Brazil’s labor reform is set to pass the legislature and workers fear a dramatic worsening of their living conditions as a result. A special report from Brazil by Mike Fox
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MARLEI CHAVES DAS CHAGAS: I’ve been working here for 21 years. My name is Marlei Chaves das Chagas. NARRATION: Marlei is the superintendent of the 5-story Spazzio Botticeli apartment complex in Florianopolis, Brazil. MARLEI: I get here at 8am, and I start to work like normal. I take the bucket and go upstairs and start to clean the halls, the entrance. That’s my day every day. Opening the door, closing the door, sweeping, cleaning, receiving the mail. I’m always doing something, the whole day, from the time I arrive, until I leave. Today I’m going to go up and down the stairs more than 20 times. NARRATION: Her job has been enough to support herself and her three kids, even after she left an alcoholic husband. MARLEI: I raised my children here. This is how I make my living. This is my 2nd home. And they are my 2nd family, because we treat each other like family. That has been my day to day, for 21 years. This work is my life. NARRATION: But she is scared. A proposed labor reform is quickly moving its way through the Brazilian congress. At stake is the very fate of labor rights in Brazil. If the reform passes, it could eliminate the 8-hour workday, open the door for businesses to side-step labor legislation and collective bargaining, end the mandatory payment of union dues and further facilitate outsourcing. Marlei fears that everything she has could come crumbling down around her, including her vacation pay, her yearly bonus, and even her job. MARLEI: Yeah, I am afraid, because I don’t get sick often, but at some point I will and they’ll say, “She’s not working out anymore.” And they’re going to contract someone else or another business. They are going to outsource me. And then where will I go? NARRATION: The neighboring apartment building recently outsourced the administration of its building to a company that pays the woman in her position only minimum wage, roughly $300 a month, a little over half of what Marlei makes. If they can do that without the reform, just imagine what they could do with it, she figures. The labor reform is being sold as the antidote to Brazil’s worst recession since The Great Depression. Rising unemployment has tripled in five years, to nearly 14%. Proponents say it’s necessary to modernize the labor market and update the labor code for the new realities facing Brazil. Under the reform, over 100 articles in the labor code would be revised, but many key areas such as maternity leave and holiday pay, would be left intact — at least on paper. However, under the new legislation, employees would be permitted to negotiate directly with their bosses, side stepping unions and collective bargaining. These negotiations would be allowed to supersede certain areas of the labor code, essentially rendering the foundation of Brazilian labor law obsolete. ROGÉRIO MANOEL CORRÊA: The idea of the reform is to distance workers from their basic rights. Make them fend for themselves. And even to take away the union’s ability to negotiate, because everything the union can negotiate collectively, the employer will be able to negotiate individually with his workers, and the worker is going to be powerless and without the strength to negotiate better conditions. NARRATION: This proposed reform is only the latest measure aimed at weakening labor rights and unions that has been pushed by the government of president Michel Temer. He came to power last year in what many consider to be a legislative coup. The country’s most conservative congress in decades has helped to fulfill his agenda of privatization and austerity. Late last year, it locked in a 20-year government spending freeze. In March lawmakers approved new legislation that extended the length of temporary work contracts and now permits outsourcing in all sectors. A pension reform is also under debate that could slash benefits and increase the retirement age. According to Ana Julia Rodrigues, the president of the Santa Catarina state chapter of the country’s largest labor federation, the CUT, the current assault on labor rights in Brazil is unprecedented. ANA JULIA RODRIGUES: During the dictatorship, they took away our right to expression and freedom of expression, and the two-party system, but the attacks on the working class and workers’ rights in relation to labor legislation were not as intense as they are today. NARRATION: But Temer and his government are embroiled in a quagmire of scandals, corruption and investigations. Many on the left hope this can stop or at least slow the passage of the labor reform. Nevertheless, it is still moving forward. It was already approved by the lower house in April. It could be brought to a vote in the Senate in just a few weeks. Workers and social movements are pushing back. Despite intense government repression, tens of thousands protested in Brasilia on May 24 against the labor reform. This came less than a month after 35 million people joined in a General Strike, grinding many Brazilian cities to a halt. More marches are planned, including an even longer General Strike in late June. Marlei, like most union and social movement members, understands that this ongoing mobilization is the only thing that can stop the reform–if they can stop it. MARLEI: You have to fight. You have to fight for your rights. You have to fight hard for your rights. To unite wherever possible to stop at least a little bit of this wave that’s coming. Because it would be really bad. A major defeat, where everything we have achieved until now, could be just washed away.