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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 23
Forced Labour

Wagner Moura: How to advocate for social change and end slavery

22 August 2022

August 23 is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Slavery is a clear human rights violation that has no place in the modern world! Yet, there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in history.

More than 40.3 million people are still in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labour. It means 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world. 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children.

That social injustice is at the heart of Wagner Moura’s commitment and activism to put an end to forced labour and child labour. The award-winning actor and ILO Goodwill Ambassador (50 for Freedom campaign) grew up in a very poor area in the northeast of Brazil. He saw first-hand the negative impacts of forced labour on a family, a community, a country.

“I think that education is the foundation for any sort of social change in the world”, Wagner Moura said.

Today he continues to puts his time and energy to urge on governments to enact and enforce legislation, protect their population, and end slavery in our lifetime.

Where does his passion for fighting slavery come from?



Hello and welcome to the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Sophy Fisher.

Today, our guest is Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor, director,

filmmaker, musician, and journalist.


Wagner is probably best known for his role in the TV series Narcos

where he played the drug dealer Pablo Escobar.

However, there's another side to Wagner's work.

He is a dedicated advocate for workers' rights,

in particular against forced labor and child labor.

Wagner, welcome to the ILO Future of Work podcast.


I know you grew up in a rural part of Brazil.

Could you describe a little what it was like?

Did you ever see examples of forced labor or child labor

when you yourself were a child?

Yes, many times.

I grew up in a very poor area in the northeast of Brazil.

It was a little city called Rodelas in the state of Bahia.

I grew up witnessing what, for me back then,

were normal things because that's how things were.

As a kid, I wasn't well equipped yet

to understand what that was, but I witnessed

rural workers working for food only or for shelter

or for no payment involved.

A very brutal thing that I saw back then

was young girls like 12, kids,

actually, 12, 13, 15 year-old young girls going to work

in the houses of people that have a little--

Listen, and I'm not talking about wealthy people.

There were no wealthy people there,

but the ones who had a little more money could hire a really,

really poor girl to work in their houses.

This girl would basically do all domestic

work in a house by the age of 12, 11, 13,

no money, no payment, no wages.

She never got paid.

It was actually a very weird thing because we used to see the people

that were hiring these girls as someone

that were giving them some opportunity, so she can eat,

she can have a place to sleep.

Sometimes, they even allowed them to go to school.

Another thing that happened with those girls is that they sometimes

were used to initiate sexually the little boys in the family.

I, as a kid, was seeing this.

There was something in me that was like, "This is not right,"

but all the environment, there was never an issue with the community,

with the leaders, with the mayors,

with the little institutions in that city.

It was all normal.

When I grew up, I really started to see that that was fucked up,

and then that's when my--

Especially because the rural workers,

the guys that were working in the agriculture field,

I'd seen that a lot because my uncles,

I had family that were hiring these guys to work.

Some of these guys were really friendly.

This is the tragic thing that I learned about slave labor.

The victim, they rarely know their condition.

You're saying that people stuck in forced labor don't always realize it?

They don't know that they're slave laborers.

That for me was the most tragic thing because sometimes,

[clears throat] working with in Brazil with the rescuers,

the forces that were labor ministry, that were going to these places

and freeing these people from what was going on with them.

Many times I've seen the workers getting really pissed

as if those people were coming there to take their jobs.

I imagine that emotionally is very embarrassing

and humiliating to realize that you are in a condition

of being a person that's being explored by another human being.


When I grew up, I started to realize all these things,

and that really moved me

because that was a background that I had lived,

and to work with human rights movements,

especially towards slave labor, this labor issue.

You've talked about seeing forced labor,

but did you know any of the people who were involved personally.

For example, on your uncle's farm, did you talk to the workers?

Yes, I talked to them.

They were not like--

Listen, I've never seen these guys dressing the victim,

but that wasn't okay

because as soon as the harvest ended,

they were like, "Okay, goodbye."

They didn't have a place to sleep anymore.

It was like no money.

That was all gone.

When these people were rescued--

Once I met, I was already working with the ILO and I met three

or four guys that were rescued.

We spoke and that's when I realized

that the conscience that they got

after the rescue and like, "Oh my God,"

that had different effect on them, had a lot of shame.

In many of them, there was like really painful

to see that they were victims of that thing.

Some of them, it was more like, "Okay, from now on I'm going to make sure

this is not going to happen to other people,"

but it's a very difficult emotional position to be put in.

