After Carnival trash strike, will Brazilian workers see gold in megaevents?

Striking trash workers in Rio were able to pressure the government for better wages during Carnival. With the World Cup quickly approaching, other sectors may try to follow their example.

Sergio Moraes/REUTERS
Garbage is seen on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro March 5, 2014, the result of a garbage collectors strike.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

You may have seen him during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics or doing Carnival in Rio, and chances are you'll see him again during the World Cup [this year] or Rio 2016 Games. Known as Renato Sorriso, or Smiley Renato, he is Brazil's most famous garbage man. He dances in his orange uniform, that of Comlurb, the city's municipal trash company, with a broom and a big grin, belying the tough nature of his job. It's an image that contrasts with scenes of striking sanitation workers [last] week, demanding higher wages amid one of the city's biggest annual events.

The strike lasted eight days, exactly during Carnival, one of the most critical times of the year for sanitation as tourists descend on the city and millions of people take to the streets. Garbage piled up all over the city, even in upscale neighborhoods. But the strike ended on March 8 when the city government agreed to raise sanitation workers' salaries by 37 percent. Now the base salary for a garbage worker will be R$1,100, or around $470 a month. The city also agreed to raise lunch subsidies from R$12 to R$20 [about $8.50]. The head of Comlurb said it could take a few days for the city's trash situation to be resolved.

So what are the implications of this whole episode?

First, there's the matter of mega-events. Trash workers were able to leverage the government during one large event as another approaches. Carnival is the worst possible time of year a trash strike could occur, aside from the New Year, and with less than 100 days until the World Cup, the government clearly wanted to nip the crisis in the bud to avoid another strike in June. It's possible that other workers could try to use the games to win wage increases to avoid a showdown during the World Cup. An airline workers' strike could be particularly damaging; they frequently threaten to strike right before Christmas.

Another issue has to do with the nature of trash itself in Rio. Last year, the mayor began the Zero Trash campaign, pledging to fine those who litter. By November, the city government claimed the amount of litter in the streets had declined by 50 percent, and within the first four months of the campaign, nearly 24,000 fines were given out. But it's not just a matter of threatening fines; it also has to do with a cultural mindset. The mayor himself was caught on video littering, and after the video was leaked, he begrudgingly gave himself a ticket.

As RioReal blog's Julia Michaels found in this excellent video report, one Carioca advocating for a cleaner Rio said it's about changing how people think.

Perhaps this culture of littering – knowing there will be someone there to clean up later – goes back to the slavery era. At least the wealthy, many of whom have full-time maids, don't need to clean up after themselves at home, so why would they need to anywhere else? With people to clean up after you wherever you go, including the street, a dependency grows on others to do this simple task. And it's no coincidence that many garbage workers are dark-skinned or of mixed race.

Finally, the issue goes to the heart of the social divide. In a country where the rich have long seen poverty as an unchangeable destiny, the trash workers are the type of people seen as happy with their lot, just content to get by and not complaining about their troubles. It's not entirely unlike how slaves were expected to act.

Renato Sorriso is a perfect example of what some want to envision about a trash worker: delighted in his thankless, low-paying job. "My broom is my passport," he told G1 in 2012. In the interview, he said he'd visited six countries because of his fame, and though he'd earned enough to live in upscale Zona Sul, he would like to live in Madureira, a working-class suburb in Rio's North Zone. It's the perfect picture of a poor, working Brazilian, even one with success, who wants to stay "with his own kind," as it were.

But because of Brazil's massive social transformation, even some of the "lowly" trash workers are moving on up into the new middle class. The June protests were a sign that as Brazilians' lives improve, they demand more, and the trash workers' strike is proof of that. Even these people, a type of Brazilian untouchable, are demanding more. Unlike their famous dancing colleague, they chose to no longer grin and bear it.

 Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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