Reality Check: Life in Brazil Through the Eyes of a Foreigner – An Excerpt

Reality Check: Life in Brazil Through the Eyes of a Foreigner‘Reality Check: Life in Brazil through the eyes of a foreigner’ was published last month by Mark Hillary, a British writer who has been based in São Paulo since the end of 2010. The book is a personal exploration of some of the benefits – and drawbacks – of living in Brazil drawing on Mark’s own experience of marrying a Brazilian, starting a company, hiring people, and buying a house.

The book paints a picture of Brazil as an exciting place to live, especially in this time when so many major sporting events are taking place causing the world to focus attention on the country. However, it doesn’t shy away from being critical where criticism is due – an entire chapter is focused on the recent protests.

The book features an introduction by the deputy British Consul General and has been selling well – riding for quite some time at number one in the Amazon charts for books in English about Brazil.

In this extract from chapter 5 – which focuses on the jobs market – Mark explores the many problems that foreigners have when looking for a job in Brazil.

Can I get a job without speaking Portuguese?

The language barrier is a bigger problem than all these paperwork hurdles, though. People arrive with their Brazilian spouse and find that they can’t get a job because Portuguese fluency is essential. I’ve been asked by foreigners if they can come to Brazil and get a job at a foreign company like IBM – so they can just use English all day.

Of course, that’s possible – in theory. But even in a job where you can use English most of the time, colleagues who don’t use English as a first language will be all around and you will have to do things like socialise in Portuguese. So how are you going to visit a bar after work or go out for lunch with those colleagues?

The most common route for the foreigner is to start teaching English. English schools are all over Brazil and they love to hire native speakers. The schools don’t pay very well, but I have friends who do one-on-one tuition with business executives and they get some reasonable cash for that kind of work.

Having said that, this change of career must be difficult to take for some. I have seen people from all walks of life, professionals with established careers, who come to Brazil with their partner and find that the only possible work open to them is teaching English.

All their qualifications and skills are meaningless – either because the regular job market requires a fluency in Portuguese that is going to be impossible to achieve quickly, or because there might not be a requirement for some specific skills acquired elsewhere.

Some people see this as a new challenge, a new career, even. Some may only plan to stay in Brazil for a few years and so it’s fine to try something else, but for a skilled person with a standing in their own field to suddenly find they have no employment options other than teaching English can be tough.

That’s not to say that teaching is not a skilled option in it’s own right – I couldn’t teach English myself – but to find that all your existing skills are going to be wasted in Brazil can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Of course, not everyone has the inclination or ability to just create a new career out of nothing. It is hard enough switching career when you don’t need to learn a new language and make new friends at the same time. Add all of these changes together all at once and the need to change career because it is forced on you can be very stressful.

On that note, there are a variety of career options that rely on the Internet, such as writing computer software, graphic design, journalism, blogging, or anything that can be done remotely and then delivered online – but this kind of work often requires a good network of clients.

If you don’t have that network established before leaving your home country then it’s going to be difficult to build it up from Brazil – you can’t go for a drink with a prospective client without a very expensive journey.

What is it like to have a “normal” job in Brazil?

Brazilian companies operate much like their peers in the rest of the world, but there are clear differences in how everyday life at a company feels. I have not worked in a nine-to-five job at a Brazilian organisation, but I have heard many stories and comments from friends and family that – I hope – allow me to have an opinion on the subject.

If you are going to work for a company in Brazil, then expect to encounter some very different practices and a large dose of office politics. Working in Brazil can be challenging for those used to the flat hierarchies of European and American organisations.

Here, it is common to not be allowed to book any holiday time at all in your first year with a new employer. And despite the fact that is changing, managers often frown upon enlightened work practices, such as flexible working hours or working from home, focusing more on building their personal empire.

There is a stereotypical image of Brazilians who love the good life and are late for everything. There is some truth in the stereotypes – as usual – but many Brazilians work very long hours. The corporate culture that demands constant visibility in the office has reached Brazil and it can be exacerbated by traffic problems in the major cities.

For example, in São Paulo the rodízio system means that on one day per week your car can only be used outside the rush hour. It depends on the final digit on your licence plate and the restrictions are from 7am to 10am and 5pm to 8pm. There are hefty fines if you are caught using your car during those hours on your restricted day.

