Wagner Moura

Award-winning actor and ILO Goodwill Ambassador

I grew up in a very poor area in the northeast of Brazil. I was living in a horrible, toxic and cruel environment of exploitation and slave labour. That’s why I decided to start working with the ILO. I can’t just ignore what I’ve seen.

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At any given time in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people were in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriage.

It means there are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world.

1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children.

rural, slave labour, education, kids, rescue, poverty, pressure, listen, witness, growth

The sun hangs high in the middle of the day.

Wagner wanders into his uncle’s backyard, shielding his face from the brightness. His sister is close on his heels. Both mouths water at the sight of them: bananas and mangoes bulging from the trees, ripe and ready for picking. A farm worker spots the kids staring. With a quick switch of his knife, a bunch of bananas come tumbling off a low branch and into his hands. He wears a big smile as he walks over to Wagner.

A slow realization

Wagner Moura grew up in a rural area in northeastern Brazil. His childhood was average - he played with his friends, looked after his younger sister, and laughed when a goat walked into his classroom at school. If anything was wrong, he didn’t notice.

Until he did. Eventually, he began to question why some people had to work for food or shelter, with no payment involved. And why certain young girls were sent to homes to do all the domestic work for free.

He even reconsidered his own family’s situation.

Wagner fondly remembers hanging out at his uncle’s house as a kid. He owned a big farm and, like many landowners there, he hired seasonal workers to help with the harvest for a few months each year. They had a place to sleep and a small plot of land where they could grow their own food.

“They were cool. They seemed happy. They never played the victim,” Wagner said. “But it wasn’t okay.”

As soon as the season ended, the seasonal workers were forced to leave. They didn’t have a home. They didn’t have any money.

“As a kid, I wasn’t equipped to understand,” he observed. “There was something in me that was like, this is not right. But the environment around me, all the adults - it was never an issue for them. It was all normal.”

As he grew older, he slowly put together the pieces and began to understand what was really going on. The phenomenon had a name: slave labour, forced labour, child labour.

Using your power for good

Wagner’s father was a sergeant in Brazil’s Air Force. When he got the opportunity to relocate to Salvador, the capital city of the state of Bahia, he didn’t hesitate. The whole family moved to the city, where the schools and job opportunities were better.

“We were poor, but all the money that he had, he used to give me and my sister a proper education,” he reflected. “I think that education is the foundation for any sort of social change in the world.”

Wagner enrolled in a better school. He didn’t see his uncles as much. As a result, Wagner began to look back on his childhood in Bahia from a new perspective.

“I was living in a horrible, toxic and cruel environment of exploitation,” he realized.

“I think the previous generation saw work as a very important thing, especially when you’re poor. You know, help your parents, do what you have to do. I get it. But that mentality can spread to, oh, kids are good to work. That’s where the problem is.”

Years of activism in the human rights movement followed. Wagner joined the ILO as a Goodwill Ambassador and the 50 for Freedom campaign, which advocates for the elimination of forced labour. As part of the campaign, Wagner had the chance to sit down and talk to four former slave labourers in Brasilia.

How can I help?

Here are Wagner's top tips for budding activists: