Labour Research May 2019


Workers attacked to shore up the elite

Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, now has an openly far right president in Jair Bolsonaro. This is deeply disquieting for Brazilian trade unionists and indigenous and minority groups.

International Workers’ Day on 1 May will see huge protests in Brazil as trade unionists mobilise in opposition to the openly far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s pensions and social security reforms and privatisation programme.

Last November, the international labour and trade union movement watched with horror as Brazil returned Bolsonaro as president. 

TUC international policy officer Stephen Russell says that what happens in Brazil is of huge importance to the rest of the world. It is one of the largest economies in the world and, as home to a third of the world’s rainforests, is also “the lungs of the earth”.

In advance of Bolsonaro’s inauguration in January, 46 US-based trade union and other civil society groups voiced their “deep concern” about the serious threat Bolsonaro poses to democracy, human rights and the environment. 

Abhorrent views

A joint statement by organisations — including America’s AFL-CIO trade union federation and its United Steelworkers union — lists examples of his abhorrent views and hate speech. 

Bolsonaro has strongly defended Brazil’s brutal 1964-1985 military dictatorship and vowed to purge the country of left-wing activists through forced exile or imprisonment. 

He has referred to members of the MST landless workers’ movement and MTST movement of homeless workers as “terrorists”, raising fears that his government will use anti-terrorist laws to criminalise social activists. And his hate speech has targeted many groups including Afro-Brazilians, the LGBT community, indigenous people, women and migrants.

Since taking office, he has sought to weaken environmental and human rights protections and further the attacks on workers’ rights, collective bargaining and trade union organisation initiated by the interim “coup” government headed by conservative PMDB President Michel Temer. 

The Temer ‘coup’

According to Nick Crook, international officer for the UK’s UNISON public services union: “After 16 years of progressive government under the Workers’ Party which was not perfect but which, despite its faults tackled inequality and empowered Brazilians, the country has now reverted to the traditional model of the elite in power.”

In 2016, amid a political crisis, PMDB conservative party vice-president Michel Temer orchestrated a parliamentary coup, leading to calls for the impeachment of elected Workers’ Party president Dilma Rousseff. 

But as TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady pointed out in the Huffington Post, Rouseff’s “crime” was “to have given an overly-optimistic appreciation of the nation’s finances: a misdemeanour which most political leaders around the world are guilty of at some time or another”. 

In March 2017, Eduardo Cunha, who had led the impeachment process, was found guilty of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion. In March 2019, Temer was himself arrested in São Paulo as part of another massive corruption investigation.

Former PT minister Tereza Campello says Bolsonaro is not the only problem and is part of a wider far right strategy to “sell Brazil”.

She told Labour Research: “It was important for the elite to disrupt the Workers Party government in order to re-impose neo-liberal reforms including austerity and cuts to the social security budget; the privatisation of public sector assets, including the Bank of Brazil, hydro-electric projects and other public operations; and the privatisation of Brazil’s national wealth, including its vast oil and mineral reserves.”

Labour law

According to Russell, until the 2016 coup, Brazil had “a good set of labour rights that were enforced” and there was “widespread collective bargaining and relatively high union density” in areas like manufacturing and the public sector. 

As well as bringing in austerity policies that included a 20-year freeze on healthcare, education and social welfare spending, Brazil Solidarity Initiative campaigner Patrick Foley says labour reforms introduced in 2017 “gutted workers’ rights”. 

They made it easier for companies to outsource and sub-contract, and allowed companies to negotiate directly with individuals, cutting out unions and collective bargaining. 

Former minister of Brazil’s PT Workers Party Tereza Campello, currently a research fellow at the University of Nottingham, says the Temer government brought in a total of 100 changes which “destroyed” Brazil’s strong labour laws. 

These also included taking away the right of workers to be paid if they are laid off in a temporary shut-down, and removing prohibitions on pregnant women working in dangerous conditions.