This leads many in São Paulo to arrive extra early at the office and just stay at work until at least 8pm because then the traffic restrictions are over and the worst of the traffic should have cleared.

I strongly disagree with the corporate long hours culture. I charge my clients for what I do based on deliverables and results, not the time I need to spend working on a project. People working inside large companies are rarely rewarded on results; they just have to be seen at the office – even if they are doing little more than updating their Facebook status.

Ricardo Semler is one of the few Brazilian business leaders known to deviate from this traditional view of the corporate hierarchy. He became famous in the 80s and 90s as the head of Semco, a group of companies spanning everything from industrial machinery to human resources.

Semler promoted workplace democracy and the idea that employees should benefit directly in the success of a business. His books on this subject were bestsellers and Semco is known more for the way the company is organised than what they actually produce.

But companies like Semco are the exception in Brazil. The generally accepted long hours working culture extends to illness. It’s extremely common to find ill people at work in corporate Brazil, because it looks bad to be ill – even though attending the office when sick could in fact be spreading your illness to many colleagues.

None of this is really unique to Brazil, but many of the more flexible developments around management expectations that I have seen in Europe over the past few years have yet to arrive in Brazil. This is not to say that Brazilian companies are stuck in the Stone Age of worker’s rights – there is a thriving start-up community that ignores all the traditional rules, but in general most big firms are very traditional. But in the USA, employees feel lucky to get ten days of vacation a year so who can really judge the worst place to be an employee?

Brazilian employees do receive some benefits that they would not get in places like New York or London. It is normal and expected for an employer to buy your lunch everyday, usually by paying a fixed amount of cash into a card that can be used in cafes and restaurants.

Employers are also expected to pay your commuting cost, so at least that rail journey to work in the morning is free. It’s also quite common to receive private health insurance or – at the very least – a contribution to a health insurance policy.

British commuters paying hundreds a month for their train and then hundreds more per month on their lunches might appreciate how much these additional benefits can be worth. Some of the more traditional attitudes to employment in Brazil can seem annoying, but some of these benefits are really useful to workers.

Jobs for life

It is also worth noting that there is a big difference between the public and private sector in Brazil. As in many countries, the public sector is seen as a relatively safe option. You may earn less than someone in a similar private sector job, but you can retire early with a nice pension and have the supposed security of a “job for life.”

The “job for life” idea has yet to be really challenged in Brazil. But I think that as the government is forced to operate more transparently – with more accountability for spending, for example – there will be a lot of bureaucracy challenged as a result and cutting the red tape will mean discarding the jobs of some people who assumed they could just snooze their way to retirement.

Public sector jobs have specific entry exams in Brazil. Even to apply for a job as innocuous as a tax inspector, there will be a specific entrance exam for this job. And because of this vast myriad of public sector examinations, there is an entire ‘cram-school’ industry that helps people to study for and pass the exams.

Passing the test to be a tax inspector doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will get a job in that role. People will spend months studying for a test and passing only to find that the score was not high enough or there are no vacancies in their specialist area or desired location.

Walk past any newspaper seller in Brazil and look at some of the newspapers on display. Some of the papers are entirely dedicated to informing readers about which government departments are hiring, what exams need to be taken to apply for those jobs, and how to register for these exams. These papers are easy to spot, just look for the word ‘vagas’ next to a large number and exclamation marks – the screaming headlines will be announcing 3,000 new jobs in a government department somewhere.

It doesn’t matter if you have a degree, an MBA, or career experience that involved flying the Space Shuttle for NASA, if you don’t have the correct public sector examination and scored the required amount of points, then you can forget about your government job for life.

The entire system is a scam and wastes the time of the job seeker and doesn’t really help the government departments. If they want a tax inspector, then why not find someone with an accounting background and qualifications – there is no need to have an exam for every possible job the public sector might recruit for.

General education certificates already exist, what are high school diplomas and degrees for? But millions of people count on the jobs that support this entire system – so on it goes.

In summary, if you thought that corporate life was difficult back in London or New York, then getting a job in a large Brazilian enterprise will just make you wish you could return to the ‘buzzword bingo’ and endless dreary meetings of your last job – private or public sector.

Mark Hillary writes about globalization and technology. That means sometimes books, sometimes he writes in the media, and sometimes he teaches MBA students at a number of universities. To find out more about him, visit his page on LinkedIn –

To get his book you can go to or


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