Brazilian authorities said they raided an Amazon plantation where more than 1,000 laborers were found working 14 hour days in horrendous conditions.
Authorities said the raid was Brazil's biggest to date against debt slavery, a practice that lures poor laborers to remote spots, where they rack up debts to plantation owners who charge exorbitant prices for everything from food to transportation.
But the Amazon plantation's owner the biggest ethanol producer in the northeastern state of Para vigorously denied the charges Tuesday and said the workers make good money by Brazilian standards.
The raid was in the remote town of Ulianopolis, the government-run Agencia Brasil news agency said late Monday. The company running the plantation said the government action started Friday and lasted three days.
Police found 1,108 poor workers working from 3 a.m. until 5 p.m. with only a short break for lunch, Humberto Celio, coordinator of the Labor Ministry's special unit that frees debt slaves, told Agencia Brasil.
Many of them were sick because of spoiled food or unsafe water, slept in cramped quarters on hammocks and did not have proper sanitation facilities, Celio said.
The company, Para Pastoril e Agricola SA, has been in operation since 1969 and each year produces 50 million liters (13.2 million gallons) of ethanol, often billed as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline.
A Para Pastoril executive said allegations of abuse at the 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) plantation are "totally false."
"We have never had these type of problems and we must submit to constant government inspections," the executive, Fernao Zancaner, said in a telephone interview. The Labor Ministry said no one would be available to comment until Tuesday afternoon.
The company has 1,800 employees, Zanacer said. Sugar cane cutters receive between 700 to 800 reals (US$368 to US$421) per month, far above the nation's minimum wage of 380 reals (US$200). In the Amazon region, many workers make less than the minimum.
Brazil is a huge user of ethanol because eight out of every 10 new cars sold are "flex-fuel" models that run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of the two. Ethanol currently sells for about half the price of gasoline in Brazil.
Brazil is also a major ethanol exporter and is receiving billions of dollars (euros) of investment amid rising international demand for the alternative fuel.
But the country is under heavy pressure to improve working conditions for the sugar cane cutters who harvest much of the cane. They use machetes to chop down tons of cane daily for wealthy Brazilians and corporations that own the plantations.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in May pledged to bring industry leaders and workers together to "to discuss the humanization of the sugar cane sector in this country."
The promise came after Silva was widely criticized at home for calling Brazil's ethanol producers "national and world heroes." Critics say producers pocket huge profits while the workers suffer.
Brazil's Labor Ministry has been monitoring farmers and ranchers with a group it calls the Mobile Verification Task Force, which conducted the raid on the Para state plantation.
Founded in 1995, the group says it has freed more than 21,000 workers from debt slave conditions at more than 1,600 farms across Brazil. The Roman Catholic Church's Land Pastoral group that helps rural workers in Brazil estimates there are currently some 25,000 workers living in slave-like conditions in the nation, most of them in the Amazon.
The Amazon raid was larger than a 2005 raid when 1,000 workers were found laboring under similar conditions at a sugar cane-ethanol plantation in the central state of Mato Grosso.