Diplomatic Pouch / September 6, 2016
By Larry Luxner
As Brazil deals with the fallout from last week’s removal of President Dilma Rousseff in the midst of a long-running corruption scandal, a new crisis is brewing: a partial strike by Brazilian Foreign Ministry employees around the world.
The work slowdown —which began in late August right after the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics wrapped up — has affected operations at 106 Brazilian missions in 80 countries worldwide. These include the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, as well as 10 of the country’s 11 U.S. consulates from Boston to San Francisco; only the consulate in Miami has not been hit.
At issue is wages. The strikers — all employees of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry — claim they receive far less than other federal workers doing similar jobs back home.
“Why are we on strike?” asked Guilherme Jappe, deputy head of administration at the Brazilian Embassy, as he held a sign aloft on a recent Monday morning. “Because we want better pay in Brazil. All of us know that we have good salaries when we go abroad. But after every few years, we have to go back to Brazil and stay at least two years. And we have to live in Brasília, which is very expensive.”
Jappe, who is from the southern Brazilian city of Pôrto Alegre, has worked here since November 2014. His colleague, Monica Beire, is a chancery assistant from Rio de Janeiro. She’s been at the embassy nearly five years; before coming to Washington, Beire worked at the Brazilian Embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay.
“Diplomats fight only for other diplomats,” she complained. “They think that if we get a good raise, we won’t need to go abroad.”
By coincidence, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, Brazil’s ambassador to the United States, walked right by his protesting staffers the morning we caught up with them, but didn’t utter a word. Officially, he has not stated whether he supports or opposes their slowdown; at any rate, he is said to be on his way out.
However, the timing of this strike is not exactly a coincidence.
Ivana Lima is vice-consul at the Brazilian Consulate in Atlanta and one of the strike’s organizers. She says the government of President Michel Temer — who was sworn in Aug. 31 following the Senate’s impeachment and dismissal of Rousseff — is planning to freeze all Foreign Ministry wages for 20 years.
“We were really scared about that, so we decided we should do something now or we will lose the possibility,” she told the Diplomatic Pouch in a phone call from Atlanta.
According to the union representing the striking workers, chancellery officials at the Foreign Ministry earn the equivalent of $1,000 a month upon their return home, while staffers at the chancellery assistant level earn the equivalent of $2,000 a month and diplomats about $5,000 a month. The union seeks a 53 percent salary increase for the first group, a 42 percent increase for the second and a 9 percent increase for the third.
Lima said she’s lucky because she happens to be from Brasília, where she has a family and a house.
“But almost 90 percent of my colleagues don’t have that,” said Lima, who has worked for the Foreign Ministry for nine years. “I feel terrible because every time I want to go to Brazil, my salary doesn’t allow me to live there properly. So I only go back when I have no other option.”
Participation in the strike varies from one mission to the next. In Atlanta, four out of the consulate’s eight administrative staffers are staying at home, while in Boston, only a third of the 15 consular workers are on strike.
“Outside the country, there’s a difference but it’s not that big. But in Brazil, we get paid only have of what the diplomats get,” Lima complained. “We have a very difficult time because we can’t afford even good private schools for our kids.
Lima said that in Atlanta, diplomats are doing the work of their striking administrative staffers but that the slowdown has definitely affected the issuance of visas and other consular functions.
At the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, none of the 22 diplomats are on strike, yet 11 out of the 18 administrative people are participating — as are five of the six employees at Brazil’s mission to the Organization of American States, according to Eduardo Bulhoes, who is in charge of personnel at the embassy.
Igor Pinto, a 34-year-old staffer who earns $3,000 a month, showed up to the protest wearing buttons reading “De Valor ao Servicio Exterior” and “Respecto e Bom.”
“When I first arrived here, the Canadians were striking for the same reason,” said Pinto, who has been with the Foreign Ministry since 2009. “When I first started here, there were already discussions going on about improving salaries. But they always say this is not the proper moment, you need to be patient.”
Added Jappe: “They told us to be patient, and that our time would come. But three years went by, and they didn’t implement any agreement.”
Lima predicted that the strike would continue for at least two more weeks.
“We refused the government’s offer because it was not acceptable. After they finished [Dilma Rousseff’s] impeachment last week, we are now trying to make them move in our direction. Give us something, at least part of what we are asking. We cannot accept 20 years without a raise.”