The company’s subsidiary VW do Brasil remains a burden for Volkswagen. After revelations about the collaboration with the military junta, there are new allegations of human rights violations on a farm. The public prosecutor is investigating.

The machinations of VW do Brasil during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1974 to 1986) are apparently far from being processed. With compensation payments in the millions to former persecuted employees and its own historical study on the cooperation between the subsidiary and the former junta, Volkswagen claims to have taken responsibility for the fact that VW do Brasil actively handed over opponents of the regime to torture during the dictatorship – apparently with the knowledge of the Wolfsburg group headquarters . According to reports, Volkswagen has not been able to bring itself to admit guilt and apologise. And now there are new investigations against VW. The allegations of the Rio de Janeiro public prosecutor: systematic human rights violations, exploitation of slave labor and human trafficking.

NDR, SWR and “Süddeutsche Zeitung” report on the recent allegations. The research cooperation had already revealed the collaboration with the military junta in 2017. According to the latest research, the most recent allegations stem from the same time that marks one of the darkest chapters in the company’s history. According to the report, in the early 1970s Volkswagen sensed an opportunity to enter the meat business and set up a cattle ranch in the Amazon region. It is said that the offer to buy, clear and develop the land came from the military junta. VW do Brasil hoped for a success story and also for tax breaks.

VW do Brasil: “A form of modern slavery”

According to the research, around 2,000 pages of files from the Rio public prosecutor’s office testify to what happened on the 140,000-hectare farm site. “It was a form of modern slavery,” said public prosecutor Rafael Garcia, summing up his three-year investigation. “The workers had to work seven days a week, more than ten hours a day, without any pay,” Garcia told the ARD “Weltspiegel”. Violence was done to the workers and they were not allowed to leave the farm. The men who had been recruited by intermediaries in remote villages as temporary workers for clearing work had hoped for a good job, but instead they were locked up on the farm. Now they were questioned as witnesses.

The men report systematic, serious human rights violations: workers were shot and later tied up when trying to escape. Even those who were seriously ill were said to have been forced to work at gunpoint, and some were said to have had to put the guards’ guns in their mouths. And what’s more: the wife of a worker is said to have been raped as punishment for attempting to escape. When violence erupted, workers were also said to have been killed, while others are believed to have disappeared. Men who contracted and died from malaria were said to have been buried on the farm site without their families knowing. “VW obviously not only accepted this form of enslavement, but also promoted it,” the research collective quoted prosecutor Garcia as saying. “It was just cheap labor.”

Volkswagen: Subpoena for hearing in Brasilia

Volkswagen has not yet commented on the new allegations, which the company was officially informed of on May 19 – with reference to the ongoing proceedings in Brazil. However, the allegations are taken very seriously, according to the AFP news agency. On June 14, Volkswagen is summoned to a hearing in Brasilia.

This does not apply to the former head of the Companhia Vale do Rio Cristalino, the company that operates the VW farm on the edge of the Amazon basin. According to NDR, SWR and “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, no individuals should be held responsible in the current process. When questioned during the research, the head of the farm, a Swiss man who is now very old, apparently showed little insight or remorse. “Somewhere the responsibility as an entrepreneur ends,” he is quoted as saying, as he blames himself for the mistreatment of temporary workers. At best, these were isolated cases “within” what was usual at the time.

Farm manager: “That things aren’t always very gentle there…”

“You have to see things in context,” said the head of the former VW farm. “When 1000 people, men, because the women pull out there, are in a heap, it’s not always very gentle, that’s obvious.” According to the reports, the Swiss likes to remember the time on the farm, “the life of a cowboy”, as he puts it in the “Weltspiegel”. He considers the allegations to be “nonsense”; there is no longer any point in dealing with the past, even if what happened back then was wrong.

According to the reports, Volkswagen emphasizes that the former farm manager does not speak for the group. His statements are not in line with the company’s values. Decades later, the temporary workers from back then are now looking to make amends for the suffering they suffered. In the case of the victims of the collaboration with the military junta, VW 2020 provided compensation equivalent to 5.5 million euros as part of a settlement. Less than half went to a victims’ association of former employees and their surviving dependents. The greater remainder of the sum was donated to human rights organizations. In Volkswagen’s view, responsibility for the crimes lies with individual employees.

Sources: Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Tagesschau, ARD “Weltspiegel”, AFP news agency, Volkswagen