Precarious work: the neoliberal and authoritarian face of the pandemic

July 15, 2020

In view of the isolation and social distancing measures necessary to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, several sectors of the economy have suffered heavy losses. The decrease in industrial and commercial activities has increased the likelihood of mass layoffs and, consequently, the intensification of financial and economic crises that Brazil already had difficulties facing.

In this context, working conditions considered unsuitable have become even more precarious. An example is the gig economy’s online delivery platforms and transport network companies, which have seen increased demands in the last months, without additional remuneration or shorter working hours for delivery personnel subject to zero-hour contracts. Faced with this situation, on the 1st of July, they went on strike with a view to increase in compensation per delivery and the price per kilometre, among other things.

However, are these demonstrations for better working conditions merely a symptom of the current crisis? Or do they show a tendency towards precarious work in Brazil?

Throughout this essay, we will examine the dismantling of labour guarantees in Brazil, explicitly adopted by Bolsonaro’s government with the extinction of the Ministry of Labour and its merger with the Secretariat of the Ministry of Economy. Subsequently, we will present the dichotomy “Economy versus Health” which has guided companies to the detriment of employees during the pandemic. Finally, we will analyse how this policy is a death policy of sorts and its impact on the Brazilian Democratic State.

Dismantling social rights in Brazil

Maurício Godinho Delgado, Minister of the Superior Labour Court, points to the early years of the military regime as a milestone of deregulation of the domestic labour market, favouring labour rotation and contract flexibility. As marks of the period, the author points out the rejection of social inclusion policies and the fervent repression of unions.

At the same time, the neoliberal ideology was adopted worldwide, marked initially by the Chilean military dictatorship and the influence of leaders such as Margaret Thatcher (Great Britain) and Ronald Reagan (United States). The declared intention of the new economic model was, and still is, the market expansion and State removal from the economic order.

Brazilian “redemocratization”, however, did not stop the model’s influence in the country. The Constitution of 1988, a mark of social democracy, presented a striking counterpoint to the ideas in vogue, but it has not, in recent times, prevented the precariousness of male and female workers through the process of “de-constitutionalisation” of Labour Law, that is, the discussion of labour principles disregarding the hierarchically superior law.

The removal of President Dilma Rousseff is considered a neoliberal leap in the country with the inclusion of extensive reforms in the labour field, the most notable being Law No. 13,467 / 2017. Among the widespread mottos lies the belief that valuing the individual at the expense of the community and the “excess” of labour rights are responsible for the economic crisis.

Thus, precarious forms of work were encouraged, such as outsourcing, subcontracting, part-time and temporary employment. The State also encouraged, with media support, supposed entrepreneurship, calling workers to informality under the promise of owning their own hours and profits. This is the case with ridesharing and goods delivery applications, in which there is complete transference of the company’s risks to the worker and the dissemination of a meritocratic false idea.

It is with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, however, that the new and accentuated liberal phase is consolidated internally. The presidential performance, marked by the rampant edition of Provisional Measures (MPs) in the labour field, was repeatedly justified by supposed concern with unemployment and informality. MP 905/2019, for example, offers the Green and Yellow employment contract as a formal employment option with appreciable reduction in labour rights, applying the liberal maxim that this contract encourages the hiring of new employees.

The employment precariousness, justified by the constant economic crisis, resulted, as expected, in an increase in unemployment, informality and social inequality in the country. In the pandemic, the brutal economic model is continuing, revealing its ominous intentions.

Economy versus Health

While several world leaders were concerned with adopting strict sanitary measures against the advancement of coronavirus, even though they represented stagnation in certain services and activities, Bolsonaro’s government was reluctant to implement an effective strategy to fight the virus, either by minimizing the situation (“gripezinha” and irony as to the number of deaths), or justifying inaction in the supposed dichotomy between Economy and Health, which culminated in the dismissal of Ministers of Health who were in favour of social isolation.

This reluctance also extended to the approval of emergency aid, a measure widely adopted worldwide. It is interesting to note that, despite the effort to decrease the amount of aid in relation to the amount debated in the National Congress, Bolsonaro’s government did not hesitate to continue serving the market with the release of significant monetary outputs to the banks.

In the end of March, another measure in response to business concerns was the edition of MP 927 with provision for widespread teleworking, anticipation of vacations and, opportunistically, suspension of health and safety requirements at work.

