Empregados da Fábrica de Fogos de Santo Antônio de Jesus e seus Familiares vs. Brasil
This case explores the responsibilities that States have to actively protect groups at higher risk, especially women and children, from the hazards of unsafe, unsanitary, and particularly dangerous working conditions. Simply enacting regulations that demand their protection is not sufficient. The State must take an active role in enforcing and supervising the implementation of protective regulations.
Background: On December 11, 1998, an explosion occurred in a fireworks factory in Santo Antônio de Jesus, Brazil. The factory consisted of a set of tents located in paddocks with shared worktables. As a result of the explosion, 60 people died and six were injured. Among those who lost their lives were 59 women, 19 of whom were girls, and one boy. Among the survivors were three adult women, two boys and one girl. Four of the deceased women were pregnant; one of them was able to give birth before dying. None of the survivors received adequate medical treatment to recover from the consequences of the accident.
The factory had obtained all permits necessary and was authorized to operate in the municipality. However, from its registration until the time of the explosion, there was no oversight by state authorities of working conditions or the exercise of hazardous activities, despite it being a requirement under state regulation due to the risk involved in fireworks production.
The Court found the state of Brazil responsible for the violation of the rights of the sixty (60) workers who perished in the factory explosion and the six (6) who survived, as well as the violation of rights of over 100 family members of the victims; and held that Brazil had violated the right to life, personal integrity, safe and healthy working conditions, the rights of children, the right to equality and freedom from discrimination under the American Convention for Human Rights (also known as the Pact of San José and ratified by Brazil in July of 1992). Further, the Court held that Brazil failed to adequately provide judicial protection and guarantees for all the victims and their families.
The Right to Life & Humane Treatment: The opinion clarifies that all States have the duty to regulate, control, and supervise the practice of dangerous activities involving significant risks to the life and integrity of persons engaging in such activities. Brazil had catalogued the manufacture of fireworks as a dangerous activity and had instituted guidelines for regulating the conditions of the activity. However, prior to the explosion, the State had not exercised any control or supervisory action over the dangerous activity. This omission, which resulted in the death of sixty (60) workers, gave rise to the violation of the right to life in Article 4 of the American Convention for Human Rights (henceforth the American Convention). Additionally, it constituted a violation of the right to personal integrity under Article 5 of the American Convention for the six (6) workers who were gravely injured, as well as the victims’ families due to the lack of remedy and effective access to justice.
The Right to Equitable & Satisfactory Work Conditions: The Court found that Brazil had a responsibility to guarantee safety, health and hygiene in the workplace and prevent accidents. The State had an affirmative duty to ensure that all places of work operated under satisfactory and safe conditions. The facts make clear, however, that all Fábrica de Fogos employees worked in precarious, unhealthy and unsafe conditions with no guidance on safety measures and no protective gear. This lack of oversight, which led to the conditions that resulted in the deadly explosion, violated a person’s right to work in equitable and satisfactory conditions under Article 26 of the American Convention.
The Rights of Women & Children and the Right to Equality: The Interamerican Court held that Brazil did not take special measures for the protection of children in accordance with Article 19 of the American Convention. On multiple occasions, the opinion highlighted the conditions of poverty of the workers and its particular effects on women and children, especially those of Afro-descent. Heightened vulnerability made impoverished women more likely to accept a job that put their lives and integrity, and those of their minor children, at great risk. The State made no efforts to prevent such inequality, which the Court found to be a violation of Article 24 (right to equality before the law) and Article 26 (economic, social, cultural and environmental rights) in relation to the prohibition of discrimination under Article 1.1 of the American Convention.
Finally, the Court found that Brazil had failed to provide adequate judicial guarantees and protections to the victims of the explosion. By the time of the Inter-American Court’s opinion, the State had only completed a few judicial proceedings related to the incident. Eighteen (18) years after the incident, both criminal and civil proceedings were still pending, a clear violation of the victims’ judicial guarantees and due process rights.
Reparations: The judgement of the Court required Brazil to complete a series of reparation measures. Brazil was ordered to publish the full text of the Judgement on an official State website and must produce radio and television materials summarizing the Judgement of the Interamerican Court. In addition, the State should implement a systematic policy of periodic inspection of firework production sites and must design and implement socioeconomic development programs for the population of Santo Antonio de Jesus –predominantly impoverished communities of Afro-descent. Finally, Brazil should pay compensation to the victims and their families for material and non-material damages, as well as reimbursements for costs and expenses incurred by the victims and their families as a result of the explosion.
The State has already published the judgement’s summary in its official media. Payment of compensation is still pending, as well as the guarantees of non-repetition. There are as of this writing no updates on the ongoing judicial proceedings, but the criminal proceeding is at risk of extending past the statute of limitations, thus not holding any of the perpetrators – the members of a wealthy and powerful family in the community – accountable.
This case is significant because it both recognizes the particular intersectional discrimination faced by impoverished black women and children and demands that the state take an active role in protecting said communities. The failure to provide equal, safe and sanitary work conditions (usually matters before state and municipal courts) is a violation of human rights deserving the attention of the international community. Further, this case emphasizes that countries may be held responsible for their failure to protect.