Corruption in Brazil #3 – The teachers’ strike
As I indicated in my first post on the current corruption in Brazil, one of the consequences has been the collapse of the Brazilian economy from buoyancy to stagflation and recession. As so often happens in such situations the public sector is often the first to notice the stresses as politicians cut back on public spending where and when they can.
And “where and when they can” usually means those elements of the public sector with the least power to resist. We have seen it happen so often in the UK and as has happened more than once in my political lifetime the Health Service and Education are often at the bottom of the food chain. So it is here in Brazil, too, despite the Worker`s Party (PT) having been in power at presidential level for the last 14 years. Whilst the president has a lot of executive powers he or she has also to manage a fragmented upper and lower house, where one of the key partners is the PMDB which is considerably further to the right than the PT. Also the individual States have quite a bit of devolved power, including in education and health, and several states and cities are run by PMDB governors, mayors and councillors.
As you probably know there were quite a few demonstrations (“manifestações” – manifestations – in Portuguese) here in the run up to the football World Cup and there have been more in the run up to the Rio Olympics, because people have felt that public monies have been “squandered” on new facilities for the global sports ephemera rather than on core health service, hospitals and so on. These feelings of “wastefulness” have, of course, been greatly magnified by the revelations of huge bribes and corruption in the granting of contracts, to say nothing of the probable corruption involved in building facilities in places that really did not warrant them, particularly with respect to football stadia for the World Cup.
As far as public sector incomes are concerned teachers, health workers, local council workers, security and police officers and so on have been promised, in general terms, that their incomes would not fall behind the overall rate of inflation. And, in a buoyant economy, as seemed to be the case in Brazil during Lula`s terms as president, there was a feeling that, perhaps, things might even improve beyond inflation…. but…. then the sh*t hit the fan and spread everywhere. Petrobras.
I have already indicated that Petrobras represented around 10% of the country`s GNP and so the resulting economic collapse has been spectacular. I mentioned the very fast changes in the exchange rate. In the beginning this partly benefitted international trade for Brazil with one of its chief customers, China, but when the Chinese economy also began to stutter the bigger effect here was to make everything else that was imported into Brazil much more expensive. In particular, the rate of inflation has been increasingly significant in those goods people need on a regular basis, food, household goods and fuel.
However public sector wages did not move, including, of course, the incomes of teachers, and Fatima is a teacher, so this is personal! Add to this the global ageing phenomenon which has impacted retirement age in UK and Europe and put pressure on pensions provisions and which has also been happening in Brazil. So whereas teachers used to have 9% of their wages deducted for pension provision this was lifted to 11% roughly ten or more years ago. In Rio state in particular, the proposal in the latest round of wage negotiations is that the pension provision element should now increase to 14% but with no increases in wages offered to cope with inflation.
So, not only is Fatima`s pension payment in doubt for the teaching post from which she has already retired, but she is now being asked to give up another 3% of her salary. The current offer is not, anyway, going to compensate for the 20% inflation of the last couple of years during which she and other teachers have received no increase and the proposal is that the current offer will last for the next two years. Effectively, therefore, if she and her colleagues in the teaching profession were to accept the current offer they would be at least 23% WORSE OFF than they were two years ago and their income would continue to be eroded for two more years.
That, in a nutshell, is my understanding of why teachers have been on strike for the last six weeks or so. But the situation also applies to officials in the department of transport, also on strike, health service employees, who are also on strike and so on. These strikes are pretty general around the country, but I know most about the particular circumstances here, in Rio State. The state`s argument is simple – “we have no money, not even to afford obligations already on the books!” The fact that they seem to have the money to pay councillors, and judges, whose salaries are at least four or five times as much as the salaries of teachers each month is to do with the relative POWER of judges against that of teachers, rather than to do with the amount of cash in the public coffers!
Fatima has been to several well attended assemblies of protesting teachers but there seems to be no immediate end in sight. Sadly the situation seems to be getting no better and last week the authorities closed the doors to the protesting teachers and when some started banging on the locked doors (of a building normally open to the public) the response was a strong release of pepper spray directly at the protesters.
Rio Governor, Luiz Fernando Pezão, has recently been diagnosed with cancer and has therefore delegated the negotiations to his 82 year old deputy, the Vice-Governor, Francisco Dornelles, a less confrontational person with more experience of compromise. The view from the front line was that, perhaps, a breakthrough might be on the cards as a result, but this view seems to have been over-optimistic and negotiations seem to be stalled at present, with the honorary deputy dutifully following his boss`s line .
As I indicated before, a large part of the negative situation arose from the Petrobras collapse following the revelations of the corruption from mid-2013 onwards. It seems, however, that accusations of additional corruption possibilities have made matters worse. Some of the losses due to the collapse of Petrobras business (and, therefore, taxes due) could have been replaced by taxes collected from other businesses in Rio State. Politicians are accused of taking bribes to keep the tax collectors away from specific businesses, apparently leading to great reductions in potentially collectible taxes. Of course the politicians deny all of this but at the moment there is little inclination to believe a word any politician says!
In the absence of Governor Pezão on sick leave, another politician who has become involved in confronting the teachers is the president of the Rio Assembly, Jorge Picciani, strangely still in post in view of being taken to court (the privileged tribunal of course) back in 2004 for employing what was effectively slave labour on family owned farms. The “HUMAN RIGHTS IN BRAZIL 2003” document, the Global Justice Annual Report for that year, contains the following paragraph –
Jorge Picciani, President of the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro State, and Leonardo Picciani, Jorge Picciani’s son and Federal Deputy from Rio de Janeiro State, are president and treasurer, respectively, of the company Agropecuária Vale do Seriá, S.A., which owns the Fazenda Agrovas in São Félix do Araguaia, Mato Grosso. In June of 2003, the Mobile Strike Force inspected the Fazenda Agrovas and reported that the vast majority of the fifty-six employees found working there were subject to a regime of “indentured servitude.”
Anyway, coming back to 2016, Picciani inflamed teachers last week by calling them “mediocre” and “unqualified”. As you can imagine, Fatima, who has two Bachelor`s level degrees, one in Portuguese and one in English as well as a Master`s degree in linguistics was none too pleased at this comment but was most concerned to defend all her colleagues who spend years becoming qualified to be teachers and have to undertake a public examination even to get onto a list of approved teachers. The teachers unions have pressed Picciani to apologise, but up to the time this post was ready to publish, such an apology has not been forthcoming.
Interestingly a recent quotation by Hilary Clinton about the Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, could also be quite appositely applied to Picciani here in Brazil. Clinton said – “We believe that when a governor attacks nurses, police and firefighters, [“AND TEACHERS,” my addition!] it doesn’t make him a leader, it makes him a bully”.
Unfortunately, as so often seems to happen, particularly here in Brazil, the teachers` legitimate protests now seem to be being taken over by militants, set on destabilising society and Newspaper reports over the weekend suggest there are now “Teachers rioting in Rio and Sao Paulo” and there are pictures emerging of such riots apparently taking place, but it is by no means clear that the people causing such riotous behaviour actually ARE teachers.
Certainly Fatima expressed clear surprise when my researches today brought up these pictures. Her “Whats App” group of striking teachers has made no mention of such activity in Rio on Friday. And the pictures themselves (taken from The Telegraph`s UK website) show very few demonstrators so it is not clear when or where they were taken.
I will try and keep you up to date with the strike situation but, at the moment, there seems to be little hope of positive development of negotiation.