(Adds Odebrecht comment)
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 said in an e-mailed statement that work involved in the Angola ethanol refinery project was carried out by an Angolan company in which Odebrecht has an indirect minority stake and that Odebrecht did not construct the ethanol refinery.
Odebrecht said it will appeal the decision.
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 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 project and benefited from the abuses.
Odebrecht, in its statement, said that working and living conditions at the ethanol refinery were satisfactory and met both Brazilian and Angolan law. It said the movement of workers was never restricted and that all immigration and labor laws were complied with in both Brazil and Angola.
$1 = 3.69 Brazilian reais Reporting by Jeb Blount; Editing by Leslie Adler