Despatch from Sao Paulo | International

The rush to informal jobs

Job seekers filling out applications at an employment fair in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2015.  

Dona Cecilia’s alarm clock goes on at 5 a.m. Within minutes, she is in her kitchen, chopping onions and boiling water in big pans. As she steams rice and grills chicken, Ms. Cecilia makes little noise so as not to wake her husband and two sons sleeping in the bedroom. By the time they are up for coffee, Ms. Cecilia has prepared 20 boxes with rice, beans, chicken and salad. Then she puts them in a hot box and goes down to hand it over to a man who places the box on his motorbike and hurtles down the road to the city centre. Sometimes, the delivery man returns to picks another set of boxes that sell for 12 real ($3) at a square close to office buildings in downtown.

In a good month, Ms. Cecilia, 42, makes around 4,000 real ($950). Till October 2017, she made around 7,000 real as a senior technician in a diagnostics laboratory. “I was fired as the lab shut down. For a year, we survived on my husband’s salary, but then he too lost his job with an electricity firm,” says Ms. Cecilia, who lives with her family in a middle-class neighbourhood. With their jobs gone and savings dried up, the couple were forced to look for a way of making money — to put food on the table for their children. While she has become a caterer for low-income people, her husband works as part-time electrician.

Ms. Cecilia is among the millions of Brazilians who are working in the informal sector as the country fails to create full-time jobs even as the overall unemployment rate continues to fall. According to a survey published recently by the government’s statistics agency IBGE, the number of people in the informal sector has reached a new record — 39 million or 41.4% of the country’s workforce. Brazil's unemployment rate fell to 11.9% in 2019 and the number of employees with formal contracts rose by 1.1%. But, with close to 12 million people facing unemployment, new jobs are like a drop in the ocean. “We don’t know where these jobs are. I don’t know anyone who has been able to get a full-time job,” says Ms. Cecilia.

Slow recovery

Before the economic crisis gripped Brazil between 2015 and 2016, when the GDP fell for two consecutive years, Ms. Cecilia and her husband had well-paying jobs. Now, they have been pushed into the informal sector. “In the crises of 2003 and 2008, the job market started to recover starting from informal employment, which allowed the market to recuperate, and gradually the informal jobs were replaced by formal ones,” says IBGE analyst Cimar Azeredo. “But now, citizens are turning to self-employment and informal work, such as domestic workers.”

Due to slow recovery of the formal sector, Brazil today has more than 6.3 million people working in domestic services. A law, passed during then President Dilma Rousseff’s government in 2016, makes it mandatory for employers to sign a contract with domestic helps, guaranteeing a fixed salary, holidays and other benefits. Bu as the economic crisis continues, the number of domestic workers with contracts has fallen to 1.7 million as 4.5 million work informally in the sector. According to IBGE, women — mostly poor and black — represent 97% of domestic workers in the country. “They seek domestic service as the only alternative to escape unemployment,” says Mr. Azeredo.

Even as black women, poorly educated and historically disadvantaged remain trapped into the domestic service industry, the young and educated are not doing well either. As per an International Labour Organization report released last week, there is an alarming level of unemployment among youngsters in Latin America, where one out of five is failing to get a job. “It means that over 25 million people are actively seeking employment and are not getting it,” said the ILO’s annual report about the region.

This has forced many young people to turn to the so-called gig economy. Brazil today has more than 6,00,000 drivers working just for Uber. As two-thirds of them do not have their own cars, they are forced to hire vehicles from car-renting firms. “There is no job security in this work, no holidays and no labour laws protection. I have to give a fixed amount to the rent company whether I have good business day or not,” says Marcelo Campos, 25, who till two years ago was training to be a helicopter pilot. Now, with few opportunities, he drives Uber full time. “I am able to pay my bills but this uncertainty is very stressing. I hope I can get a formal job soon,” adds the aspiring pilot.

More than 12 million Brazilians hope so too.

(Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo)

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2020 4:03:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-rush-to-informal-jobs/article30771497.ece

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