duck, bridge and blow

Morton Schamberg (1881–1918), View from the rooftops, Photograph, 1917.


Notes on labor reform in Brazil


Brazilian-style business

Those who have followed the labor reform debate have noticed that it is not a fait accompli and can be reversed in case of a change in the correlation of forces in the Brazilian legislature. On the other hand, it is also an unfinished reform and this is cause for concern, since, in the wings, discussions and articulations for new changes to the detriment of the working class continue at an accelerated pace.

Before moving on, a brief digression is in order. On September 25, 2014, the then president of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp) and CEO of CSN and Grupo Vicunha, Benjamin Steinbruch, revealed, in an interview with the program Poder e Política, the UOL portal and the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, his perspective on labor relations in Brazil.[I] The content of the interview is quite illustrative.

Among many examples that could be picked up, here is one: when asked “How is it possible to reduce the amount paid to have an employee without reducing the rights he has today?”, his answer was: “Normally, there is no need to an hour for lunch, because the guy doesn't have lunch in an hour. You go to the United States, you see a guy having lunch with his left hand, eating a sandwich with his left hand, and operating a machine with his right hand, and he has 15 minutes for lunch. (…) I'm talking about the employee's benefit, you know?”. The reporter insists: “Other examples, please?”, to which the interviewee replies: FGTS, minimum age for retirement, INSS, 1/3 of vacation. It ends with an “everything can be negotiated”.

This speech in 2014 deserves to be contextualized. A little over a year had passed since the June 2013 days and, even with the victory of Dilma Rousseff (PT) at the polls, political instability set the tone of the moment.


duck, bridge, blow

A year later, in September 2015, Fiesp launched the campaign “I won't pay the duck”, with the motto “Say no to tax increases”. We don't need to dwell on this, but it is important to remember the highly regressive tax structure in Brazil, which, as is known, benefits the richest to the detriment of the poorest. Seen from this perspective, the watchwords of the business community, calling on “society” to manifest itself, bordered on insulting the poorest.

The Fiesp duck, sponsored by 409 employers, was inflated in the middle of Avenida Paulista just three months before Eduardo Cunha (MDB), then president of the Chamber, accepted a complaint that would result in the impeachment of President Dilma.

It was more than a duck, we know today. It was a message to specific sectors of the country's bourgeoisie that a coup agenda was underway that could interest them. The aforementioned fiscal crisis preached by the employers should be faced not by increasing revenues but by reducing expenses, notably social and labor rights, in particular.

From duck to bridge, it was just 56 days. The “Bridge to the Future”, a summary and programmatic document of a government that feared being ultraliberal, was also a letter of invitation to what was to come.[ii] Its 19 pages contain, with disconcerting clarity, the reasons for the coup and the commitments that Michel Temer (MDB) would undertake to assume, with the advancement of the agenda.

In a country where the tragic and the comic insist on going together, in December of the same year, a letter from the then Vice President of the Republic was published, in which he, in a pathetic and whining tone, called himself a decorative vice president. However, let's not kid ourselves: just five days after Cunha accepted the complaint that culminated in Dilma's impeachment, it is evident that, between resentment and joy, there was a project in execution.

Benjamim Steinbruch's speech was not a faulty act, it was an announcement. Fiesp had an agenda (it still does) and was comfortable talking about it. This diary no longer fit in the wings, it had to be circulated to measure its reception.

The more general developments of the narrated facts are widely known, but the plot is not over yet. With regard to the Bridge, there is no doubt that it was an invitation to a broad and unrestricted review, on different scales, of social rights in Brazil, especially those that could reduce the cost of capital in relation to labor. According to the document, the blame for the alleged fiscal crisis was due to the creation and expansion of social programs.

Under the main idea that “The Constitution does not fit in the GDP”, the proposed solution was to correct the “dysfunctionalities” of the Federal Constitution, through the approval of constitutional amendments, materialized in the sequence, in Constitutional Amendment 95, which froze primary public expenditures, attacking, in full, health and education. No less important, as Steinbruch wanted, Ponte proposed — and the Temer government carried out — that collective agreements prevail over the legal norms that regulated the labor market.

It is not the purpose here to expand on “how they were” versus “how were” labor rights with the reform. But some things deserve to be pointed out: (i) intermittent mobile working hours, which made working hours more flexible and lowered rights and wages; (ii) permission for continued hiring of freelancers and legal entities, which weakened employment relationships; (iii) the end of mandatory union dues, with the sole aim of attacking representative entities of the working class; (iv) end of hourly pay internally, that reduced income severely affecting rural workers; (v) and, in parallel with the reform, the law that allowed the outsourcing of core activities.

The result of the reform has already been widely dissected: it made labor rights more flexible, made access to free justice more difficult, generated a drop in workers' real wages, made labor relations precarious and, among other negative consequences, increased informality.

With regard to the intensity of exploitation of labor power, we are witnessing, at the same time, an increase in the organic composition of capital, in a non-contradictory pace, with an extraordinary extraction of absolute surplus value that raises the level of reproduction of labor force work in an extremely vulnerable situation. Here is the answer to the crisis that capital has been demanding since 2014: preservation of profitability margins by lowering the cost of labor and increasing the extraction of surplus value, even if it is absolute.

In summary, the 2017 labor reform operated a profound adaptation of the labor market to the recent logic of capital. The draconian way in which this adaptation took place would be impossible without the coup. he was condition sine qua non and, to be given, it needed the consent and complicity of the elite.


haboob in sight

The labor reform – or rather, the total deregulation of the labor market and the generalized precariousness of employment contracts – was not completed. It is a project based on the predatory accumulation of natural resources and the workforce, in order to guarantee the maintenance of extraordinary profits. Despite the current government's incompetence in moving forward with the continuity of the reforms claimed by the business community, the agenda is clearly in articulation.

In September 2019, the Bolsonaro government created the Grupo de Altos Estudos do Trabalho (GAET) which, obviously, does not have the presence of any entity representing the working class. This group, in November 2021, released a document that is the result of a “study” on the subject and proposes 330 changes to the CLT and the Constitution.[iii]

Of the proposed changes, some stand out: prohibition of recognition of employment for app drivers; expansion of restrictions on free access to justice; shielding the assets of businessmen in case of labor debts.

Unlike Bridge to the Future, this document is more robust. In its more than 200 pages, in addition to suggestions for changing the norms that regulate work in Brazil, it also brings, on page 53, a pearl: “What enlightened us, what enlightened the group’s work, were the basic principles of Christian social doctrine.

It is evident that, for the working class, in the process of becoming even more precarious, it is not enough to have faith: tactics, strategy, resistance and struggle are needed.

As presented at the beginning, the labor reform is not a fait accompli. In the current correlation of forces, it can advance, inserting new changes that tend to an unimaginable level of precariousness of work. Hearing that, if elected, former president Lula has the intention of reversing the reform is encouraging. If its intention is maintained, the campaign tends to find strong resistance in broad business sectors, but that is another story. Reversing these measures, in turn, poses a major political challenge for the next period.

*Joelson Gonçalves de Carvalho Professor of Economics at the Department of Social Sciences at UFSCar.



[I] The full interview can be accessed at:

[ii] The document can be accessed at:

[iii] This report can be consulted at:

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