Most workers in Brazil work in the informal sector. The country’s leading expert in labor issues, Professor José Pastore, estimates that 60% of the workers in the private sector earn their living informally. This amounts to 46.5 million people. This system means that workers have no social security or basic rights and that the state is deprived of revenues.
These informal workers cover a wide range of jobs and situations. Some, such as domestic maids, have fixed hours and pay and may spend decades with the same employer but, as they are not registered with the Labor Ministry, they are outside the system.
Others, such as farm laborers, frequently work in such miserable conditions that the law regards them as being akin to slaves. Others live from day to day, selling snacks or pirated CDs or even themselves on the streets. Of these informal workers, Professor Pastore estimates that 45% work for themselves – that is around 22 million people.
This article presents one of these self-employed people, a woman called Cida whom I spoke to as she was working on a busy bus route in São Paulo’s Avenida Nove de Julho. I doubt if every word she says is true but I am inclined to believe most of her story
Cida is the kind of woman a middle-class Paulistano would pass in the street and assume was a domestic maid. She is about 35 and so thin that if she lost a couple of kilos she would look ill. She is quite pretty, with a clear skin, large brown eyes, a delicate bone structure and fine straight dark hair.
She wears no make-up or earrings but her fingernails and toenails are varnished a garish red. When she smiles she exposes a couple of broken and misshapen front teeth and the pretty picture cracks a bit. She comes originally from the Northeastern state of Bahia. Her features show a mixture of white and Indian ancestry rather than the more common African characteristics found there.
She is much more articulate than most women from her background and not a bit shy talking to a foreigner. She attended school until she was about 13. Although she can express herself well and is forthcoming and confident, her handwriting is a childish scrawl, more like a graph than a script, full of craggy peaks, plunging downstrokes and long curves that make it look as though she had scratched the words on a wall with a nail rather than written them on paper with a pen. It is difficult to read but this is not of any great importance because most of the people who try to read her writing are semi-literate.
On leaving school she started doing odd jobs in a restaurant in a town outside Salvador and eventually became a cook. Like millions of other Northeasterners, she came to São Paulo in search of a better life. She has been in the city for 16 years and, in that period, has faced much hardship.
She married and set up home in a favela in the Santo Amaro area where she still lives. She gave birth 11 years ago to a daughter who was disabled and epileptic. She continued to work as a cook but after a while had to give up to look after her daughter. The girl is often admitted to hospital and requires constant attention and regular treatment with drugs. Cida says she needs 340 reais a month for medicine and drugs – around US$ 170.
She also says her husband was killed by a stray bullet in a shoot-out between police and drug traffickers which left six people dead. Her husband was walking past a hill where the firefight took place and was hit. She says he was not involved in trafficking.
She has another daughter, aged three, who was in her arms as we spoke. She says this daughter is normal although the child was in such a deep sleep that I wondered if she was all right. Although buses were thundering past only a couple of feet away the girl was oblivious to any noise.
Cida said her daughter was just tired as she had risen very early that morning. The girl stirred for a moment, looked around and then collapsed back to sleep again. I wondered if she had been drugged as Cida uses her as a marketing tool in her work, which is selling sweets.
Along with the girl, she carries a big plastic bag full of candies and chewing gum. When she enters the bus she hands passengers a scrap of paper scrawled with an account of the plight of her handicapped daughter and the prices of the sweets – the most expensive cost 50 centavos and the cheapest are 10 centavos.
Most people, at least, accept the paper and read or try to it while others refuse and ignore her. It is rare not to sell something. She works five or six hours a day and earns about 600 reais, about US$ 300, a month.
That may not sound much but is in fact a pretty good gross income and compares with the minimum wage of 380 reais a month. In November and December she sells more and can earn as much as 1,000 reais. From this she has to pay for stock of sweets which she buys from a shop in Santo Amaro and her daughter’s medicine.
She uses the buses on this particular route because they cross the city and are always busy. She avoids buses which are crowded so she has room to move inside and try and make a personal contact with passengers. This means she avoids the rush hours and concentrates on the middle part of the day. She says the drivers let her enter free of charge as several of them live near her home and know her daughter.
Cida sees no chance of ever going back to regular work as a cook and for the foreseeable future her life will revolve around the bus route between Santo Amaro and the Bandeirante terminal in downtown São Paulo.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© John Fitzpatrick 2007