RIO DE JANEIRO, Sept 1 (Reuters) - A Brazilian labor court convicted units of Brazil's Odebrecht Group of holding workers in conditions akin to slavery at an ethanol refinery construction project in Angola, Brazilian prosecutors said in a statement on Tuesday.
Judge Carlos Alberto Frigieri of the 2nd Part of the Labor Court of Araraquara, Brazil, ordered Odebrecht to pay 50 million reais ($13 million) in damages.
The ruling comes as Odebrecht's chief executive, Marcelo Odebrecht, is in jail as part of a giant corruption probe in Brazil. According to Brazilian courts and prosecutors, Odebrecht helped form part of a cartel of construction and engineering companies that defrauded Brazilian state-owned oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA of billion of dollars through a contract-rigging, bribery and political kickback scheme.
Odebrecht officials were not immediately available for comment and did not respond to phone calls or e-mails after normal business hours.
The issue was first brought to the attention of prosecutors by a series of reports on the Brazilian service of the BBC, the British state broadcaster, about a series of lawsuits filed against Odebrecht Group in the small town of Americo Brasiliense, Brasil, where many of the workers were recruited, the statement said.
Odebrecht, the court ruled, improperly lured Brazilian laborers to jobs in Angola where they were forced to work without proper visas in unsanitary work camps, the statement said.
In Angola their passports were confiscated and their ability to leave the work camps was blocked by armed guards, even on rest days. Meanwhile, many had worked up debts with labor subcontractors while they waited for passports and travel papers for Angola, the prosecutors said.
The contractors' actions and efforts to illegally import the Brazilian workers to Angola and restrict their movement was akin to the practices of human traffickers, the court said, according to the statement.
Even though many of the abuses suffered by the Brazilian workers in Angola were carried out by third parties, the court ruled that Odebrecht was ultimately responsible for the entire project and benefited from the abuses.
Odebrecht had argued that the abuses were carried out by an independent foreign subsidiary and as a result it had no direct control of the abuses. And it argued that as a result Brazilian courts had no jurisdiction.
The court disagreed, saying that overall management of the entire project was in the hands of Odebrecht's main Brazilian-base construction unit.
$1 = 3.69 Brazilian reais Reporting by Jeb Blount; Editing by Leslie Adler