Interview with labor inspector Luciana de Carvalho
#SoniaLivre – International Free Sônia Campaign

“Sônia is the face of Brazil”

The case of Sônia Maria de Jesús came to light in June 2023, when she was rescued from slave-like conditions in an operation conducted in the house of Jorge Luiz de Borba, a magistrate in the Court of Justice of Santa Catarina (TJSC), in Florianópolis (SC).

Amalia Antúnez

13 | 6 | 2024


Three months later, a Federal Supreme Court judge authorized the Borba family to visit the shelter where Sônia had been living since her rescue, and, in a despicably manipulative stunt, they convinced her to return to the house from where she had been rescued.

Sônia Maria’s real family decided to go public with the case so that she can be reunited with her siblings and enjoy the rights that she has been denied for the more than 40 years that she has worked as a maid for the Borbas, with no wages and no rest time, deprived of education and even personal documentation.

We spoke about Sônia’s case with labor inspector Luciana de Carvalho, who is also regional coordinator of the Project for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities and their Reincorporation in the labor market.

-You participated in Sônia’s re-socialization process during the period in which she remained rescued. Can you give us some background on her case and how you came to be involved?
-In Sônia’s specific case, there was an anonymous report filed with the Labor Prosecutor’s Office (MPT), which is a great ally of the Labor Inspection Authority.

When that report came in and it was found that the person in question was working in the home of a judge—which makes it all the more serious—the MPT decided to conduct a preliminary investigation before referring the case to the Labor Inspection Authority.

That stage of data and evidence gathering began a year before she was actually rescued.

As the accused party has privileged immunity, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office had to first seek authorization from the Supreme Court of Justice, which granted it.


Actions aimed at combating slave labor in Brazil are always coordinated by a labor inspector.

Public policy follows a process that responds to that coordination, and which has as its natural allies the MPT, the Federal Public Defenders’ Office, and the Federal Police or Federal Highway Police, as well as the Federal Prosecutor’s Office.

Sônia’s case was coordinated by Humberto Camasmie, a labor inspector with a long track record and proven experience in rescuing workers from slave-like conditions, in particular situations of domestic slave labor.

I was not involved in the planning and implementation of this action. I was called in after she was rescued because I also work here in Santa Catarina in projects for combating child labor, professional training, and incorporation of persons with disabilities into the labor market.

As Sônia is a worker with a hearing disability, I was asked to help coordinate with the protection network in finding a safe place where she could stay and also where she could have access to community life and education. That was the reason I became involved in her case.

-What is Sônia like? How would you describe her?
-First of all, I would like to emphasize that, as inspectors dealing with persons with disabilities, we become deeply involved, because coordinating with the protection network and institutional allies is part of our work, as established by law.

We witness firsthand the situations of prejudice and racism that these persons and their families endure.

Sônia’s story

Coordination for Sônia’s rescue operation began on a Tuesday in June 2023 and it was carried out later that week on Friday, as it was essential to have a place for her to stay, especially considering her difficulties in communicating.

Not only is she deaf, she is also illiterate in Brazilian Sign Language (Libras) because she was denied her fundamental right to education.

When I was informed that she had been rescued, I went to the MPT prepared to interact with her. I brought with me some coloring books and drawing material. I felt we instantly connected, and I think the feeling was mutual.

We are about the same age (I am 48 and Sônia is 50), but when we met for the first time she still looked like a frightened creature, barely interacting and responding to instructions in a very automated way.

However, we saw enormous progress over that first week of socialization, along with the Association of Deaf Persons of Greater Florianópolis, which welcomed her with open arms.

At first, she only used one crayon and colored outside the lines, but the following week she had improved enormously and very quickly.

She is a very sweet person, always smiling, and hearing her story breaks your heart. Seeing how she thrived in her learning efforts in such a short time makes you wonder how far this woman could have gone if she had not been denied her basic rights.

No choice

-How did you react to her having returned to the Borba family? Could this be a case of Stockholm syndrome?
-In Brazil, the law stipulates that all persons with disabilities must be able to express their will freely and in an informed manner.

