Domestic servitude in Brazil is difficult to identify and tackle because victims rarely see themselves as modern slaves, officials say. Of 3513 workers found in slavery-like conditions between 2017 and 2019, only 21 were held in domestic servitude.

A lawyer representing the Rigueira family said they had been presented as guilty by high-rating news show Fantastico, which revealed the rescue on Sunday, before their case was heard in court.

“The premature and irresponsible disclosure by inspectors and agents of the state, before a lawsuit recognises … their guilt, violates rights and sensitive data from the family, and compromises their safety,” the lawyer said in a statement.

Madalena Gordiano in windowless room where she lived while working for no pay.

Madalena Gordiano in windowless room where she lived while working for no pay. Credit:Screengrab/Globo/Fantastico

The program aired an interview with the woman, images of the small windowless room where she lived, as well Rigeira’s statement to police, and interviews with experts and human rights activists.

The woman, identified as Madalena Gordiano, told the program she came to the family aged eight to ask for bread. The house owner decided to take her in and agreed to adopt her. Her mother conceded as she had another eight children to look after. But the adoption was never formalised.

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The program says she was “given” to Rigueira by his mother after repeated disagreements with his father.

A spokesman for Unipam said Rigueira had been suspended and that “all legal measures are being taken”.

Labour prosecutors said they were trying to strike a deal with the Rigueira family to pay compensation to the victim. If charged by criminal prosecutors of employing slave labour and found guilty in court, Rigueira faces up to eight years in jail.

While labour inspectors can visit workplaces at will to check for slavery in Brazil, they must obtain permission from a judge to enter a home and said evidence of abuse from victims was a prerequisite.

Rigueira’s neighbours alerted authorities after receiving notes from the 46-year-old asking them to buy food and hygiene products since she had no money, according to the inspectors.

A misspelt note shown by Globo's Fantastico program said to have been written by Madalena Gordiano, who did not finish her education, to a neighbour. It reads in Portuguese: "Lend me soap to shower. You'll receive a prayer. Madalena"

A misspelt note shown by Globo’s Fantastico program said to have been written by Madalena Gordiano, who did not finish her education, to a neighbour. It reads in Portuguese: “Lend me soap to shower. You’ll receive a prayer. Madalena”Credit:Screengrab/Globo/Fantastico

During her captivity, the woman was forced to marry an elderly relative of the family so that they could continue to receive his pension after he died, authorities said.

Following her rescue at the end of November, the woman was taken to a shelter where she is being assisted by psychologists and social workers. Officials said they were trying to reunite the woman with her biological family.

According to Camasmie, the woman is now keeping the monthly pension of about 8000 reais ($2064) – which is more than seven times higher than Brazil’s minimum wage.

“She did not know what a minimum wage was,” he said. “Now she’s learning how to use a credit card. She knows that every month she will be paid a substantial amount [from the pension].”

Domestic servitude hit the headlines in Brazil in June when authorities rescued a 61-year-old maid who they judged to have been enslaved by a woman working for beauty company Avon.

Avon fired the executive and said it would support the victim. The ex-Avon employee, who along with her husband and mother was charged with enslaving a worker, denied the charges.

Thomson Reuters Foundation, staff reporters

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