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The covid-19 pandemic hit the Brazilian economy hard, more specifically, women’s participation in the workforce. More than half of the female population aged 14 and over was out of the labor market in the third quarter of 2020, according to the latest data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). This means that the percentage of women in the country’s workforce, employed, unemployed or in search of a job, was only 45.8%, while that of men was 65.7%. The unemployment rate, was 12.8% for men, 16.8% for women and 19.8% for black women.

Pernambuco is one of the states with the nation’s highest unemployment rates, 18.8% compared to the national average, which is 14.6%. The city of Caruaru is located in this state, which lies in the northeast of Brazil, in a semi-arid region 136 kilometers the state’s coastal capital, Recife. There lives worker Dukarmo Carvalho, who is currently in a situation of “social vulnerability”, according to her own words.

Even before the pandemic, Dukarmo’s primary occupation was collecting scraps on the streets of Feira da Sulanca, a popular clothing marketplace in Pernambuco’s countryside, which she used to make dishcloths. With the onset of the pandemic, many clothing factories shut down and the production of face masks began to be done with “non-woven fabric”, of a quality too low for the manufacture of dish towels. “So, we are unable to use these materials in dish cloth”, laments Carvalho, who is now unemployed.

Today, the mother of seven and grandmother of four lives in a small house with the three families of her children. Her only income comes from the social assistance project created during Lula da Silva’s government called Bolsa Família. “Today we are living below the poverty line, we are heading towards poverty, towards a country with many suicides, people with mental disorders, because you have to be strong to raise a family. In the past, people had to choose whether to eat in the morning, the afternoon or at night”, says Dukarmo, who is also part of a housing movement in the region. Today, “our life is breakfast and dinner. Only the children have snacks and lunch”.

“We women have to ration the rice, meat, split an egg between two people. We have to cook the rice and use the same water for other foods, to take advantage of the hot water. We women are even having a hard time buying our ‘modis’ [as tampons are commonly called] because where’s the money? You have to eat. This impacts the issue of hygiene. Washing your hair with shampoo, using any hygiene product”.

Among heads of households such as Dukarmo Carvalho, the unemployment rate was already higher for women than men in the third quarter of 2019: 10.7% compared to 5.7%, respectively. In 2020, during the same period, these rates were 14.4% for women and 7.6% for men, according to IBGE.

A reality that is nothing new

According to Patrícia Pelatieri, coordinator of research and technology of the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies (Dieese), there are structural reasons for this scenario, in addition to the cyclical nature of the pandemic and economic crisis. Structurally, there is a difference in wages and job positions between men and women, black and young people. Even women with higher education work jobs that are less valued, usually in service professions such as healthcare.

“We already have a disorganized and unequal labor market structure. With the crisis, the most vulnerable populations were much more affected. The first impact was among informal workers, with no formal contracts, domestic jobs, many of which are occupied by women”, explains Pelatieri.

Based on IBGE data, according to the researcher, in this segment alone, there was a loss of 400 thousand jobs with formal contracts and 1.2 million unregistered jobs. In the third quarter of 2019, there were 5.8 million women working in domestic and informal jobs, during the same period of 2020, that number dropped to 4.2 million.

A United Nations (UN) report published in November 2020, pointed to 76% more women being left out of the labor market than men at the end of the second quarter of 2020: 321 million unemployed women versus 182 million men. The UN relied on labor data from 55 high and middle-income countries.

No prospects

With the onset of the pandemic, the prospects of getting a job diminished for Elen Ramalho, a 35 year old resident of Cidade Tiradentes, an impoverished district in the city of São Paulo. “I only feel anguish, fear and insecurity, because we can see that things are not going to improve, mainly because there is no plan in place for that to happen. To fix unemployment, the health crisis must be controlled. How are we going to get a job?”, asks Elen, who has been unemployed for two years and living off of informal jobs.

Brazil has an increasing number of covid-19 infections and deaths, with the last week averaging 1,300 fatalities every 24 hours. On March 8th, the country exceeded 10.7 million cases and 260 thousand dead, all amid a collapse of the hospital system, with most states having more than 80% of their ICU beds full.

Today, Elen Ramalho lives with her mother, stepfather and two young children in an unfinished house of the Minha Casa Minha Vida Program, a housing program that also began during the Workers’ Party administrations. It is only thanks to the pandemic emergency aid of R $ 600 and now to the Bolsa Família benefit of R $ 220, coupled with financial aid from her mother, that Ramalho managed to support her children and herself during the past months. “Thank God, we haven’t been starving, but I’m living on the edge,” she says.

On the other side of São Paulo, in the low income Capão Redondo neighborhood, for 35 year old Graciela da Silva, it is also difficult to foresee a significant improvement of her current situation since she was fired in May of 2020, at the outset of the pandemic. Until then, Silva was an outsourced laborer, today she works in the informal market to guarantee the minimum to survive, with no fixed income. The scenario has led her to put college on hold, and there is no prospect of her returning.

For Graciela, the one who should be in charge of changing the course of the pandemic and economic crisis, President Jair Bolsonaro, has gone in the opposite direction. “There is a lot that leaves something to be desired. He had to act humanely, that’s not what is happening. So many things that could be avoided, but they are not”, she says.

However, the current situation is not just the result of the pandemic, but of political and economic choices, as Patrícia Pelatieri puts it. The feeling is that “we were doomed” from the start, but this is not true.

“It’s a consequence of political and economic choices. It is possible, there are ways out of this neo-liberal logic which can bring about economic development along with social equality. It is possible to envision a developmental project for the country that contemplates the elimination of social, gender, race, and generational inequality”, says the researcher.

Meanwhile, “the country we live in today doesn’t even allow us to choose our meals, let alone have a dream,” laments worker Dukarmo Carvalho, directly from the Pernambuco countryside.

Edited by: Vivian Fernandes


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