In my opinion, which is also the opinion of other professionals and experts in the field, Sônia was not able to do that when she decided to return with the family that subjected her to slave-like conditions for four decades.

She had no idea that she had a family of her own, a mother who had searched for her until the day she died, in 2016, and that she had siblings who knew about her and searched for her tirelessly.

She does not know that when she came to live with the judge’s family she was a minor and that education in Brazil is mandatory from the age of 4 to 17, so that she should have had the right to go to schoo.

Sônia was also unaware that she has a right to live as part of a community. Whenever she had to leave the house, she did so accompanied by someone in the family. She has no friends, she never had a chance to fall in love, she was denied the right to live a life like any other human being.

Although it is possible that she may have wanted to return with the judge’s family because that is the only world she has known for the past 40 years and she might indeed be affected by Stockholm syndrome, I am sure that if she had known that she could choose, she would not have gone back to that family.

-How long was Sônia away from the Borbas?
-She spent three months at the shelter, and in the first days of school in the Association of Deaf Persons, where she was learning to sign in Libras, she showed great interest in being with others and in learning.

I went with her several times and when, for some reason, we were late, she would become anxious because she loved going to school. Not once during that whole time did she mention that she wanted to go back to judge Borba’s house.

On the day they went to see her, because another judge authorized the visit, even though the agreement was that only a few people would go, they arrived there with at least 10 lawyers and all the grandchildren, who Sônia had known since they were babies, and carrying photo albums, etc.

Their intentions were far from innocent and they did not do it in a way that allowed her to understand that she could refuse.

People with disabilities are granted the right to make informed and planned decisions, and that is not what happened here.

“Like family”

-Judge Borba and his wife claim that Sônia is like family, which is terribly cynical on their part if you know her story.
-Sadly, in Brazil this is more common than one might imagine.

The narrative that claims that domestic workers “are like family,” or “like a daughter,” only serves to deny these individuals their basic labor rights. It is not a legal category under the law.

This type of claim is the result of a society with origins based on slavery, a racist society, an ableist society.

If we go by what the judge and his wife say, how can you explain that the daughter of an upper middle-class family, who is deaf, has no access to identity documents, no access to education, no health plan, no credit cards, no friends or a partner, and cannot go to the hair salon or a gym?

-Who came up with the idea to launch a global campaign to free Sônia?
-It was Sônia’s family, her siblings to be more exact, because this case has been surrounded by forced silences.

The first silencing effort is the fact that Sônia has not been taught to read and write in Portuguese or to sign in Libras; the second is that the judge was granted a petition not to reveal the legal proceedings against him; and the third is that prosecutor Humberto Camasmie was removed from the case after he spoke about it on TV, when Sônia had already been rescued and everything had been made public.

Camasmie was interviewed at the MPT, along with another prosecutor, but the complaint was made only against him, so we believe that it is an attack on Brazil’s public policy for combating slave labor. It is a way of intimidating other colleagues who work on such cases.

When the Minister of the Superior Court of Justice Mauro Campbell Marques authorized the visit to the shelter —a very unusual decision, because it is a place for women who are victims of violence— the Federal Public Defenders’ Office tried to have that decision revoked but was unsuccessful, and that was how Sônia ended up returning to the family that kept her in slave-like conditions for 40 years.

The campaign

At that point, Sônia’s family realized that they could lose her again because judge Borba filed an acknowledgment of paternity action with the High Court of Santa Catarina, where he is a magistrate.

The family then decided to launch an international denunciation campaign under the hashtag #SoniaLivre, or #FreeSonia, as the final ruling on the substance of the case is still pending and will be handed down by the Supreme Court.

The idea is to shed light on this case and enable anyone who has something in common with this story, or has experienced any of the things that Sônia has suffered, to see themselves reflected and demand that the justice system allow her to be free to live with her family and in society and to enjoy her basic rights.

There are many Sônias out there: Sônia is a woman, a black woman, a person with a disability, a victim of child labor and slave-like work, she is a domestic worker. In short, Sônia is the face of Brazil.