April 24, 2020 / 9:22 PM / a month ago

Easing labor laws in Brazil seen putting workers at risk in pandemic

RIO DE JANEIRO, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - S afety measures protecting Brazilian laborers against work in dangerous conditions are coming under threat by the government’s efforts to ease regulations during the coronavirus pandemic, labor authorities warn.

One regulation was altered already to restrict labor inspectors’ authority to shut down dangerous workplaces, and other changes are proposed by the Brazil’s Ministry of Economy that has aimed to blunt regulations since last year, they said.

Looser labor regulations could put workers at risk in the nation that has had more than 49,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 3,000 deaths, they said.

“Some of the changes may damage efforts to fight the pandemic,” said labor prosecutor Italvar Medina, who filed a lawsuit late last month demanding the government roll back regulation updates made last year.

One update changed the allowable conditions for workers to toil in extreme heat, to the workers’ detriment, Medina said.

“We have to keep in mind the loss in human lives that can happen,” he said.

One regulation slated for revision in 2020 deals with safety for health professionals and determines basic precautions and the safety gear hospitals must provide to employees.

For those on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight, the threat of changing the regulation compounds their fears of infection.

Even existing regulations “are repeatedly disrespected,” said Inara Ruas, a nurse in Rio Grande do Sul state.

“We work in fear,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We would be the first to fall.”

Some 9,000 complaints about labor conditions lodged in the last two months listed fears about the virus, data from the Labor Prosecutor’s Office showed.

Among them were concerns about workers in conditions where there was risk of contagion.

“We have been getting worrying reports relating to COVID-19,” said Luiz Scienza, a labor inspector and vice-president at Instituto Trabalho Digno, a non-profit that promotes safe working conditions.

A recurring issue was whether labor inspectors can shut down unsafe workplaces, he said, adding that many job sites were likely still operating because of the uncertainty.

The Economy Ministry did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

In past governments, a regulation could take from six months to three years to be revised. But since Jair Bolsonaro assumed the presidency in 2019, the procedure has been expedited to take as little as two months.

In early April, labor prosecutors asked the Economy Ministry to stop changing labor regulations during the pandemic but received no reply, said Medina.

On Wednesday, a judge ordered Brazil’s government to obey due process, putting a halt on the expedited procedure, but did not freeze new changes or roll back recent ones. “The government is using this crisis to take rights (from workers),” said Alfredo Gonçalves, workers’ health secretary at Rio Grande do Sul’s chapter of Brazil’s biggest trade union confederation, known as CUT.

“Taking advantage of this moment we are living is like being a vulture.” (Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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