Thinking of moving to Brazil? If the aim is to make a lot of money then think again. Do not assume that you will find casual work as easily as in Europe or the US. Not only is the unemployment rate high, but the pay for this kind of work is so low that almost no European or American would accept it.
by: John Fitzpatrick
Since I became a regular contributor to Brazzil, a number of readers have contacted me seeking advice on living conditions in Brazil. While some of these readers have been thinking of moving here indefinitely, others were considering spending only a few months. The only practical advice I have been able to give is that, while man does not live by bread alone, he certainly does need money to survive.
If you do not have money in the form of savings when you arrive, you will have to find a source of income here. If you are lucky enough to have been transferred by your employer on an expatriate contract then you have nothing to worry about. Not only will your employer look after you like a baby, providing a house or apartment, maid, free schooling for your children, medical insurance for your family and so on, but probably part of your salary will be paid back home, far from the hands of the greedy Brazilian taxman. This article is not written for these fortunate few. Nor is it meant to be any kind of tourist guide.
Let us consider two cases: a) the single person who just wants to spend, say, a year either in one place or traveling around; and b) the skilled foreigner, perhaps with a returning Brazilian wife, who arrives here with no job.
Living On the Cheap
If you are in the first category then you are in a more fortunate position. Brazil can be a cheap place if you are prepared to rough it a bit. In the last year the real has lost about 50 percent of its value against the dollar and, at the time of writing, is trading at around R$3.05/US$1. Life can be ridiculously cheap for someone with a fistful of dollars. For example, in São Paulo you can buy a wholesome meal in a simple restaurant for R$5 or $6. It will consist of a big helping of rice, beans, chips (that’s French fries to American readers), chicken, beef or fish, plus a huge salad with lettuce, tomatoes, peas, onions etc. With that under your belt you should not need to eat for the rest of the day. From a street stall you can get a hot dog with an enormous amount of additives—cheese, chili sauce, crisps etc—for R$1.50 or less. If this kind of bulk is not to your taste there are places everywhere in which you choose what you want and pay by weight. These places always have good selection of lighter fare, including salad and fruit. Since most Brazilians are poor by European or American standards, cheap eating places are the norm and often they are very good. Outside big cities like São Paulo the prices will be lower.
You can find rooms in simple hotels for about R$30 a day or even less. Traveling by bus, rather than air, is time consuming but the difference in price is amazing. For example, to fly from São Paulo to Rio costs around R$300, whereas by bus it costs R$55 for a seat which folds down into a kind of bed or R$33 for normal seat. I reckon that with about US$3,000 you could easily spend three to four months in Brazil and even stretch it to six months if you tried.
One point worth making, though, is that if your money does start to run out do not assume that you will find casual work as easily as in Europe or the US. Not only is the unemployment rate high, but the pay for this kind of work is so low that almost no European or American would accept it. This does not mean there are no opportunities. Teaching English, or being a tourist guide, are some ways of making some money.
Teaching English is the most common. The pay is low but if you are young and fancy free this could help you out financially. The Brazzil forum has an extensive correspondence on teaching English, where a lot of useful information can be found. The forum also has useful advice for those who want to work but have entered on a tourist visa. One final point though which I cannot stress enough: if you are planning to spend some time here then learn Portuguese. Do not think that some basic Spanish will do—it won’t.
Professionals, Be Prepared!
If you are a professional you will have a tougher time. Unless you are married to a Brazilian or have some special skill you are unlikely to get a resident’s permit, known as a visto permanente. Even with this permit, which contains your foreign registration number (RNE) you will need to get a tax registration number (CPF). My advice is to get the residence permit at a Brazilian consulate abroad, if possible. Without these two documents it is virtually impossible to do anything—from renting an apartment to renting a video at the local Blockbuster. On top of these two essential bits of paper, you will also need a work permit known as a carteira de trabalho.
