Public Sector Workers Storm Rio Assembly

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THOUSANDS of public workers have stormed the Rio de Janeiro assembly, occupying the building in protest at the right wing Brazilian government’s savage cuts to workers’ salaries.

Many of the protesters were policemen and firefighters who hadn’t been paid in months. The government cuts, including the cuts to salaries, were announced last week. On Monday the federal government froze Rio’s accounts, ordering the state to pay millions of dollars in unpaid debt.

The demonstrators, mostly firefighters, police and prison officers, spent three hours inside the assembly chamber. During the occupation some windows, doors and offices were wrecked, as the occupiers could not contain their anger. The state declared a financial emergency ahead of the Rio Olympics earlier this year, saying it did not have the funds to provide security for the Games and to finish a metro line.

Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao said that unless the austerity measures were approved by the state assembly he could not guarantee that workers would receive their full salaries next year. With tax revenues dropping, Rio has already made sharp budget cuts. In September, Brazil’s Senate voted to remove the elected President Dilma Rousseff from office for ‘manipulating the budget.’

This amounted to a right-wing coup that forced her left-wing Workers Party out. The right-winger Michel Temer was installed as president until 1 January 2019. As soon as Temer was sworn in, he proceeded to make savage cuts to public services and workers’ pay.

Meanwhile Brazilian workers’ rights have been ‘minced’ in the meat industry. The Brazilian multinational JBS is the biggest meat producing and processing company in the world. Created in the 1950s, in the centre of Brazil, it now operates in 150 countries.

Behind this success however are regular attacks on workers’ rights and worker safety, condemned by the labour inspectorate and the country’s trade unions. In January 2015 the Mato Grosso Labour Ministry took legal action against JBS for making its employees work longer hours than allowed by law, and in unhealthy conditions, in its slaughterhouses.

Staff complained of poor hygiene linked to the presence of large quantities of blood and viscera that could spread disease. There have already been poisonings from ammonia, a liquid coolant, on several sites. In 2015, for example, 66 people became ill in Santo Iniacio (Paraná) and recently, in September 2016, 70 people were poisoned near Goiânia (Goiás).

Following the incident an emergency doctor said: ‘They felt sick, some vomited, had migraines, and two people passed out.’ The abattoir concerned had been repeatedly ordered by the labour inspectorate to comply with safety standards. These examples are only a small proportion of the cases that JBS has been implicated in, over the respect of the rights of its 45,000 employees.

Although its competitors BRF (formerly Brazil Foods) or Marfrig are hardly exemplary in this field, it is JBS that is top of the list for the number of court cases. Often, the courts impose fines on the employer, but the offences are repeated from one State to another. The slaughter industry is in the spotlight for its excessively high number of workplace accidents.

According to a survey by the research site Agencia Pública, which had access to Social Security figures, some 7,822 of the company’s employees stopped work due to occupational illnesses and unfitness for work between 2011 and 2014. The trade unions report that the staff responsible for cleaning the machines, such as the mincers, lack training.

An even more serious problem is that risks are taken to the detriment of safety to keep up the pace of production. Wagner Rodriques, General Secretary of the Sindicato da Alimentação (Food workers union) explained: ‘The employee was asked to clean the machine while it was still moving, to not cause any delays in production.’

He spoke out following an accident in which a young man of 26 had his hand crushed.

Another of the offences observed by the labour inspectors and compiled by journalists from Repórter Brasil and Agencia Pública, is the carrying of excessive loads (50 tonnes per day, when the legal limit is 10 tonnes per person).

The legal limits on working time in ‘extreme environments’ – places with extremely high or low temperatures – are not always respected, nor is the length of the working day. Cases of people working nearly 16 hours a day have been recorded. All such factors increase the risk of accidents, say the unions. Yet the multinational, which is the country’s largest private company with an annual turnover of 120 billion reales in 2014 (US$37 billion) is not in difficulty. And it benefits from public funds via the national development bank, the BNDES.

• On November 5, over 800 people, including a delegation from IndustriALL, BHP unions from Australia, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, gathered along with representatives from social movements in the ghost town of Bento Rodriguez to demand justice for those affected by and punishment for those responsible for the dam collapse in 2015.

The event was organised by the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (MAB), a social movement that defends people affected by dams. Addressing the crowd, IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan said: ‘We bring a message of solidarity from the global family of mineworkers to all those affected.

‘This was no accident; it was a premeditated crime. We are deeply saddened at the devastation and loss of life. But we are also angry, angry that companies continue to put profits before people.’

The Fundão dam belonged to Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture between two of the world’s biggest mining companies, Australia’s BHP Billiton Ltd. and Brazil’s Vale SA.

Samarco, one of the world’s largest exporters of iron ore pellets, started building Fundão in 2007. Although there had been serious problems with the dam since the beginning, it did not stop Samarco from ramping up production in order to offset falling commodity prices.

The collapse on 5 November 2015 unleashed a metres-high tsunami of toxic sludge swamping the river and obliterating towns along its stretch as the wave of mud travelled 700 kilometres down the river to the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of those killed were mineworkers working on the dam at the time it collapsed. Had the dam collapsed during the night, the 600 residents of Bento Rodrigues would almost certainly all have died. As it was, in the absence of a proper emergency system as required by law, they escaped with only the clothes on their backs.

‘I was born and raised in Bento Rodriguez,’ says Antonio Martíns Quintão. ‘But all of that was swept away in the space of eight seconds just after 3.30 in the afternoon of 5 November.’ Antonio and other residents left homeless have yet to receive compensation.