Wagner Moura: How to advocate for social change and end slavery



Hello and welcome to the ILO Future of Work Podcast.

I am Sophie Fisher.

Our guest today is Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor, director,

filmmaker, musician and journalist.


Wagner is probably best known for his role in the TV series Narcos

where he played drug dealer Pablo Escobar.

However, there is another side to Wagner’s work.

He is an ardent defender of workers’ rights,

particularly against forced labor and child labour.

Wagner, welcome to the ILO podcast on the future of work.


I know you grew up in a rural part of Brazil.

Could you describe a bit how it was?

Have you ever seen examples of forced labor or child labor

when you were a child yourself?

Yes several times.

I grew up in a very poor region in the northeast of Brazil.

It was a small town called Rodelas in the state of Bahia.

I grew up seeing what, for me at the time,

were normal things because that was how it was.

As a child, I was not yet well equipped

to understand what it was, but I witnessed

rural workers working only for food or shelter

or without payment involved.

A very brutal thing I saw at the time

it was young girls like 12 years old, children,

in fact, young girls aged 12, 13, 15 who go to work

in the homes of people who have a little…

Look, and I’m not talking about rich people.

There were no rich people there,

but those who had a little more money could hire a really,

really poor girl to work in their homes.

This girl would basically do all the housework

work in a house at the age of 12, 11, 13,

no money, no payment, no salary.

She was never paid.

It was actually a very weird thing because we used to see people

who hired these girls as someone

who gave them an opportunity, so that she could eat,

she can have a place to sleep.

Sometimes they even allowed them to go to school.

Another thing that happened to these girls is that they sometimes

were used to sexually initiate the little boys in the family.

Me, child, I saw that.

There was something inside me that was like “This is not right”

but all the environment, there was never a problem with the community,

with leaders, with mayors,

with the small institutions of this city.

Everything was normal.

When I grew up, I really started to see that it was fucked up,

and then it’s when my–

Mainly because rural workers,

the guys who worked in agriculture,

I had seen that a lot because my uncles,

I had family who hired these guys to work.

Some of these guys were really nice.

This is the tragic thing I learned about slave labor.

Victim, they rarely know their condition.

You say people stuck in forced labor don’t always realize that?

They don’t know they are slaves.

It was for me the most tragic thing because sometimes,

[clears throat] work with in Brazil with the rescuers,

the forces that were ministry of labor, that went to those places

and free these people from what was happening to them.

Many times I’ve seen the workers get really pissed off

as if these people were coming there to take their jobs.

I imagine that emotionally it’s very embarrassing

and humiliating to realize that you are in a state

to be a person who is explored by another human being.


When I grew up, I started realizing all these things,

and it really moved me

because it was an environment that I had lived,

and work with human rights movements,

especially towards slave labor, this labor issue.

You talked about seeing forced labor,

but did you know any of the people who were implicated personally.

For example, on your uncle’s farm, did you talk to the workers?

Yes, I spoke to them.

They weren’t like…

Look, I’ve never seen these guys dress up the victim,

but it was not good

because as soon as the harvest is over,

they were like, “Okay, bye.”

They no longer had a place to sleep.

It was like no money.

It was all gone.

When these people were rescued…

Once I met, I was already working with the ILO and I met three

or four guys who were rescued.

We talked and that’s when I realized

that the consciousness they have

after the rescue and like, “Oh my God,”

which had a different effect on them, had a lot of shame.

In a lot of them there was like really painful

to see that they were victims of this thing.

Some of them were like, “Okay, from now on, I’m going to make sure

it won’t happen to other people,”

but it is a very difficult emotional position to put.

You saw all these examples when you were young,

but when did you decide to get involved in ending forced labor?

Was there a specific moment that changed my mind

or was it a slower process?

It was a slow thing.

Basically, I think education

is the basis of any form of society

and personal change.

Coming from a poor background where my level of education,

the kind of schools I went to,

they were the same schools that everyone went to.

At one time with public schools in the northeast of Brazil, very bad.

