Brazil's labour laws_March 2011

Gustavo gonzaga an economist at rio de janeiros

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Gustavo Gonzaga, an economist at Rio de Janeiro’s Catholic University, notes that a remarkable one-third of Brazilian workers are made redundant each year, a fact he attributes in part to the labour laws themselves. These are extraordinarily rigid: they prevent bosses and workers from negotiating changes in terms and conditions, even if they are mutually agreeable. They also give workers powerful incentives to be sacked rather than resign. Generous and poorly designed severance payments cause conflict, Mr Gonzaga says, and encourage workers to move frequently. That churn affects productivity, as employers prefer not to spend on training only to see their investment walk away. Recently, the cause of reform has gained a surprising recruit: the very trade union that Lula himself once led. The ABC metalworkers’ union, which represents 100,000 workers in the industrial suburbs of São Paulo, is trying to make union-negotiated agreements binding in the labour courts. At present unions in Brazil cannot strike the sort of deals that are common elsewhere, such as accepting pay cuts during downturns in return for no job losses, since individual workers may later ask the labour courts to unpick them. Hélio Zylberstajn, the president of the Brazilian Institute of Employment and Labour Relations, a study group, thinks the initiative is promising. Unions with the power to negotiate might spend more time representing their members and less cosying up to politicians, he says. And employees’ grievances might get resolved quickly in the workplace, rather than slowly in court. The metalworkers’ proposals could improve matters, at least for big companies. For smaller
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