Brazil: workers’ rights under threat from government reforms

Despite a very unstable political climate, Michel Temer’s government and Brazil’s parliamentarians are trying to get a series of social protection and labour code reforms adopted through an accelerated procedure – without consulting the social partners.

Excluded from the process of drafting these new laws, the trade unions have been mobilising since March, holding demonstrations and organising a general strike, which took place on 28 April this year and in which 40 million people around the country took part.

The liberalisation of labour contracting has already been approved by the Chamber of Deputies, while the pensions’ reform and the labour code reform are due to be voted on by parliamentarians in the coming weeks.

Yet the majority of Brazilians are opposed to these reforms: 71 per cent opposed the measures to reform the laws on retirement when they were announced, while 64 per cent feel that the new labour code favours companies rather than workers.

All the signs are, however, that they will be approved – even in the midst of the political crisis surrounding the president – as stated recently by the Economy Minister, Henrique Meirelles, in an interview with foreign investors in May.

In order to reassure them, the Minister promised that as far as the pension law reforms were concerned, “the leaders of the parliamentary groups are aware that the fiscal measures must be approved and they are continuing to work to that end.” He added that a delay of a month or two wouldn’t make any difference.

“The pensions’ reforms are very worrying because they will exclude some of the population from accessing this right. The labour code reform is even more serious, however, because it undermines, without any debate, nearly a century of social struggle for workers’ rights,” says a very concerned Clemente Ganz Lúcio, technical director of the Inter-Union Department of Socio-Economic Studies and Statistics (DIEESE), a specialised labour training and research body linked to the four major Brazilian national trade union centres.

The bill, currently being examined in the Senate, proposes over one hundred changes to the rules governing the labour world.

“The text goes from very minor details such as workplace clothing to articles that completely undermine the role of the trade unions, the bargaining process and workers’ fundamental rights,” Ganz Lúcio tells Equal Times.

Among the most crucial points in the bill are a change to the hierarchy of norms on several negotiating points, with enterprise agreements taking precedence over the law; an end to the compulsory trade union contribution (currently equivalent to one day’s salary per year) and restrictions on the scope of decisions that the Higher Labour Court.

According to the government, the reforms are aimed at stimulating employment and encouraging business activity in an economic recession that began two years ago and which has seen unemployment reach a record high of 13.6 per cent of the working population (compared to 4.8 per cent in 2014).

The labour reform is widely supported by the employers’ organisations. “Modernising and ‘de-bureaucratising’ labour relations is urgent and necessary,” claims the National Confederation of Industry (CNI) in a press release.

The DIEESE director does not deny this need: “Yes, reform is needed, because 40 per cent of Brazilian workers have little or no union protection or they work in the informal economy. The labour code also needs to be adapted to take into account digital industries and services, which are a new reality. This will require strengthening the bargaining process and improving the way labour justice works, with its very lengthy procedures. But this bill aims to do the opposite.”

Most of the national trade union centres and the public labour ministry are concerned about the future of workers’ rights. They believe the reforms risk weakening the balance of power within enterprises. A worker could, for example, negotiate their salary individually with the employer or define their working hours, without benefitting from the guarantees provided by law, because on some issues it is the enterprise agreement that takes precedence.

In an unfavourable economic climate with high unemployment, the trade unions warn that workers will be forced to accept less favourable conditions to keep their jobs.

By keeping the trade unions out of the negotiations, the reforms are aimed at ending the power of collective bargaining, says Beatriz Cerqueria, president of the Minas Gerais State section of Brazil’s main trade union centre, CUT, who in an article in the Jornal Brasil de Fato asks: “Has anyone asked the workers for their opinion? At the moment we have only heard from the employers, the members of parliament in favour of the bill, and the well-paid television commentators who are defending the reform. But has anyone asked those who will be directly affected? No.”

The president of the national trade union centre Força Sindical and member of parliament Paulo Perreira da Silva believes that: “The aim is to attack workers rights so that business can make bigger profits by saving on labour costs”.

“A higher risk of precarious employment”

All the opponents of the reform denounce the way it is being “imposed” by the government and members of parliament. It was adopted at the first reading after less than two weeks, despite being very complex, with a large number of articles added or amended. It has been driven through under an emergency procedure at the behest of the government, on the pretext that the country’s economic recovery depends on it.

“How can such a bill be passed without it being discussed with civil society?” asks Ganz Lúcio. “At first, the government put forward a text with a dozen changes, which moreover included proposals from the trade unions. The member of parliament who was the rapporteur for this law then took the bill and changed it completely, submitting a text for his colleagues to vote on that changed 200 articles of the labour code!”

A few weeks earlier, the Chamber of Deputies had already approved, in a very short time, and almost by surprise, a text that enables businesses to sub-contract all their activities, not only their secondary activities. Workers employed through sub-contractors usually have worse working conditions and less union protection than those directly employed.

DIEESE statistics show that contract workers tend to work three hours more a week on average than others, and are paid 25 per cent less. They are also more exposed to labour accidents and do not benefit from the protection and the agreements negotiated by the unions in their sector.

By authorising the generalisation of sub-contracting, the recent law risks encouraging businesses to make more use of contract labour. For the workers, therefore, there is a high risk of more precarious employment.

All Brazilian workers will also be affected by the tightening of rules concerning the conditions of access to retirement pensions. The legal retirement age is set at 65 years for men and 62 years for women. To get a full pension, they have to have paid contributions for 49 years, with a compulsory minimum of 25 years.

The unions find the conditions very tough in a country where life expectancy varies between regions (from 67 to 80 years) and where a significant proportion of the population still work in the informal economy.

Ganz Lúcio sees the ousting of President Dilma Rousseff and the coming to power of Michel Temer as an unexpected opportunity for the proponents of neoliberalism and those who want to break union power.

“Nobody would have voted for this reform programme if it had been put as it is to the population Profound changes are been put in place in our society and our economy that will have consequences for decades to come.”

This story has been translated from French.