Research Findings

A Devastated Brazil: How Bolsonaro has dismantled labor and environmental protections

April 20, 2021

Burning forests, high rates of unemployment and informal labor are dramatic expressions of the environmental and social devastation plaguing Brazil since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. To blame is the Brazilian president’s radical program of neoliberalization aligned with support from a neofascist movement.

Between August 2018 and July 2019, nearly 200,000 fire outbreaks destroyed over 10,000 km2 of forested land area.

The most prominent was the infamous “Day of Fire” in the Amazon when farmers, loggers, and businessmen burned the region of Novo Progresso. Other fires in the Pantanal region alone accounted for a nearly 200% rise in fire outbreaks.

Social devastation was equally alarming. The unemployment rate rose from 11.9% to 13.5% in the first year of the Bolsonaro government. Informality defined as hiring without legal registration and thus without labor rights was made easier, and the numbers of the informally employed only dropped when the Covid-19 pandemic drove unregistered workers into the ranks of the unemployed.

Even for those in employment Bolsonaro’s de-regulations expanded precarious working conditions. Regular employment is increasingly replaced by intermittent or on-call contracts, part-time contracts, outsourced labor, and falsely self-employed workers.

Accelerated neoliberalization

The radical neoliberal turn began before Bolsonaro took office. The impeachment of Worker’s Party President Dilma Rousseff allowed the ascendance of her vice-president, Michel Temer to the Brazilian presidency in 2016, whose pro-business administration promoted private investment and cut-backs in public spending on pensions.

With the election of Bolsonaro to the presidency in 2019 however, the government embarked on an even more radicalized version of neoliberalization, that marks a quantitative and qualitative difference in the devastation of Brazil, evident most recently in the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world.

The environment and workers’ rights are Bolsonaro’s main targets. His administration widely opened the way for intensified capital accumulation and exploitation of labor and land. The Ministry of Labor and Employment was eliminated altogether, while the Ministry of Environment was subordinated to the Ministry of Agriculture, which itself has always been under the control of agribusiness interests.

Bolsonaro’s version of neoliberalization is worsened by its neofascist elements, involving systematic attacks on democratic institutions, the repression of social movements and citizen participation, and the popularization of anti-democratic discourse, and the spread of fake news.

Business control of the environment

Bolsonaro changed the composition of the government’s National Environment Council by reducing the number of civil society representatives, and thus proportionately increasing the number of federal government representatives. The change makes it easier for the government to pursue its own interests and ignore citizen’s movements.

Pro-agribusiness appointees to other federal environmental agencies such as the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) have replaced environmentalists with military police officers and other conservative forces from the so-called “Beef, Bullet and Bible” coalition.

The legislative and institutional activities of agencies like ICMBio not only set back environmental protections, but also facilitated the repression of native peoples. While Bolsonaro tried to shift the blame for fire outbreaks to traditional peoples, the land laid barren by fire has been violently expropriated by agribusiness enterprises.

Other actions to put environmental policies under the control of business interests, some successful, others not, include gaining control over environmental licensing, reducing the land area covered by environmental protections, and halting the demarcation of lands reserved for indigenous and quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves) peoples.

The results are alarming: the territorial area destroyed by fire, wood extraction, and mining has increased, deforestation and squatting have intensified. Hundreds of pesticides banned in other countries are in use. The number of murdered activists, especially indigenous peoples is growing. Budgets are reduced for environmental inspections, and fines for violations of remaining protections suspended.

Bolsonaro has perpetuated a new anti-environmentalist narrative, which depicts the monitoring of standards as preposterous, being of concern only to an active minority who fail to recognize the good will of farmers, thereby undermining business and economic growth.

It is no surprise, that the number of inspectors in Brazil’s environmental agency IBAMA was reduced by almost half since Bolsonaro took office (1,300 in 2010 to just under 700 in 2020).

Dismantling Labor Protections

A similar reduction is evident in the number of labor inspectors, who compared to a decade ago, have been reduced by a third (from 2,935 in 2010 to 2,050 in 2020). Budgets allocated to implementation measures for tackling modern slavery were also slashed. Agribusiness aligned with other business interests to dismantle protections against forced labor by re-defining what counts as modern slavery under Brazilian law.

At the center of Bolsonaro’s attack on labor was the Law for Economic Freedom. The law exempts companies with 20 employees or less from reporting working hours. Without a record of working hours, labor inspectors are no longer able to check the payment of overtime wages, and firms can evade rules governing the length of the working day. As a result, workers in small firms are no longer able to dispute violations of working hour rights in court.

The Bolsonaro administration is now proposing the creation of new fixed-term employment contracts for young people, called green and yellow contracts, which would exempt employers from social security contributions. The already precarious employment conditions for Brazilian workers would be further reinforced if these contracts are enacted. For Bolsonaro, informality should be the normal form of labor relations for young workers and for everyone.

Pass the cattle

In 2020 as the death toll from the pandemic rose exponentially, Ricardo Salles, the Minister of the Environment advised his colleagues in a ministerial meeting to exploit the focus of citizens’ attention on the pandemic in order to quietly “pass the cattle”, a metaphor for the unnoticed abolishing of environmental regulations.

The Bolsonaro government has repeatedly resorted to a fictional trade-off between protecting the economy versus saving people’s lives in order to justify its refusal to lock-down non-essential services during the Covid-19 crisis.

The depredation of natural resources and the undermining of labor rights go hand-in -hand in Bolsonaro’s mix of neoliberal deregulation and neofascist violence. The devastation of human life in the pandemic has become a new chance for Bolsonaro to advance the erosion of labor and land in Brazil.

Read more

Andréia Galvão and José Marcos Nayme Novelli, “Neoliberalismo exacerbado: devastação ambiental e degradaçãoin Conference Proceedings: Democracia & Desnvolvimento 2020.

Andréia Galvão and Paula Marcelino, “The Brazilian Union Movement in the Twenty-first Century: The PT governments, the Coup, and the Counterreforms” in Latin American Perspectives 2019. Available open-access in Portuguese.

José Marcos Nayme Novelli, “Progress and Setbacks in the Neo-Developmentalist Agenda of Public Policy in Brazil” in Bath papers in International Development and Wellbeing 2016.

Image: Bruno Kelly via

International Sociological Association RC02 Economy & Society contributed this post.

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