On April 1, MP 936 was published, later converted into Law No. 14,020, of July 6, 2020, which institutes the Emergency Program for Maintaining Employment and Income. Job maintenance, in the eyes of the government, should be achieved with the authorization to reduce wages by up to seventy percent and the suspension of employment contracts for up to two months, all in agreement between employee and employer.

The pandemic even served as a reason for the Supreme Federal Court to declare the wording of the Constitution as inapplicable, during the atypical moment, regarding the mandatory participation of unions in discussions on wage reduction, giving legal support to MP 936 and creating a dangerous precedent for the selective application of constitutional principles.

In a similar sense, there is the inclusion of mining in the list of essential activities by Ordinance No. 135/2020 of the Ministry of Mines and Energy and by Decree No. 10,329, even in the face of protests by sector officials and by the press disclosing that the workers followed the activities without adequate protection and subjected themselves to agglomerations, as was the case of Vale’s miners in the states of Minas Gerais and Pará.

Therefore, the market’s predilection for governmental decision making is explicit, responding to elitist desires in relation to the “death of CNPJs”, despite the inefficiency of the governmental project for small- and mid-size enterprises (SMEs).

It’s evident from the examples shown that this critical moment, marked by unemployment and the health crisis, doesn’t prevent the advance of neoliberalism in the country, signalling the return of a group formed with the intention of deepening labour reform by discussing topics such as the weakening of union entities and the reduction in the monetary correction of labour debts. The real problems of the population, working or not, are left in the background.

Quarantine or death?

It’s emblematic that the first fatality of the new coronavirus in Rio de Janeiro was a domestic worker, whose employer had returned from a trip to Italy, the country with the highest number of deaths from the disease at the time. The states of Pará, Maranhão and Rio Grande do Sul were even criticized by the National Federation of Domestic Workers for including domestic service as essential.

The peculiarity of the beginning of the pandemic, in which cases were mostly detected in more affluent classes, was soon overcome, since the coronavirus did not take long to reach the poor population, either due to the insufficiency of emergency aid and the need to work outside the home or due to the precarious structure of the houses and the urban mobility network, which maintains exposure to agglomerations.

Regardless of the deaths caused by the health crisis and assuredness of impunity, the ruling class continues to expose workers to the virus and call for the easing of lockdown restrictions. The position of the Executive leader does not differ from this idea, varying between denying the seriousness of the crisis, despite the fact that Brazil stands in second regarding the number of cases, and defending medication without proven efficacy.

In this sense, the president’s contemptuous speech: “will some die? They will die. I’m sorry, it’s life”, as well as the inefficiency of governmental measures to combat coronavirus fit into the logic of necropolitics, Achille Mbembe’s term that refers to the set of social control policies adopted by the State, through death: it means dictating who can live and who should die, which bodies are disposable and which are not. And it will be the black, poor and female bodies, a portrait of the main groups affected by unemployment and precarious working conditions, that are the targets of extermination.

It is clear that the consolidation of liberal ideas in Brazilian politics, especially in the field of labour, puts democracy in the country in check. The market gave rise to and took advantage of democratic fragility to regain State control through the incursion of conservative subjectivity, acting in a manifestly anti-state manner. It is clear, therefore, that the aforementioned neoliberalist policies confront and threaten the Democratic State founded on respect for human rights. Nevertheless, the adoption and commitment to constitutional social guarantees and other international norms, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, which oblige the State and companies to guarantee human rights in the exercise of economic and business activities, is a necessary means of guaranteeing the rights of workers, especially those in situations of vulnerability.

The debate raised shows us that the incentive to create jobs at any cost, with the false promise of leveraging the economy and improving the quality of life, without being concerned with worker’s guarantees, in reality, ends up generating more social inequality and violations of fundamental rights. It remains to be seen whether the post-pandemic will be marked by rethinking the neoliberal model adopted in Brazil or if the entire system of rights and guarantees will be ruined for good.


By Victor Sousa Barros Marcial e Fraga [1], Sophia Pires Bastos [2] and Milena Coelho Angulo [3].

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[1] Master’s Degree Student in Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. Lawyer.

[2] Master’s Degree Student in Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).

[3] Undergraduate reading Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).