You saw all these examples when you were young,

but when did you decide to become involved in ending forced labor?

Was there a specific moment that changed your mind

or was it a slower process?

It was a slow thing.

Basically, I think that education

is the basis for any sort of social

and personal change.

Coming from a poor place where my level of education,

the kind of schools I was going to,

it was the same schools that everybody was going to.

At some point with public schools in the northeast of Brazil, very bad.

You were like in a classroom

and then a goat would get in the classroom.

My father decided that we needed to move to Salvador,

which is the capital of the state

because he was a sergeant of the Air Force.

We were poor, but all the money that he had,

he used to give myself and my sister a proper education.

Realizing that we stood in history

when you have a perspective of the past.

All that made me go, "Fuck, I was living in a horrible,

toxic and cruel environment."

Yes, so that's when I decided to join human rights movements

and eventually work with the ILO.

You mentioned that you didn't fully understand the problems you saw

when you were a child because it was just normal life for you

and for the other people around you.

Do you think there are still major

misconceptions about child labor today?

If so, what are they?

Many parents of our generation, like my parents' generation,

for example, they see work as a very, very important thing,

especially when you're poor.

Listen, my dad grew up working as a kid.

Working as a kid with your family till today is not seen as a bad thing.

I get it.

This is the culture of some places.

As far as the kid still go to school, I'm even fine with that.

Help your parents

and do what you have to do, It's poor people.

They need help.

I get it.

That sort of mentality spreads up to like, "Oh, kids are good to work.

There's no problem in having kids working."

That's when exploitation comes.

Also, it's profitable,

that kind of despicable things that you see in the world, like in wars.

That happens because there is a market for that kind of thing.

We could say that it's in a bigger way,

it is one of another horrible side effect of capitalism.

We all know that forced labor is a complex problem.

Thinking for a moment about our listeners on this podcast,

is there anything that they can do as ordinary people?

Do you have any tips or advice for how they can help or get involved?

I'm going to say something that's not completely connected

to the subject we are talking about here,

which is slave labor and all that.

I think in general, we are living in a moment

where there's a lot of discredit on politics.

There is a, in my opinion, a very dangerous movement that make

people believe that politics are bad, that politicians are bad.

If you start to believe

that the democratic institutions have no value,

that there are not important, that politics are all dirty,

it's a very dangerous path to take us to a place

where we are not far away from,

which is a big disruption

in what we understand nowadays as democracy.

Otherwise, we are going to start to see polarized countries with

people only getting informations from their own groups

and their own bubbles and all that, that scares me.

I think that we have to, trying to answer your question,

I think that in a broader way

is we have to believe that politics is important.

When I say politics is that it's in our daily lives.

Our conversation here it's politics, it's small things,

bring awareness to something, discuss something, talk about something.

I think that this is the thing

that's concerning me more nowadays.

We don't care much about anything.

Everything seems so dirty and so bad, it's COVID,

it's the war in Ukraine.

This thing, instead of making us apart,

it should be a means for us to really dive in

and do something about it in whatever field you work, which is like,

"I'm a popular actor in Brazil especially.

I try to bring awareness to if people listen to me,

I better say something that matters,"

but there are so many different fields that you can.

Just don't think that you don't have a responsibility

or you don't have a role.

You do.

If you see something that doesn't feel right,

find your way to say something about it.

You think we all need to engage

a little more with these kinds of issues?

It seems a little naïve but that's how I see it.

Engage, engage politically.

It's not a bad thing.

It's not an ugly thing.

It can be.

There is a line that I never know if it's from Brecht that he says,

"The bad thing about the ones

who don't like politics is that they're governed.

They're governed by the ones that love it."


One final question, do you think of yourself now as an activist?

I think so.

In a way, because I think that there are other people

there that give their lives to that.

That's not my case.

That's a very important thing in my life,

but that doesn't define who I am.

Actually, nothing really does.

I'm an actor, I'm a director,

but I'm a human being that's I'm concerned about social issues.

I have empathy for other people.

I came from a very poor place, so that's part of me.

I can't just ignore what

things that I've seen, but yes,

I'm an activist in a way, but I'm not a professional activist.

Wagner Moura, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today,

and thanks to you, our audience for listening.

If you'd like to learn more about forced labor

or child labor around the world or what needs to be done to end it,

you'll find lots of information on the ILO website.

That's www.ilo.org/forcedlabor.

That's it for now.

Please join us again soon for another Future of Work podcast.

Until then, goodbye.