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The Challenge to Democracy in Brazil

TUC report
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Executive summary

Brazil has been a priority for the TUC since 2017 when, following the removal of Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) government in a judicial and congressional coup, an unprecedented assault on the rights of organised labour and on the country’s welfare state was initiated by Dilma’s successor Michel Temer. The crisis has since been compounded by the rise of the far-right administration of Jair Bolsonaro, who was considered an extremist even during the years of military dictatorship. This report responds to urgent requests for international scrutiny and solidarity from Brazilian trade unions. It aims to reveal the extent of the damage done by Bolsonaro to Brazilian democracy, workers and human rights and the environment and show how unions and others are resisting this assault on rights.

The report covers four major areas of concern: labour rights and austerity; democracy and human rights; racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia; and the environment and Indigenous rights.

Labour and Austerity

  • Brazil has been catapulted into the ITUC’s list of the 10 Worst Countries for Working People, with a rating of ‘No guarantee of Rights’, strikes violently repressed and trade unionists threatened and murdered
  • The President has used his power to weaken the unions, abolishing the Ministry of Labour founded in 1930, transferring oversight of industrial relations to the justice ministry, and oversight of union registration to the finance ministry 
  • Bolsonaro has unilaterally ended ‘check off’, the process by which employers facilitate union membership through payroll collections, immediately plunging Brazil’s trade unions into a deep financial crisis, and is planning to rip up workers’ rights still further
  • A commitment to austerity has strangled Brazil’s ability to respond to Covid-19. An emergency exemption was granted to allow for crisis funds, but despite pressure from civil society and opposition Bolsonaro has resisted spending the full amount allowed, adding to the devastation caused by a pandemic which he dismissed as “a little flu”. 

Democracy and Human Rights

  • Bolsonaro has rapidly reversed advances in human rights and equality made by previous administrations, particularly the PT governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff  
  •  The authoritarian Bolsonaro and his supporters have already stepped-up efforts to discredit next year’s election results, giving rise to fears he will resist a peaceful transition of power in the event of his defeat.  This follows the previous election after Lula was wrongly imprisoned.
  • Bolsonaro has pushed for legislation that would effectively grant police a license to kill in any situation in which they feel threatened.
  • Political violence is on the rise, with 125 cases of political murder and attempted murder over the last five years, and 15 candidates, pre-candidates and party officials were murdered during municipal election campaigns between 1 September and 4 November 2020
  • The government has published a list of journalists, activists, and social media influencers that it considers hostile to its agenda, and has encouraged its supporters to attack them online

Racism, Sexism, Homophobia and Transphobia

  • Indigenous groups have suffered increased incursions into their territories and have been particularly vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19
  • Homophobic and transphobic disinformation were a crucial part of Bolsonaro’s social media-driven 2018 electoral campaign. LGBT+ people have since been publicly demonised and educational programmes promoting understanding of different sexual orientations and gender identities have been curtailed
  • Since Bolsonaro came to office, Black, female and LGBT+ Brazilians have also become increasingly vulnerable to violence. Brazil boasts one of the worst records of violence against women in the world.
  • Black youth are also far more likely to be victims of state violence, accounting for roughly 75 per cent of those killed by police
  • Women’s reproductive rights are under threat. The Secretary for Women, Family and Human Rights favours the elimination of all forms of abortion in Brazil
  • With 129 murders in 2020 between January and September, Brazil remains the most violent country for transgender people in the world.

Environmental Protection and Indigenous Rights

  • An area seven times larger than Greater London was lost to deforestation in Brazil between August 2019 and July 2020, most of it in states of the Amazonian and Centre West regions.
  • Bolsonaro has pledged to legalise mining in Indigenous territories
  • Bolsonaro has systematically defunded environmental protection agencies and dismantled oversight mechanisms. He has cut the funds for operations to prevent environmental crimes by 24 per cent and the Ministry of the Environment also stands accused of deliberately underspending its budget.
  • Brazil has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmentalists. In 2019, 24 environmental activists were murdered, with 90 per cent of the killings occurring in the Amazon region

Download full report (pdf)

Bolsonaro’s actions against his own people and the environment, his defence of the torturers of Brazil’s last dictatorship and his threat to democratic rule require a strong response from the international community.

Recommendations for Government

  • There must be a moratorium on all trade talks with Brazil while the Bolsonaro government is failing to respect international labour and human rights standards and environmental protections. The policies of the Bolsonaro government must not be legitimised by signing a trade agreement with the UK. It is vitally important that trade agreements contain effective mechanisms to enforce labour and human rights, and environmental protections
  • The positive remarks about ‘the environment for exporters should improve under the new government of Jair Bolsonaro’ must be immediately removed from the UK Government exporting guide to Brazil. This should be replaced with a warning to business that human rights violations might be present in their value chain if they invest in Brazil. The guide should also encourage Human Rights Due Diligence for businesses trading with Brazil.
  • Include scrutiny of Brazil in the annual Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Human Rights & Democracy Report. The 2021 version, despite the abuses this report has catalogued, contains only one mention of Brazil – in the context of a FCDO project to protect prisoners from Covid-19.
  • Engage with trade unions in the UK and Brazil on any trade talks with Brazil
  • Raise concerns about labour rights violations, human rights abuses and environmental destruction through all appropriate channels, including instructing the British Embassy in Brazil to engage with civil society organisations to monitor breaches.
  • Support investigations of Brazil’s breaches of ILO Conventions at the ILO Conference Committee on the Application of Standards.
  • Make a clear statement supporting the need for democratic process to be respected and for free and fair elections to take place next year in Brazil, support the sending of observers

Recommendations for Parliamentarians: Raising the profile of human rights in Brazil

Parliamentarians have a crucial role to play in raising the profile of the alarming situation in Brazil, including calling the Brazilian government to account on violations of its international labour, human rights and environmental obligations and maintaining pressure on the UK government to raise concerns.

