The 2014 Brazil World Cup made big headlines again this week after a controversial Adidas promotional campaign that the country’s tourist board says suggests that Brazil is a lascivious pit of sexual debauchery. As part of the elite club of mega-sporting event host nations, the “emerging” economic powerhouse of Brazil is understandably concerned about its public image and was quick to condemn the thong-shaped t-shirt logos. But officials of this rising star of Latin America seem noticeably less concerned about a touchier scandal buried beneath the pageantry: systematic human rights abuses and labor exploitation.
In recent months, several workers have died on construction sites for stadiums and other huge infrastructure projects designed to accommodate this summer’s football extravaganza, and in the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
In early February, Portuguese technician Antônio José Pita Martins died in a crane accident while working on the construction of the Arena da Amazônia football stadium in the steamy city of Manaus, the largest metropolis in the Amazon basin. The death came after two other construction worker fatalities in the same area in December: Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, 22, plunged 115 feet to his death from the stadium rooftop. Around the same time, another worker at a nearby convention center site died of a heart attack, reportedly linked to overwork, since workers were being pressed to keep up with the scheduled construction timetable. In November, two others were killed when a crane fell at the Corinthians arena in São Paulo, which will host the World Cup’s opening match.
The fatalities, as well as other labor disputes, have led to work stoppages and threats of strikes, which have further disrupted the already-behind-schedule construction timetable and exacerbated the deadline pressure from the World Cup governing authority FIFA. The possibility of another strike was raised earlier this month after the death of Martins.
Builders union leader Cicero Custodio told Brazilian media, “We have to guarantee the workers’ rights and their safety,” and said the site would be closed the following Monday.
Global mega-sporting events are often marketed as an opportunity to foster growth and cultural exchange, and for years FIFA has issued broad standards—which are not legislation and are therefore nonbinding, but are backed by FIFA’s enormous commercial and political clout — for protecting human rights and promoting good labor practices in host countries. But activists see Brazil’s mammoth investments in stadiums and commercial infrastructure as an impediment to the emerging superpower’s long-term social progress, or even an instrument of oppression, providing a pretext for massive displacement and demolition of shantytowns, as well as the suppression of labor and civil rights.
Of course, the human rights and economic justice issues that have surfaced in Brazil are more the rule than the exception in the arena of international sport. Similar issues with overspending and displacement emerged in the preparations for the Athens and Sochi Olympic Games, as well as the South African World Cup.
In an extensive analysis published in 2012, the Brazilian advocacy network National Coalition of Local Committees for a Peoples’ World Cup and Olympics contends: “If it is true that mega events offer an opportunity for social inclusion of workers through job creation and the expansion of labor rights, this has not been the Brazilian reality.” Whether they are laborers at infrastructure projects, or informal workers who have been “suppressed” by regulations that ban them from working in World Cup commercial zones, the report states, “there is an observable pattern towards increased precariousness of labor” perpetuated by large companies and consortia as well as government agencies that coddle the corporations and fail to hold them accountable.
Workers not only have to worry about injuries on the job, but being sucked into Brazil’s vast underground labor market. Last September, the AP reported that after the construction company OAS forced the workers to pay $250 each for the privilege of getting hired for a construction project at the international airport in São Paolo, according to labor officials, “many had to sleep on thin mattresses spread out on the floor and lacked for water, refrigerators and stoves. … While the workers apparently were not held against their will, they were forced to live in conditions so miserable that the Labor Ministry defines them as ‘slave-like.’” For their trouble, they were reportedly offered $3,000 in compensation by the company before being sent home.
Much like overseas migrant laborers (as we’ve reported before, Qatar’s preparation for the 2022 World Cup has generated massive scandals around the abuse of migrant workers), Brazil’s internal labor trafficking networks use recruiters to lure poor rural workers to faraway worksites, where they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation or coercion.
Many Brazilians have been directly uprooted by the projects through forced evictions. In 2011 United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Raquel Rolnik sharply criticized “what seems to be a pattern of lack of transparency, consultation, dialogue, fair negotiation, and participation of the affected communities in processes concerning evictions undertaken or planned in connection with the World Cup and Olympics.”
But Brazilians, who are just emerging from years of post-dictatorship civil unrest and economic turmoil, have special reason to feel outraged. Brazil has developed a strong set of laws protecting labor rights and relatively broad social welfare programs, thanks to president Dilma Rousseff and her administration’s social democracy-inspired populist policies. But the hyper-commercialism of the games has inspired more resentment than national pride, and protests have exploded over the past year, led by youth, workers and the rising middle-class — all frustrated with the government’s failure to resolve massive inequality and the underfunding of social services like public transit.
In an essay in the Progressive last June, María Carrión quoted activist Rafael Lima, who represented his favela Bairro da Paz in Salvador at a community meeting about pending development plans for the World Cup:
We are not interested in waving Brazilian flags or volunteering for the World Cup… We need jobs. We need education. We need land titles. We need health care. And we need to know where this road they are planning to build is going, and who will be affected.”
Julia Neiva, a researcher with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an organization that monitors the human rights records of companies, tells Working In These Times the controversy over working conditions in Brazil’s World Cup preparations, combined with the public backlash against the games in general, reflect a deeper sentiment in civil society that while the country has managed to lift many people out of poverty over the last decade, “now we need equality.” The struggle here is ensuring that government investments are supporting workers and communities in their fight for secure jobs and social dignity — rather than pouring public money into nationalist marketing campaigns and colossal sporting events.
“Countries like Brazil that are claiming to be global leaders need to meet the human rights requirements and human rights standards,” she adds. And unlike the half-finished stadiums dotting the country, there’s no need to build Brazil’s social protections from scratch: “It’s already in our laws, not something that we need to create.”
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.