Brazil: Which Part of Poor You Didn’t Understand?

Brazil: Which Part of Poor You Didn't Understand?

The current minimum salary in Brazil is R$ 240
(US$ 80).
Official unemployment is 12 percent and nobody knows the real
In Rio, 30,000 people queued up for two days to
apply for 1,500 positions as
municipal street cleaners.
To help, Lula has announced a people’s bank.



Watch Out – the Gringos are Coming!

A couple of months ago I wrote an article for Brazzil in which I tried to give some advice to foreigners
thinking of coming to live here. I stressed the low wages and high rates of unemployment, not to put people off but to
give them a realistic idea of life in Brazil. I got quite a big postbag and of those who wrote, only one said he had
been dissuaded from coming here by my article. So, if these other readers carry out their plans Brazil will be
welcoming a number of foreign residents in the near future. One of them confessed that he was looking for a wife as well
as a new life, so female readers watch out.

Job Desperation

Since it is difficult to get Americans and Europeans to understand that Brazil is an extremely poor country
it might be worth quoting a few figures to let them know what they are in for. The current minimum salary is R$
240 (around US$ 80). That is for a month,
not a week. The average family gets by on between three and four
minimum salaries. Many get by on less.

The official unemployment rate is just over 12 percent but the real rate is well above this, since many
workers are not registered or earn their living from the black economy. People are desperate to find work. In Rio de
Janeiro this week an estimated 30,000 people queued up to apply for 1,500 positions as municipal street cleaners,
paying around R$ 600 (US$ 200) a month.

Chaos broke out when the usual incompetent organization led to those who had just arrived being linked up
with applicants at the front of the queue, some of whom had been waiting for two days. Police used tear gas and
clubs to restore order.

Performing for a Pittance

A couple of other examples show how insultingly low pay is here and how the poor and gullible are
exploited. Veja magazine recently reported that a television station had featured a young couple on a prime time scandal
show and paid them less than R$ 100 (US$ 30) for their participation. The same magazine also presented a feature
on a popular TV talk show personality called Jô Soares who it said earns R$ 800,000 (US$ 270,000) a month from TV Globo.

Just talking to people will show how poorly paid workers are. About a year ago I had a long-running feud
with a motorcyclist who used to ride up and down the street where I live blowing a whistle all night long. He was
supposed to be "protecting" us although, of course, the sound of his whistle would have warned any thieves in advance.
During one of our heated discussions I asked him who had contracted him and how much he received. He said the
owner of a shop paid him R$ 40.

Can you imagine working six nights a week for US$ 13 a month? I offered him R$ 50 to go home and stop
keeping me awake all night with his damned whistle. Not realizing a bargain when he saw it, he refused. I am pleased
to say that he later quit and his replacement either has a quieter whistle or is too lazy to blow it as loudly.

Lula Turns Banker

To try and help the worse off, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has just announced plans to set up a new
bank for the majority of the population which has no credit and is, therefore, excluded from the banking system. The
aim is that, the new bank—Banco Popular—will have one million clients by next year. The state-owned Caixa
Econômica Federal bank has been running a similar scheme in which clients need not even prove they receive income but
only need to provide their CPF tax number. In just three months, 200,000 people have signed up and 10,000 are
opening accounts every day. Credit is essential for the poorer part of the population and installment payment is the
norm even for the middle classes. Some stores even offer part payment on items costing as little as R$1.

The Price of Violence

Can you put a price on violence? The Brazilian Justice Minister, Márcio Thomaz Bastos, thinks so. He has
just announced that the costs of violence in São Paulo in 1999 came to R$ 9.4 billion (US$ 3.1 billion), equivalent to
3 percent of the city’s GDP. For the country as a whole, he estimated the cost of violence and crime at 5
percent of GDP. In the case of São Paulo, around 60 percent of the costs go on private security measures. Don’t forget
that this is on top of the official police forces.

Anyone who lives here is used to the sight of private security forces, ranging from well-dressed, gun-toting
goons with ear pieces and cool shades guarding the brand-name junkies shopping in the Jardins district to the ragged
rogues who slip on a greasy, plastic bib with
"Segurança" or
"Vigilante" on it and stand in the street allegedly
protecting your car or keeping an area on your house. Most of the latter are useless. About two years ago, two young
men were shot dead round the corner from where I was living. What did the so-called security guards do? Yes, they
ran away. Who can blame them but if this is the way they behave why pay them in the first place?

Many policemen work as security guards on their days off and are to be seen dozing in front of big houses
and offices all over the city. Hiring a policeman is, at times, the same as setting thief to catch a thief since they are
often no more honest than the criminals. Inside jobs are the norm, with thieves using information supplied by insiders
to enter buildings and rob.

A report published this week showed that almost 20 percent of the security men guarding prisons in São
Paulo state had a criminal record. These crimes included murder, theft, drug trafficking, rape, corrupting minors and torture.

How the Mighty Have Fallen

This time a year ago we were celebrating Brazil’s triumph in the World Cup football finals. Who can forget
Ronaldo Gaucho’s brilliant goal from a free trick against England in the qualifying rounds or Ronaldo’s two goals in the
final against Germany? Those were the days. However, the nation is currently in mourning after Brazil’s dismal
performance in the Founders Cup competition in France where the team could only manage one victory—a 1-0
defeat of the US.

They were beaten by Cameroon and held to a draw by Turkey. The team only had a few of the players who
triumphed in the World Cup but, nevertheless, it was a pathetic performance. We are now pinning out hopes on Santos
who have reached the finals of the South American Liberators Cup and face the fearsome Boca Juniors of Argentina.

Chinese Puzzle

The people of São Paulo never fail to amaze me. Often they are noisy and vulgar, with no apparent
intellectual curiosity and show only the lowest taste in culture. Yet at other times, they are transformed and become virtual
culture vultures. Recently, for example, there was an exhibition in Ibirapuera Park of life-sized model soldiers from the
Xian dynasty, which was so popular that it was extended by several weeks.

The interest in these terracotta figures was so great that it was impossible to get in without standing in a
queue which, at times, was a kilometer in length. The exhibition ran for just over three months and was attended by
817,782 people. This is an astonishing turn out for an exhibition from a country with which Brazil has had little ties.
What next? Will the Paulistanos start drinking tea instead of cafezinho.


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
which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and
foreign clients. You can reach him at

© John Fitzpatrick 2003


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