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Workers recount impact of outsourcing in Brazil

27 July, 2016An IndustriALL Global Union study of precarious workers in Brazil has highlighted the financial, psychological and physical costs of outsourcing on workers’ lives and families, in a country where outsourced workers represent 27 per cent (around 13 million) of the workforce in the formal sector.

In-depth interviews were carried out with union leaders and 22 subcontracted workers in the states of Sao Paulo and Bahia. Six of the workers were women and three were migrant workers from Haiti and Bolivia.

All the workers are employed by numerous subcontractor companies supplying services to seven different multinational or national companies in the chemical (plastic, cosmetic, personal care, pharmaceutical, ink), garment, and pulp and paper sectors.

Discrimination and lack of prospects:

The 22 subcontracted workers reported poorer working conditions and lower salaries than direct employees at their worksite. In one chemical company, they earn half the salaries of direct employees. They get also lower benefits, if they get them at all, notably lower social protection. 

Our health plan is charged between R$80-90 (US$25-27), whereas the lead company charges R$18 (US$5) and has national coverage. If I am out of town, I cannot even use mine.

Many work longer hours than direct employees. In one case, subcontracted workers work 44 hours a week, compared to 39 hours by direct employees.  Several have very irregular working hours, while direct employees benefit from fixed hours. Some work on Saturdays unlike their colleagues.

One worker has performed the same administrative job for 11 years at a pulp and paper company but through five different subcontractors. Because of the changes in employers, the worker lost social protection benefits and salary increases. He eventually lost his job after his job was outsourced to a remote provider.

Some workers said they have no access to the work canteen, and when they have, their meal voucher has a lower value than those of direct employees. They have no access to company transport services nor direct employees’ sport and leisure rooms.

The workers feel this discrimination very strongly. The contempt and the indifference of direct employees towards them make them feel inferior. They report that their work is often not valued or respected. Maintenance workers said that subcontracted workers are always the ones to be blamed for any problem; another said that permanent workers made fun of subcontractors’ yellow uniforms, exclaiming when they see a subcontracted worker: “Here come the canaries!”

I did a better course, but often I was treated as a second-class worker because I worked for a subcontractor.

What helps them to overcome these feelings is the solidarity between subcontractor workers. Nonetheless, while some are looking for a better job, or to get more qualifications, others feel totally disenchanted. They have lost all hope of new prospects in their professional life. None of them are really interested in their job.

Health problems

All of the workers interviewed reported an intensive rhythm of work and high pressure, generating a lot of stress. Some talked about double pressure from the lead company and their employer: “It was like having two bosses”.

Two migrant workers at a chemical company load and unload heavy cargo into trucks in all weathers, without gloves or protection. Both reported feeling back pain but only have access to the basic Brazilian health system. However, direct employees at the company get better health protection.

One worker was injured at work, losing part of his vision, and was dismissed. He said subcontracted workers go to work even if they are sick or injured or they won’t get paid. Others reported that subcontracted workers work when they are sick because they are afraid to be put on a black list and dismissed. Some of them do not even benefit from proper personal protection equipment.

We do not receive any health risk premium, but we are manipulating chemical products, just a spatter of it takes your skin off.

In garment sectors, workers reported vision problems because of the lack of light in the workplace, as well as pains in their arms and back.

Poor quality of life:

I feel stuck in the middle of a system that is smashing me up.

Workers with very irregular hours said that it was very difficult to build a life outside of work. One cleaning worker, who works at three different locations, said she had no control on her working hours or the places she was sent to, making it impossible to build a social life. Workers forced to do overtime to supplement their meagre salaries said they went directly home to sleep and came straight back to work the next day. Some workers are on such a low wage that they often need to complement it with another job after work, or even during lunchtime.

Workers also reported other negative consequences of precarious employment:

The bank that denied me a loan to buy a car, approved a loan to a direct worker from the company for four times the amount I requested. This worker even receives a lower wage than mine, but the bank has greater confience in him because he is directly employed.

Exploitation of migrant workers:

Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable and easily exploited. One of the garment workers interviewed from Bolivia worked in illegal workshops in Sao Paulo for five years producing for subcontractors of big garment companies. She lived in the same place where she worked and was not allowed to leave. She worked 15-16 hours per day for less than the legal minimum wage and with poor food. Despite changing jobs several times, conditions were the same. Even when she finally got a work permit, her employers continued exploiting her and her last employer began bullying her when she became pregnant.

Our routine started every day between 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning and working until 10 pm, when they served dinner with a break during the day for lunch. I was only allowed to take a shower three times a week. They were probably receiving R$3.00 (US$0.90) per piece, but we were just paid R$0.30 (US$0.09) per piece. They were telling us that the rest of money was to pay rental costs and meals.

Unions’ role

Several IndustriALL affiliates and their trade union confederations in Brazil have been fighting for years to prevent the adoption of a bill in Brazil that will allow private employers to outsource indiscriminately.

Often employees of subcontractors cannot be represented by trade unions at the lead company, nor do they know which trade union represents them.

Direct employees’ trade unions are trying to protect subcontracted workers and regularize their situation. In the pharmaceutical company, the trade union has been able to regularize the situation of 50 per cent of subcontractors’ workers. One of the workers interviewed will benefit from this and will be able build his house and invest in his qualifications as a result.

Other workers said the trade union at the lead company has taken up their cause, discussing their demands with the lead employer. In the pulp and paper company, the trade union has taken a case to court where subcontractors’ employees who do not receive any health risk premium.

Unions have been active in denouncing the situation of migrant workers in the garment sector. According to the Sao Paulo dressmakers’ trade union, there are more than 100,000 migrant workers in the city in more than 7,500 workshops. The union carries out actions with the Ministry of Labour in order to identify clandestine workshops exploiting workers and  accompanies labour inspectors on visits to ensure that all rights and dues to workers are given.