April 2, 2009

Changing a Light Blub for Minimum Wage

They are fixing the road to the village. Not our semi-private road, but the main road that leads from Lima Duarte up into the mountains to the village, and then from the village all the way to the Park entrance.

This is a project that has been in talks for over ten years. First the money was an issue, and then how to do it became the problem.

Then the super rich guy who owns the huge fazenda with the illegal landing strip wanted the city to buy all the materials material from him. This guy is a real scandalous character. He’s your typical extremely wealthy Brazilian who thinks and acts above the law. He chops down trees, plows roads where ever he feels like, going against all environmental laws which are actually well enforced throughout the region because with the park comes a hefty presence of IBAMA (Brazil's environmental agency). But Mr. Rich just does what he pleases and then pays the fines – they’re peanuts to him. (If we however, happen to lay a finger on say… the dying tree that is about to topple over on top of our house… we’d be hit with a hefty fine that would really smart in our little pockets.)

Mr. Rich owns a mining company that has operations all over the world. He flies in celebrities and politicians to spend the weekend at his fazenda, housing them in a giant guest house replete with marble bathrooms and gold fixtures. He has continued to buy up land all the way around the park – essentially encircling it. He even bought an entire town on one end of the park. All the residents are packing up and moving on I’ve been told.

Anyway, the mayor of Lima Duarte took a stand against him and refused to buy the material for paving the road from him. We are big fans of the mayor for this.

Now, after nearly ten years of talks, the dirt road is finally getting it's make over. They are laying bricks by hand creating a lovely road that looks not at all unlike the one you’d follow, singing and skipping along, arm in arm, to see the Wizard.

Actually I’m rather proud of them for the choice they made in materials. They could have cheaply slapped some asphalt down and called it a day. But it was finally agreed that it should be done in a rustic way to preserve the beauty of the area.

We happened upon the work in progress:

Brazilian road work

Which naturally led to the question:

“How many Brazilians does it take to change a light bulb?”

Answer: 10 or more

  • One to realize the light bulb needs changing.
  • One to drive to the store to buy a new one.
  • One to hand him the parking ticket as he enters the store garage.
  • One to push the buttons in the elevator as he exits the garage.
  • One to greet him/stand security watch at the store entrance
  • One to follow him around and help in find the light bulb.
  • One to write the receipt for the light bulb.
  • One to take the cash or debit card for the light bulb.
  • One to put the light bulb in the bag.
  • One to stamp his parking ticket.

All right, all right…. You see where I’m going with this. (Seriously, it’s not an exaggeration.) And this is only if you have a ladder…. Just imagine if you have to go out and buy the ladder too!

Mão de obra, labor, in Brazil has been historically plentiful and cheap. Although that has been changing a lot in the last few years. Since Lula came to power in 2003, he’s raised the monthly minimum wage 46%, from R$240 in 2003 to it’s current R$465. On top of that, employers must pay into what would be the equivalent of unemployment and social security benefits. It has increased the purchasing power of many Brazilians, put more money circulating in Brazil’s economy, and helped raise a lot of people from the poverty line to a tenuous hold onto something resembling lower middle class.

On the flip side however, the cost of living has also gone up. Food, clothing, basic necessities now cost more, making a minimum wage salary still very difficult to live on. This is further complicated by the fact that now small employers can no longer afford to hire as many workers. The yoga school where I worked was a classic example of this. In keeping their pricing structure on par with gyms and other yoga schools they have only been able to raise their monthly fee from R$63 to R$65 since 2005. This is a direct reflection of the lack of earning increase for Brazil’s struggling middle class. Without any way to raise their own fees without loosing students, the school has had to absorb the increases in all of their other costs - rent, electricity, water, toilet paper. And with the rise in labor costs, they can’t afford to have a full time secretary any longer. The answering machine now picks up the phone, and they scramble to fill out student’s registrations and take payments in between teaching classes.

Similarly, C hasn't raised the hourly rate on his studio in 3 years. But we pay more for everything - including taxes. It’s the classic middle class squeeze, and just murder on small businesses.

Lula remains enormously popular. Even Obama confirmed this today at the G20 (2? 29? whatever) with a handshake and a slap on the back he said something to the effect of “Now here’s the world’s most popular president. Because he’s a good guy.” Apparently the kerfluffle over the blue-eyed greed comment didn’t get under the brown-eyed, brown skin of ol’ Prez. O.

Popular or not, Lula’s follow through on his promise to double the minimum wage salary is going to have a pretty big effect on the answer to the light bulb question. It’s my guess that in the near future, Brazilians will have to learn how to punch their own elevator buttons.


Danielle said...

hahaha... your lightbulb list cracked me up. When are you going to write that book!?

There's no doubt about it that there are much more service jobs here; things that we Americans are accustomed to doing ourselves or relying on machines to do. It always takes longer do get things done because you're waiting on all the people that have to put their hand in the cookie jar. But it is good for an economy like Brazil that can't afford (yet) to invest in things like automated ticket machines in parking lots or tollbooths and gas pumps that accept credit cards and cash.
(However, I think if this technology DID become cheaper, it would still take a long time for it to make its way into Brazilian way of life, because so many middle class and upper-middle class people here thrive on having people wait on them in various forms.)

Ballerina Girl said...

the road looks great! I like those blocks they are using!
Your joke was really funny...and yes it could have gone on until at least 15, right?! hahaha

Rachel said...

Did you create that joke? Can I use it on my blog?


lovelydharma said...

Rachel - sure go ahead! Myself and a couple of American friends in the car started cracking up when we saw all those workers and the lightbulb joke went on from there.

Danielle - I know... but the funny thing is that it seems that middle and upper middle class folks love sit around and complain about all the people doing things for them. It's never done right, it's never good enough... There is absolutely no equivalent to the saying "if you want something done right, do it yourself." It's more like if you want something done right, complain about the ten times you hired someone who did it wrong, and then maybe get lucky and the eleventh time time it will go right....!

BG! Coming to Minas soon eh? Holy week should be fun!

Evelyn said...

Great post. Bill is always flabbergasted at the various crazy jobs in Brazil. I didn't know Obama said that about Lula! I love both those presidents... too bad they have so much greed and Mr. Riches to work against!

Ballerina Girl said...

that's exactly where we are going..as well as touring around Mariana, Tiradentes and a few others that I can't recall right now!
Yea, I can't wait!

Stephanie said...

I love that they are putting such a nice road in!!

I have so much to learn! :)

marina said...

good post!! and like the knew street looks really nice ") have a nice day, marina