You were like in a classroom

then a goat came into the classroom.

My dad decided we should move to Salvador,

which is the state capital

because he was an air force sergeant.

We were poor, but all the money he had,

he used to give me and my sister a good education.

Realizing that we were in history

when you have a perspective of the past.

All of this made me say “Fuck, I was living in a horrible,

toxic and cruel environment.”

Yes, that’s when I decided to join human rights movements

and possibly working with the ILO.

You mentioned that you didn’t fully understand the issues you saw

when you were a kid because it was just a normal life for you

and for the other people around you.

Do you think there are still important

misconceptions about child labor today?

If that’s true, what are they?

Many parents of our generation, like my parents’ generation,

for example, they see work as a very, very important thing,

especially when you are poor.

Look, my dad grew up working as a kid.

Working as a child with your family until today is not considered a bad thing.

I understand.

It is the culture of certain places.

Insofar as the child still goes to school, I even agree with that.

Help your parents

and do what you have to do, they’re poor people.

They need help.

I understand.

This kind of mentality spreads to say, “Oh, kids are good for working.

There is no problem with children working.”

This is where exploitation comes.

Plus it’s profitable.

this kind of despicable things that you see in the world, like in wars.

It happens because there is a market for this stuff.

One could say that it is in a broader way,

this is one of the other horrible side effects of capitalism.

We all know that forced labor is a complex issue.

Thinking for a moment of our listeners on this podcast,

is there anything they can do as ordinary people?

Do you have any tips or advice on how they can help or get involved?

I’m gonna say something that’s not completely related

about what we are talking about here,

it’s slave labor and all that.

I think in general we live in a moment

where there is a lot of discredit on politics.

There is, in my opinion, a very dangerous movement which makes

people believe politics is bad, politicians are bad.

If you start to believe

that democratic institutions have no value,

that there is nothing important, that politics is all dirty,

it’s a very dangerous path to take us to a place

from where we are not far,

which is a big disturbance

in what we understand today by democracy.

Otherwise, we will begin to see polarized countries with

people only get information from their own groups

and their own bubbles and all that, it scares me.

I think we have to, in trying to answer your question,

I think in a broader way

is that we have to believe that politics matters.

When I say politics, it’s because it’s in our daily lives.

Our conversation here is politics, it’s little things,

to make aware of something, to discuss something, to talk about something.

I think that’s the thing

It worries me more today.

We don’t care much about anything.

Everything seems so dirty and so bad, it’s COVID,

it’s war in Ukraine.

This thing, instead of separating us,

this should be a way for us to really dive into

and do something about it in whatever field you work in, i.e.,

“I’m a popular actor in Brazil in particular.

I try to raise awareness if people listen to me,

I better say something that matters,”

but there are so many different areas you can.

Don’t think you have no responsibility

or you have no role.

You do.

If you see something wrong,

find your way of saying something about it.

You think we all have to commit

a little more with this kind of problems?

It sounds a bit naive but that’s how I see it.

To engage, to engage politically.

That’s not a bad thing.

It’s not an ugly thing.

It can be.

There is a verse that I never know if it is from Brecht that it says,

“The bad thing about those

who do not like politics is that they are governed.

They are ruled by those who like it.”


One last question, do you now consider yourself an activist?

I think so.

In a way, because I think there are other people

who give their life to it.

It’s not my case.

It’s a very important thing in my life,

but that does not define who I am.

In fact, nothing really helps.

I’m an actor, I’m a director,

but I am a human being who is concerned about social issues.

I have empathy for others.

I come from a very poor place, so it’s part of me.

I can’t just ignore this

things I’ve seen, but yes,

I’m an activist in a way, but I’m not a professional activist.

Wagner Moura, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today,

and thank you, our audience for listening.

If you want to know more about forced labor

or child labor in the world or what needs to be done to end it,

you will find a lot of information on the ILO website.

It’s www.ilo.org/forcedlabor.

That’s all for the moment.

Please join us soon for another Future of Work podcast.

Until then, goodbye.



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