It took me six miserable months to get my work permit and even now I can hardly bear to think of the bureaucracy and bungling involved. This did not stop me from working, but was a sword of Damocles hanging over my head the whole time. Fortunately my Brazilian employers were used to the bureaucracy and, with a patience I never had, just assumed it would get sorted out some day or other. It did, but only because I took the initiative, not them.
When I first arrived most of this registration was done by hand and even in the main labor ministry and immigration departments in São Paulo, there was not a computer in sight. About a year later I had to go through the whole process again when the system was computerized. Even then, my RNE was still an interim one and consisted of a flimsy piece of paper containing my picture, a smudged stamp and a scrawled signature.
It took almost two years to get the new RNE and during this time my document started to fall to pieces quite literally. As I did quite a lot of traveling in this period, I was constantly questioned by the immigration police on entering and leaving the country. In the end I hired a fixer, called a despachante, to sort the whole thing out for me. I had to pay him but it was worth it.
Low Wage Country
If you can put up with all this hassle, the next step is finding a job. Sending résumés to employment agencies and chasing up newspaper adverts is, in my experience, almost a waste of time. Brazilian companies treat people like dirt, especially job seekers, and being a foreigner will make no difference. Others have written about this in Brazzil so I will not go over the same ground, but be warned.
If you do get offered a job you will probably be disappointed at the salary. The first time I was offered a salary to take up a position with a lot of responsibility I assumed the amount was for a week and not a month. Do not forget that the minimum wage here is R$240 and pay is often calculated as a multiple of it. Many people, including professionals, cannot get by on their salaries and have to take on extra work.
I know two people who have both recently been offered responsible managerial positions by multinationals, one in the services industry and the other in manufacturing industry. In the first case, the salary was much more than her existing salary but, in my opinion, still about 25 percent less than the position merited. In the other case, the company expected this person to make a difference to its bottom line results in Brazil yet was only prepared to offer 10 percent above her existing salary. Since these were both foreign companies, which have a reputation of being better employers in terms of pay and conditions, one can imagine how a Brazilian company would behave.
To be fair to companies, it should be pointed out that they face heavy overheads under Brazil’s labor laws, such as providing health insurance, travel costs, holiday payments and even food baskets, which are generally said to double the cost of the actual salary. They are also heavily taxed and, as interest rates are frighteningly high, are unable to get access to credit. At the same time, Brazil’s pool of cheap labor and enormous market makes it a tempting place for multinationals.
Doing it Your Own Way
An alternative is to work for yourself, officially or unofficially, although I would not recommend the latter course. The black economy here is estimated at around 35 percent of the official economy. You just have to walk down a street to see it at work in the shape of stalls selling everything from food to CDs. Setting up a company is expensive and extremely bureaucratic. However, it is a possibility for the foreigner who has a winning product or service and is prepared to take a risk.
Brazil has one of the highest rates of self-employed people in the world and companies are used to dealing with them. Not only do these smaller companies offer tailor-made services but they save the client company the cost of employing extra labor. The main foreign immigrants who have arrived here in recent years have been Koreans, Chinese, Bolivians and even Argentineans and Chileans.
The Koreans have cornered much of the textiles market while the Chinese are still at the stage of running cheap restaurants and shops selling knickknacks to hawking running shoes in the streets. The Bolivians often work as sweated labor for the Koreans while the Argentineans tend to be found working as Spanish teachers, real estate agents or waiters. All these people are learning for themselves that the streets of São Paulo are not paved with gold. Don’t forget there are hundreds of thousands of Brazilian working abroad—mainly in Japan and the US—simply because they cannot earn enough here to make a decent living.
These are just a few hints which I hope may help anyone, particularly a professional, who is thinking of coming here. As wages and prices change all the time I have deliberately not given many specific figures. However, if you are interested in checking our current salary levels, both the Estado de S. Paulo and the Folha de S. Paulo newspapers publish detailed tables covering a wide range of jobs in their Sunday issues. You can also get more information on official government and industrial sites. Another source is the labor research body, which can be found at www.dieese.org.br.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações— www.celt.com.br – which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
© John Fitzpatrick 2003