What a strike in Rio tells about us as people

(originally posted as a Facebook status update in 28/02/2014)

The other day, in a chat with a photojournalist about human rights violations in Rio, I argued that the problem in the city is not FIFA or IOC, but ourselves as people. This photo album I share illustrates the point I made in that talk.

I told her that I believe we Brazilians (not only the elites) do not often care about what happens inside favelas (our kinds of slums). That is why the evictions, the murders, the drug trade and the low living conditions have persisted for over a century since the first favela was built. As long as those problems do not affect us non-favela dwellers, we don’t care.

I made a similar argument about the protests last year. So many people were on the streets because they felt they were complaining about what affected them: low-quality education and precarious public healthcare system, expensive transportation and so on. But rarely do we create similar mass demonstrations for supporting the demands of low-salaried workers.

Low-salaried workers like the trash collectors in the photos. They have been on strike for almost a week now. They demand salary raises to manage to live in an increasingly expensive city. It is certainly a fair demand considering they get paid shit for an extremely tiring and time-consuming job.

But look at the photos: it is only them demonstrating. The “300 of Sparta”, as some have referred to those who have resisted the threats of job termination from the mayor Eduardo Paes. Unfortunately, they are not getting mass support. Unfortunately, but also understandably.

Certainly more than 300 workers are on strike. Also, many people are supporting their cause (the photos were taken by a youth media collective that constantly covers the protests all over Brazil).

But many more of us are mostly bothered about the fact that Rio now is filthy and stinks. That our walking around the marvelous city has been spoiled by these strikes. That our Carnaval happened under tons of rubbish covering the streets and famous landscapes of the city.

Many people use the readers’ comments in different media to actually criticize the strike. “If they want more money, they should have studied more!”, some say. That is, the same people who have created online campaigns against the high cost of living in Rio now bitch at low-income workers who also want to be able to live in the city.

Others say that they should get even smaller pay to do such crappy work. For them, salary should be defined according to the status of the job, not the job as such. And cleaning is down there in our scale of important-unimportant jobs.

In addition to not caring about the causes and the problems of being a low-salaried worker in Brazil, we Brazilians also expect them to suffer. Be it suffering as a sort of punishment for not having accomplished as all of us who have studied and worked hard to have some comfort in a meritocratic world. Be it by suffering with a hard life so that we will be able to feel ourselves as more important than some others in a class-divided, socioeconomically hierarchical society.

FIFA will come and go. The Olympics will come and go. Tourists and Brazilians will be happy. So will sponsors, the media and other interested parts. But after those events that many foreign observers consider to be the causes of our ongoing problems are gone, our home problems (discrimination and lack of empathy with low-income populations, for example) will continue.

Hopefully, the low-income workers – like the trash collectors – will continue realizing that they cannot wait for the majority’s support to have their salaries and working conditions improved. Hopefully they will get even more pissed about giving their blood for the comfort and privilege of people who don’t really give a fuck about their living conditions. Hopefully these beautiful images will be more and more often taken and shared as symbols of the struggles of the poor.

Last year the public school teachers protested. Now the trash collectors. Let other exploited workers claim for better living conditions and especially RESPECT in the unequal and divided Marvelous City as well.