  • Raise concerns about the labour rights and human rights abuses taking place in Brazil using the relevant mechanisms available to them in parliament
  • Oppose a trade deal with Brazil while it is failing to respect international labour and human rights standards and environmental protections. Engage with Brazilian civil society by forging links with representative organisations, including trade unions and other civil society organisations
  • Support the sending of observers for the 2022 election process and publicly call for a free and fair democratic process

Recommendations for Trade Unions: Make Brazil a priority country for international solidarity work

The trade union movement’s internationalist orientation has a vital role to play in regards to Brazil.

  • Use trade union structures and influence to raise the profile of the situation facing Brazilian workers in the trade union movement.
  • Build fraternal links with Brazilian trade unions and seek opportunities to build solidarity work
  • Inform members about the prospect of a UK-Brazil trade deal and encourage them to raise concerns about this with their local MP
  • Encourage unions with membership in companies that invest in Brazil to raise concerns about the situation through the appropriate structures
  • Build coordinated trade union work to counter the influence of the far right in Brazil and around the world
  • Support the sending of observers for the 2022 election process

Recommendations for Business: Conduct human rights due diligence

By being outspoken on human rights, British business can exercise important influence on both the Brazilian government, which seeks to legitimise itself through foreign investment and trade, as well as on the UK government.

  • Follow the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, conducting additional human rights due diligence across value chains linked to Brazil
  • Follow the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code, which draws on fundamental ILO conventions
  • Investigate areas of the supply chain that may be involved with environmental destruction in the Amazon
  • Engage with Brazilian trade unions to investigate areas of the supply chain where labour casualisation means that freedom of association and basic trade union rights are not being respected
  • Speak out confidently against hate speech and discriminatory practices.


Workers and their unions in Brazil face an unprecedented assault. The far-right government is attacking employment and labour rights, undermining minority groups, and wrecking the welfare state with free-market reforms and austerity. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with our Brazilian sisters and brothers during their hour of need.

This important report describes how the social progress achieved by Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff has been thrown into reverse by the governments of Michel Temer and now Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called “Trump of the Tropics”. It charts how Black workers, women, LGBT+ people and indigenous communities are bearing the brunt of Bolsonaro’s “war on internal enemies”. And, ahead of next year’s crucial elections, it highlights how Brazilian democracy itself is at risk.

Playing straight from the far-right playbook, the government has interfered in the legal system, allowed political violence to flourish, targeted journalists and activists, and turned a blind eye to the worst police brutality since the days of the military dictatorship. Even if Bolsonaro is defeated at the polls, there is no guarantee he will respect the verdict of the voters and agree to a peaceful transition of power.

Bolsonaro is also pursuing one of the most anti-trade union agendas in the world, with the ITUC now ranking Brazil among the 10 worst countries in the world for working people. His government has pared back rights at work to the bare minimum, giving a green light to bad bosses to exploit workers. And it has unliterally ended check-off, deliberately throwing unions into financial and organisational crisis.

As unions and civil society have been targeted, the poorest, most vulnerable sections of Brazilian society have suffered the consequences. Indigenous people and environmental activists have paid a terrible price as the government has allowed developers to trash natural habitats. Violence against women has spiralled out of control and reproductive rights have been attacked. And Black people have been systematically disadvantaged as the government has put the interests of the wealthy white elite first.

A self-described “proud homophobe”, Bolsonaro has also ruthlessly undermined LGBT+ citizens. Homophobic hate crime has risen sharply. And Brazil now ranks as the worst country in the world for violence against transgender people.

To add insult to injury, the Bolsonaro government’s calamitous handling of the Covid-19 emergency has further exacerbated already extreme inequalities. Draconian austerity policies have strangled Brazil’s ability to fight the pandemic, leaving a trail of death, despair and destruction across the country. The President’s scepticism towards the pandemic has come with a devastatingly high price tag.

For all these reasons, Brazil must be a big priority for our movement. Our values – internationalism; compassion; solidarity – have never mattered more than now. With Lula emerging as a favourite to beat Bolsonaro in next October’s election, British unions must offer practical support to our friends in Brazil. And what happens in Brazil matters hugely to the wider political ecosystem of Latin America, where progressives and radicals face an increasingly hard battle against powerful conservative forces.

So please read this report – but more importantly, get involved in campaigns to advance political, social and environmental justice in Brazil. Working people in Brazil really do need our solidarity.

Frances O’Grady,
General Secretary, TUC


With thanks to the writing team, the CUT, and all the Brazilian activists and trade unionists whose work and contributions have resulted in this report.

Writing Team

Juliano Fiori, Contributing Editor at Alborada, Rio de Janeiro
Ben Fogel, PhD Candidate at New York University
Matthew A. Richmond, Research Fellow at London School of Economics and Affiliated Researcher at the State University of São Paulo
Stephanie Reist, Lecturer at Stanford University


José Dari Krein, Professor of Economics, Universidade Federal de Campinas (Unicamp)
Junéia Batista, Secretary of the Woman Worker, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT)
Jandyra Massue Uehara Alves, Secretary of Human Rights, CUT
Anatalina Lourenço, Secretary for Combatting Racism, CUT
Walmir Siqueira, Teacher and Co-Director of Sindicato dos Professores do Ensino Oficial do
Estado de São Paulo (APEOESP)
Sonia Guajajara, Indigenous Leader, Politician and 2018 Vice Presidential candidate for the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL)
Roberta Eugênio, Co-Director of Instituto Alziras and Former Legal Adviser to Marielle Franco
Keila Simpson, President, Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (ANTRA)

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