The International Centre for Trade Union Rights explains that legal reforms introduced in 2017 include changes to union dues collections and a movement away from sectoral to workplace bargaining, “seen as weakening union strength, and new laws that will allow local collective bargaining to undercut protections in national labour law”. 

According to Russell, the reforms “flip” the norm — where collective bargaining builds on, and improves, minimum standards.

“They mean minimum standards enshrined in Brazilian labour law can be undercut, leaving only a lower minimum floor laid down by constitutional requirements,” he told Labour Research. 

“They mean an employer can sit down with a collective bargaining unit and do away with the minimum wage and safe working conditions. 

This reverse pressure is dangerous for unions.” He said that instead of conditions remaining as they are, or being improved, “they could end up in a worse position if they start negotiations. It is a huge attack.”

Abolition of Ministry of Labour

Bolsonaro has talked of “an excess of rights” and the need to “do away with unions in Brazil”. He has already abolished the Ministry of Labour, which has existed since the 1930s, and is considering closing down the Labour Court, which deals with labour disputes and work issues. 

And he has transferred some of the Ministry of Labour’s legal functions to the Ministry of Justice, now headed by the prosecuting and sentencing judge involved in jailing former PT president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. 

Campello said that while the Ministry of Labour had “formal spaces” for tripartite dialogue, with government, employer and union input, some of its functions will transfer to the Ministry of Finance where there is no union or worker involvement. 

Another casualty could be a return to increased slavery and child labour, she said, as the changes will undermine the ability of specialist labour inspectors to investigate these practices. “Closing down the Ministry of Labour is a big statement of what he is not interested in — continuing to have a positive and constructive relationship with the unions,” said Russell. 

“He is not going to be sitting around the table with unions and will instead focus on different types of interest groups. His restructuring of government also includes a set of reforms giving control of indigenous land rights to the Ministry of Agriculture — a major conflict of interest.”

Attack on union finances

According to Campello, Bolsonaro also brought in “unconstitutional” measures to stop unions automatically collecting union subscriptions. 

He used “urgent measures”, meant to deal with national emergencies, to bring in the change immediately on 1 March 2019 without any dialogue, discussion or the agreement of parliament. “It will have a really terrible impact on union finances at exactly the moment when there is a big movement against pension reforms,” she told Labour Research. 

Russell explained that the move is like the UK Tory government’s attack on check-off — where union members pay their union subscriptions directly out of their wages and the employer then gives the payments to the union. 

He said the move “could carve off a vast percentage of union members who are auto-enrolled and is likely to lead to a collapse in membership”. 


Bolsonaro’s pension reforms aim to fundamentally change the retirement deal. They are also much harsher than those that were too unpopular for the Temer government to get through, particularly attacking the poor, according to University of Nottingham research fellow Jörg Nowak. 

Poorer pensioners currently receive the minimum wage of 1,000 Brazilian Real (around £196 at current exchange rates) from the age of 60. But Bolsonaro’s plans would provide only 400 Real (around £78) from the age of 70, Nowak explained. 

Campello says the reforms will also reverse the current situation whereby around 80% of older people receive pensions and other state benefits. 

“The reforms mirror the Chile model, which has seen the number of older people with a pension plummet to just 20%,” she said. 

She added that they will “reduce the amount people receive, and will lose value because of inflation. They will end government and employer contributions, so only workers make pension contributions, and will increase the number of years people need to work before they are able to draw their pension.” 

In poor areas and communities in Brazil, the minimum retirement age will be less than their life expectancy, said Patrick Foley. 

Social security

And Bolsonaro’s proposed social security reforms would reduce out-of-work benefits as well as pensions, according to Nowak. 

“Bolsonaro wants to introduce two types of employment card,” he told Labour Research. “Under a new one, workers wouldn’t pay any contributions to the social security system. They would have more take-home pay. But this would disrupt the social security system, reducing out-of-work benefits as well as pension contributions.”


