Not even the sun rises as early as Antonia Mariano. The stars are out and the streets deserted when she shuts the door behind her and catches a lonely bus downtown at 4 a.m.
The ride takes nearly 90 minutes. It’s still dark and chilly when she reaches her destination -- a queue that already snakes around a building and down the block. The line is led by people who camped out the night before or managed to arrive even earlier than she did.
Luckily, she is among the 240 supplicants who make the cutoff and get ushered inside the office of Brazil’s largest workers union. Yet a few more hours will pass before she finds out whether there’s any chance of getting what she desperately needs: a job.
Mariano, 48, has been searching for work for more than a year, after the graphics company for which she cooked and cleaned collapsed under a mound of debt. Week in and week out, she makes the rounds of Sao Paulo’s union-run employment centers, then hits the pavement, passing out her resume from business to business, shop to shop. All she has earned so far are regretful shakes of the head and a pair of tired feet.
“It wears you out more than working,” Mariano said. “When you go to work, you’ve got something fixed, you know where you’re going. When you go out looking for a job, you just don’t know whether you’ll find anything.”
Her plight seems endlessly replicated in this sprawling megalopolis, South America’s largest, with a population of 18 million in the greater Sao Paulo area. Joblessness and despair beset the city that has long been the powerhouse of the Brazilian economy. Last month, the unemployment rate here hit 20.7%, the worst for any April on record, with 2 million people idle.
The bulging ranks of the unemployed form one of the biggest challenges -- and threats -- facing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the second year of his administration. A former blue-collar worker and left-wing activist, Lula was elected on promises that he would tackle Brazil’s glaring social inequities and champion the poor and the struggling.
But he spent his first year as president proving to worried international markets that he would lead a fiscally responsible government, one that kept a watchful eye on inflation, paid back its loans and spent sparingly.
Most economists say Lula has successfully shown that Brazil won’t suddenly go off the rails under his command. But analysts warn that patience is stretching thin among his political base, society’s underdogs, who expect him to start making good on his vows to find them jobs and improve their lives.
“The government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso” -- Lula’s predecessor -- “was well known for bringing monetary stabilization,” said Marcio Pochmann, who heads the municipal department of development, labor and solidarity for the city of Sao Paulo. “The victory or defeat of Lula’s government will depend on employment, not on inflation. Combating unemployment is a lot more difficult than combating inflation.”
A winter of labor discontent now looms as pressure on the government mounts. At the end of March, thousands of protesters turned out in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to demand jobs, marching with banners and signs that read, “Wake up, Lula!” and “Where are our millions of jobs?”
Some label the president a traitor. One scathing political poster still taped to windows here depicts the Brazilian leader with a foot-long nose and calls him Pinocchio. Lula’s approval ratings have plunged to their lowest in Sao Paulo, according to a poll released May 22.
May has been a month of walkouts, sympathy strikes or threats of job action throughout Brazil by unions pushing for higher wages and better benefits, groups representing civil servants, federal prosecutors, tax auditors, schoolteachers and auto workers, among others. The federal police have been conducting work slowdowns and stoppages since March, tying up airport and customs operations.
Demonstrations have also erupted over the government’s increase of the minimum wage, from $80 to about $87 a month, which critics scoff at as laughably meager.
Stung by accusations of having abandoned his core supporters, Lula has been put on the defensive. He made a public appeal for understanding, saying that he wished he could offer a bigger boost to the minimum salary but that he was held back by hard financial reality.
“The minimum wage is a clear demonstration of how Lula is convinced that there are budgetary constraints, that political will is not the only element in the decision-making process,” said Mailson da Nobrega, a former finance minister.
Previously, “he thought it was a question of political will -- ‘When I come there, I’ll do everything in favor of the poor’ -- but now he has come to the conclusion that things are more complicated,” said Da Nobrega, a partner in an economic consultancy here.
Sao Paulo began hemorrhaging jobs long before Lula took power. Once Brazil’s industrial showcase, the city has been undergoing a painful transition to a deregulated service economy. In 1980, industry accounted for 40% of the jobs; now the figure is 15%. Factory jobs have been lost to other, cheaper parts of the country, to foreign lands and to Brazil’s burgeoning agribusiness sector.
Tens of thousands of workers, many of them poor, unschooled migrants from the north who streamed down here to assemble toys or stitch shoes during the manufacturing boom of the 1960s and ‘70s, were thrown out of work. Population growth continues to outstrip economic growth, while the jobs coming online now require more complex skills and better education than most of these workers have.
“The type of jobs being created don’t match these people’s profiles,” Pochmann said. “They have work experience, but for very simple jobs.”
The unemployment crisis in Sao Paulo is the worst in 70 years, he said; in one hard-hit section of the city, to the east, the jobless rate climbs as high as 40%. That helps produce such grim statistics as the nearly 600,000 households -- or about 2.5 million people -- that live below the poverty line in greater Sao Paulo, meaning a family of four subsisting on less than $5 a day. The growing economic despair has been linked to Sao Paulo’s alarming rate of violent crime, one of the highest in the world, Pochmann said.
Applicants form giant queues to vie for a coveted spot in a job-retraining course or for some temporary work, however low-paid. When the suburb of Guaruja advertised a handful of openings for street cleaners and other menial jobs that paid only the minimum wage, more than 9,000 people showed up to compete.
Such scenes are also commonplace in other Brazilian cities, such as Rio, Brasilia, Recife and Salvador -- the last two suffering from even higher unemployment rates than Sao Paulo. The national unemployment rate in April was 13.1%.
Government and some private economists are optimistic that the economy will pick up steam in the second half of the year. Purchasing power and Brazil’s trade surplus are on the rise. Da Nobrega’s consultancy forecasts economic growth this year of a respectable 4% and a net creation of jobs of 2.5%.
Ivaldo Felix can sweat it out a little more -- but not much. Out of work for two months, the 43-year-old estimates that his family can survive for about four more months on his unemployment insurance and his wife’s earnings as a seamstress before things get desperate.
Pinching every centavo means he can’t afford to spend the $2.60 in transportation costs to come to downtown Sao Paulo every day, among the gleaming skyscrapers, to seek employment as a building maintenance worker. On the days he does come, often nothing is left over to buy anything to eat or drink.
He’s willing to learn new skills -- “even pilot a plane,” Felix said with a laugh. But an eighth-grade education doesn’t go that far nowadays, and his regular visits to union job-placement centers have proved fruitless.
“You leave your house at 4:30 in the morning, you take two modes of transport to get here, you line up for five hours, and then the attendant says, ‘We have no jobs for you,’ ” he said. “You want to hit him, but you don’t. You just go home and wait another day.”