At the height of the union unrest in Brazil in the 1980s, nearly 20 companies fed information to the country's brutal military dictatorship to quash the worker uprising, and Volkswagen played a crucial role.
Documents uncovered by Reuters show that the company spied on union leaders and activists, helping the military and police identify and attempt to suppress workers. Among them was Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who later became the country's president in the mid-2000s.
Papers from VW marked "confidential" were unearthed as part of President Dilma Rousseff's "truth commission", which is investigating abuses by the government and industry leaders from the 60s through the 80s. VW supplied intelligence on everything from union meetings to strike demands, going so far as to take down license plate numbers of the vehicles present at union events.
And Volkswagen went even further, according to Reuters:
Volkswagen also reported the showing of a socialist-themed film at a union headquarters; the contents of flyers distributed outside its factory doors and the names of those distributing them; and an incident in which "several addicted workers were caught smoking marijuana."
Such information was typically used by police to monitor, harass and detain union activists in the hope of discouraging future unrest, said Sebastião Neto, a member of the National Truth Commission. He cited testimony the group has gathered from workers who met with such treatment.
Volkswagen and other companies involved in the spying could face civil lawsuits and even reparations if they contributed to human rights violations. VW track record on that front isn't… um… great, and Brazil was no exception.
"Volkswagen is acknowledged to be a model for coming to terms with its corporate history," the automaker said in a statement to Reuters. "The company will handle this topic in the same way."