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Solidarity with Brazil

Building international solidarity with sister trade unionists in Brazil is a priority for the TUC. Highlighting the impact on workers of a far right government in power also supports domestic efforts to combat the far right.

Since the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) has come under political and legal attack. In 2018, former trade union leader and head of the Workers Party, Lula da Silva, made a written address to TUC Congress from prison and the TUC unwaveringly supported the international trade union campaign for his release.

Despite the success of the Lula Livre campaign, the Brazilian government's programme of neoliberal reform and its attack on trade union rights has pushed Brazil into the list of worst 10 countries for working people in the ITUC’s global rights index. As such, the TUC is prioritising solidarity work with our sister trade unions in Brazil, with representatives of the CUT addressing TUC Congress 2021 to explain the conditions they are facing.

In detail: Trade Unions and Political Context

The CUT has its origins in the working-class resistance to the military dictatorship which ruled the country between 1964 and 1985. Officially founded alongside its associated Workers’ Party (PT) in 1983, the CUT was a key actor in Brazil’s transition to democracy. The CUT not only established a powerful apparatus of collective bargaining but have broadened themselves as representatives of the wider struggle for human rights, racial and gender equality, and democratic freedoms.

Since coming to power in what has been described as a ‘constitutional coup’, the government of Michel Temer, followed by the Jair Bolsonaro administration, have initiated reforms which amount to coordinated attacks on the Brazilian labour movement.

These include:

The overnight ending of ‘check off’, the process by which unions collected member subscriptions directly from pay checks, plunging unions into financial crisis.

Liberalisation of long-standing labour codes, with the working day extended and laws regulating hiring and firing relaxed.

Abolition of Brazil’s Ministry of Labour, with responsibility for trade union regulation transferred to the Ministry of Justice and the rest of its functions given to the Ministry of Finance under the aegis of Chicago School economist Paulo Guedes. Guedes has previously worked in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Initiating a decades long public sector spending freeze, amounting to the deepest and most severe austerity programme ever attempted anywhere in the world.

Brazil has strict laws banning abortion in most cases and the current Minister of Human Rights, Family and Women, Damares Alves, opposes abortion in all cases. In January 2020, Brazil’s government announced a policy change to abstinence-only sex education and one of Bolsonaro’s first acts in office was to remove LGBT rights from the Human Rights Ministry’s remit. Bolsonaro himself is known for outspoken sexist and homophobic rhetoric. In a heated exchange on the floor of Congress with fellow Congress member Maria de Rosario, he said “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it”, leading to a court case where the Supreme Court ruled he had incited rape. This inflammatory political rhetoric takes place in a context where violence against women and femicide is alarmingly high, the gender pay gap rests at 20.5%, and LGBT people experience some of the highest levels of homophobic violence anywhere in the world.

The Bolsonaro government is pursuing policies explicitly designed to reverse improvements to the deep and persistent structural racism which permeates Brazilian society. This is reflected in inequality of access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities for Afro-Brazilians and the Indigenous, as well the extreme police violence targeted towards working class and Afro-Brazilian communities.  

The situation in Brazil today is one where collective bargaining has collapsed, affirmative action designed to address deep-seated racial and gender-based inequalities has been ended, and funding has been withdrawn from government agencies responsible for education, social welfare, and ensuring human rights and environmental protection. The government’s chaotic response to the pandemic has left Brazil in complete disarray and the TUC has expressed its solidarity with unions fighting to liberate themselves from misrule.

Attacks on labour organisation must be understood in the context of a government willing to employ far right narratives for political gain. Bolsonaro incites his supporters to take to the streets and resist an imaginary ‘communist’ threat, which he associates with women’s and LGBT rights as well as organised labour.

In detail: Trade with Brazil

At present, the UK does not have a trade agreement with Brazil and the TUC strongly opposes one until labour and human rights concerns are addressed. However, the European Union recently finalised a trade agreement with the Mercosur countries, which includes Brazil, and this deal is expected to form the basis of a UK-Mercosur agreement post-Brexit. European trade unions have expressed full opposition to the agreement and the TUC will also oppose any UK-Brazil agreement that contains no provision for workers' rights. 

Bolsonaro’s warm relationship with illegal mining and logging operations in the Amazon is directly related to his government’s complicity in the violence against Indigenous communities. Many frontline environmental activists campaigning to protect the rainforest are Indigenous and are therefore twice at risk of violence. They are targeted to clear territory for economic exploitation and for political reasons. The murder of environmental activists has doubled worldwide over the last 15 years, and the worsening situation in Brazil is a major reason for this.

Until recently, urban workers in Brazil enjoyed reasonably comprehensive collective bargaining coverage by trade unions. However, the situation of rural and agricultural workers has been much more precarious. Large concentrations of land ownership in Brazil create semi-feudal relations of power, with the rule of law weak or non-existent in many parts of the interior. Land workers are thus exceptionally vulnerable to ultra-exploitation and conditions amounting to modern slavery

Resources and useful links

In November 2021 the TUC will be publishing a wide-ranging report on the political situation in Brazil, exposing the chain of events that undermined and destabilised the PT government and allowed the far right to come to power on a platform of brutal anti-working class and anti-trade union reforms.

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