Brazil’s Senate votes to end unemployment insurance, extend work hours

Brazilian opposition Sen. Gleisi Hoffmann delivers a speech during the labor reform vote at the Congress in Brasilia on July 11, 2017.
Brazilian opposition Sen. Gleisi Hoffmann delivers a speech during the labor reform vote at the Congress in Brasilia on July 11, 2017.
(Evaristo Sa / AFP/Getty Images)

Brazil’s Senate approved a set of controversial labor reforms that will strip workers of unemployment insurance, extend working hours and reduce vacation time.

The reforms, which are one of the pillars of President Michel Temer’s government, were approved Tuesday night and still require Temer’s signature to become law.

The proposed changes have angered workers across the country and sparked a backlash.


“I can’t even bring myself to call it a reform, because it’s a real deconstruction of workers’ rights,” said Fernanda Pinheiro Brod, an attorney and professor of labor law at Univates University in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

“It is possible to support the unconstitutionality of these changes, which should be done by labor lawyers and judges, from the perspective that human rights are governed by the principle of non-retrocession and that workers’ rights also belong to the category of human rights.”

Protesters have been taking to the streets for months in an attempt to block the reforms, which would have them working longer hours, losing unemployment insurance in circumstances other than being laid off and seeing their break time cut to a minimum of 30 minutes. In Brazil that means nobody will get more than that. The minimum used to be a full hour.

The reforms would also make union participation optional, as well as loosen rules related to the negotiation of collective agreements between unions and employers.

“I don’t want to have to pay a union tax either, but I will not support the dismantling of labor justice,” said Silas Fiorotti, an anthropology researcher at the University of Sao Paulo. “The intention [of the reforms] is to reduce the number of labor lawsuits against employers. They just want to impose criteria that make it so that workers don’t have free access to labor justice.”

Other aspects of the reforms have also spurred labor law specialists to voice concerns about the fight against slave labor, a battle they expect will be made much more difficult under the new laws.

In May, Judge Delaide Arantes of Brazil’s Superior Labor Court opened the Brazil Forum conference in Oxford, England, by saying that the proposed reforms do nothing to prohibit slave labor.

She also criticized the lack of debate on the subject, particularly “in a moment of political vulnerability and of crisis of legitimacy and representation,” and noted that the bill that passed in the lower house included 20 articles. After incorporating proposed amendments, the bill that passed in the Senate ended up with more than 100 articles, many of which were never previously discussed.

According to the Walk Free Foundation, Brazil has about 155,000 individuals in slave labor situations. The Labor Ministry has said that nearly 50,000 workers have been freed from slavery in the country in the last 20 years. The majority of people who end up working in slavery conditions in Brazil are in the mining, construction, agriculture and livestock sectors. Those living in urban areas are often immigrants from countries such as Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay and Haiti who are promised a better life, but end up sewing clothes for retail stores and fashion labels in exchange for room and board in subpar conditions.

Data from the statistics bureau IBGE show that Brazil’s unemployment rate has been steadily rising since 2014, reaching 13.3% in the quarter ending in May of this year. The country’s economic and political crises have exacerbated the situation, and faith in Temer, who has vehemently defended the labor reforms, has dropped to an all-time low. His approval rating was at 7% in the latest polls, the lowest of any Brazilian president in nearly 30 years.

Temer is also facing corruption charges for allegedly accepting a bribe of $152,000 from Joesley Batista, whose family owns the meat-packing giant JBS, in exchange for helping the businessman sort out a problem with a power plant. A decision is expected Friday on whether the charges will advance to the Supreme Court.

According to Labor Minister Ronaldo Nogueira, Temer is expected to sign the reform bill Thursday. He is, however, expected to put forward a provisional measure to make some changes to the reforms after they become law. Lower house Speaker Rodrigo Maia said he will not allow a vote on such a measure.

If approved by Temer as expected, the reforms will take effect in November — 120 days after being published.

Langlois is a special correspondent.