External antecedents and implications of the labor reform for Brazil

Since the financial crisis of 2008, which had among its causes the advance of neoliberalism and one of its most devastating facets, the financial deregulation, many countries have been paradoxically enforcing liberal policies with the intention of overcoming the crisis. In this context, flexibilization of labor laws is seen, alongside fiscal austerity measures, as a fundamental part of the conventional prescription for the necessary recovery of economic growth and the fight against unemployment. In this current issue of FEE’s Panorama Internacional, we present a set of articles that seek to contextualize the global scenario in which the Brazilian labor reform is inscribed, its consequences and uncertainties and also its historical origins.

The necessity of a reform in labor laws has been presented in Western countries as a path without alternatives, but international experience shows that its benefits are at least uncertain. In his article, international relations researcher Ricardo Leães addresses the paradigmatic case of the Spanish reform and reveals that while the precariousness of labor relations is an increasingly present reality, it is not possible to state that the recent creation of jobs in that country has resulted from the reform. On the other hand, Asian countries have adopted a reform under their specificities, as the internationalists Bruno Jubran and Robson Valdez describe. While South Korea combines flexibilization of labor rules with the adoption of explicit policies of job creation, China, going the opposite way, as usual, has embraced the expansion of labor and social security rights in order to stimulate domestic market and keep the manifested transition of its development model.

In Brazil, the labor reform, besides the fulfillment of the public expenditure cap and the approval of the social security reform, has also been conceived as a prerequisite for growth resumption. But the relationship between the reform and job creation is not automatic here either. In recent times, the nation has managed to achieve a sustained cycle of economic growth with a historical nadir of unemployment rates, in conjunction with several transformations in the structure of the labor market, that have begun to disrupt old patterns, such as the rise in formalization and the reduction of wage inequalities between black and non-black people and between men and women. All that progress was achieved without fundamental changes in the labor legislation. It is known that such a scenario was possible owing to a favorable external environment that will hardly be repeated in the coming years. Is the reform, then, the only path for resuming growth?

In their article, researchers in economy Iracema Castelo Branco and Alessandro Donadio Miebach present the main aspects of the Brazilian labor reform. On the one hand, the advocates of the reform argue that more flexible forms of negotiation, even for establishing the workday, and the reduction of legal uncertainties contribute to boosting competitiveness by increasing opportunities for all workers, not only the formal ones, besides avoiding quantitative adjustments in employment in times of crisis. On the other hand, critics point out that the reform increases employees’ insecurity for it makes it possible to reduce wages and expand the workload (sometimes unilaterally) with predictable negative consequences not only for the workers’ well-being, but also for the expansion of the domestic market and the economic growth itself. In addition to the economic debate, the authors point out some adversities, such as the legal uncertainties that remain on the horizon and will only be resolved as the lawsuits proceed, the possibility that part of the workers will earn wages lower than the permitted minimum (due to the legalization of intermittent work) and the consequence of this for the social security collection policy, and the difficulties created for unions and workers to access the justice system.

Labor laws, together with freedom of association, seek to balance the bargaining power between employers and workers, which is naturally unequal in capitalist societies. If well calibrated, this set of rules contributes to preserve a dignified life for workers, not only regarding their access to consumer goods, but also their recognition as subjects and part of society, besides fostering economic expansion and job creation.

Some adjustments in the Brazilian laws might perhaps be fruitful given the changes in the work market. Historian Rodrigo Weimer’s article reveals that the Brazilian labor rules began to emerge even before their consolidation in the “worker’s bible”, a popular designation for the Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT), having been constantly adjusted ever since. The scope and the depth of the changes which have been passed under Michel Temer’s government, however, are unprecedented. The situation of the current ruling forces raises doubts as to whether the purpose of the approved reform is to make the rules more flexible to boost the economy or to unbalance the capital-labor relations. For this issue’s interviewee, Valdete Souto Severo, judge of the Regional Labor Court of the 4th Region (TRT4), there is no doubt: “there is no such thing as a “reform” of the CLT. There is no way we can talk about ‘reform’ when it changes more than 200 provisions, and all of them, without exceptions, aim to protect employers.”

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