Foley said the reforms are also “coupled with a mass privatisation agenda, carried on from the coup government, that is seeing airports, roadways, and parts of the energy sector leave state control, which could lead to the loss of thousands of jobs”.

Union mobilisation

Brazilian unions have been severely weakened by the reforms — particularly to their funding. However, Foley said, action is building in response to Bolsonaro.

“A number of trade union leaders have spoken about the need to unite beyond their sectors because of the opposition and vilification the movement is facing,” he said. For example, the president of the largest CUT union federation, Anna Julia Rodrigues, recently warned: “We have to unite, or we will be carried away by a dictatorial government”.

On 20 February, thousands of trade unionists took to the streets in protest against the planned pensions and social security reforms, and took part in International Women’s Day rallies on 8 March, where the assassination of local councillor and social activist Mariella Franco was a prominent theme.

Justice for Marielle campaign

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has worsened the already hostile environment for union and other activists in Brazil. On 14 March 2018, city councillor and social activist Marielle Franco was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro, along with her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. 

According to the Justice for Marielle campaign, the black gay woman campaigned for the rights of Afro-Brazilians, the LGBT community, women and the poor and against police violence. 

The campaign is calling for an independent commission, with the full cooperation of state judicial and police authorities, to investigate her death, and for an end to the criminalisation and killing of activists, government opponents and the poor. 

Her death was not an isolated incident. This March, in Para, in the north of the country, the president and two other activists of the MAB rural movement of people affected by dams were assassinated. 

Around 60 activists were killed in the first three months of 2019 alone, while a number of senior politicians from left-wing political parties are now living in exile.

Unions mobilised for mass Free Lula demonstrations throughout Brazil to mark the anniversary of Lula’s imprisonment on 7 April , and further action is taking place on International Workers’ Day on 1 May.

The Free Lula campaign is also high on the agenda of the international trade union movement, with protests also taking place in cities around the world. 

And in March this year, the ALF-CIO awarded Lula its annual George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.

Brazil solidarity initiative and free Lula campaign

The Brazil Solidarity Initiative began in 2016 as the “No Coup in Brazil” campaign and held its launch event in the House of Commons in November 2018, directly after Bolsonaro was elected. 

Its base is in the Brazilian community in the UK and it has wide support from the UK trade union and other progressive movements. 

The NEU teachers’ union and the Unite general union, along with the TUC and the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) are represented on its reference group. 

They and other unions, including the NAPO, PCS and UNISON public service unions, the GMB general, Usdaw retail, CWU communications, FBU firefighters’, ASLEF and TSSA transport, BFAWU foodworkers’ and NUM miners’ unions have supported its two key campaigns: Free Lula and Justice for Marielle (see box below).

The Free Lula campaign is a key focus of UK and international trade union solidarity work. Former trade union and Workers Party leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was president from 2003 to 2010 and led millions of people out of poverty, increasing access to education and housing. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) recognised that innovative social programmes such as the world-famous Bolsa Familia helped to reduce social and economic inequality. Bolsa Famila paid poor families to send their children to school and attend preventive health care visits.

In October 2018, the Temer government and Brazil’s judiciary took “extraordinary and illegal measures” to prevent Lula from running for president when all polls predicted his victory. 

According to the Free Lula International Committee, since April 2018: “Lula has been a political prisoner, convicted of ‘unspecified official acts’ with only plea-bargained testimony as evidence against him.” And it says that in defiance of Brazil’s constitution, he has been imprisoned while his appeals still are pending. 

In August 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called for the restoration of his full political rights. 

“Lula is hugely symbolic,” UNISON international officer Nick Crook told Labour Research. “He is from poor, working class origins; he became a trade union leader and then president. 

“The view of the Brazilian elite is that this can never be allowed to happen again. They are using Lula to attack the wider labour movement.”

“From a British point of view, the election of Bolsonaro shows where easy casual populism, manipulation by the press, and complacency about the far right can get you,” said Russell. 

He said that people everywhere “need to realise the danger the far right poses. They are organising globally and we have to have an international response.”