies simply ignore it. COSIPAR, a large pig-iron plant that supplies over 300,000 tons of pig-iron to the United States each year, let its membership in CCI lapse in 2009. Its charcoal suppliers have been raided multiple times for using slave labor; it was even fined for purchasing charcoal from such farms. COSIPAR supplies National Material Trading (NMT), an American company to whom major American companies like General Motors, Ford, and Whirlpool were linked.

Since the issue first appeared on the international stage in 2006, General Motors and Ford have both stopped purchasing pig-iron from NMT. However, Whirlpool refused to comment when a recent Al Jazeera segment reached out to them. Though this does not necessarily mean that they continue to use it, they have not publicly rejected their claims to NMT nor released any statements declaring their intent to discontinue their association with the company or to monitor their supply chain more thoroughly.

The issue of modern slavery is usually one that is associated with sex trafficking. It is often easy to forget that slavery exists in many other forms in the modern age, even those that seem outdated; we still use products every day that were created using the work of slaves, just as we would have two hundred years ago.