Romais spent four months traveling throughout the Northeast of Brazil, awed by the fragility of human life among large industrial machines. While men are predominant workers in most factories throughout the country, the number of women employed at tea factories in the South caught her attention. Upon inquiry, the reason is the same world over: womens wages are less, they cause less trouble, often work harder and have more nimble fingers (important for packaging or sewing). Her observations during numerous visits since, suggest not much has changed. The men are in the factories and the women are still struggling with how to best support their children.
Brazil’s economy at the time of this documentary (early 1990s) was the largest and most advanced of the developing worlds, relying on industries that predominantly utilized “hands-on” manufacturing and antiquated technologies. Most factories lack the funds to automate or improve the processing of raw materials, and there is little hope from government, while the cost of paying laborers is too low for corporations to economically justify the cost of new technology.
The U.S. economy like much of the developed world, thrives on consumerism and consumption with many of its imported goods and raw materials originating in Brazil: sugar, soy, coffee, tea, orange juice, leather goods. These raw materials fetch a high price on Wall Street as commodities, yet the quality of life of those that helped originate this wealth, remains unaffected by the high sale cost of the commodities they produce. As a result, the capitalist system necessitates that workers become commodities themselves, sought for their underpaid work, while their true value generates greater profits elsewhere.
Kevin Bales explains in Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy*, that Brazil suffers the greatest economic disparity of any place on earth: fifty thousand people own almost everything. Although that may not be much considering the total population of the country is over 204 million; however, in contrast, four million peasants share merely 3% of the land, with most owning none, and with millions more stranded in cities and surrounding slums, unemployed.
Brazil produces about half of Latin America’s industrial output. Due to the global financial crisis of 1997, many countries suffered, with the most dramatic impact occurring in Brazil. Hundreds of millions watched their wages fall. Millions of immigrant workers were sent home. This had a serious effect in depressing world commodity prices, especially for developing countries dependent on raw material exports. In 1999 countries began to show signs of recovery, but the ripple effect meant workers saw little improvement in their lives. With the decrease in commodity prices for Brazil’s goods, the workers suffered.**
Laborers are sought after for their underpaid work, which means greater profits for corporations. Work, Romais feels, is the means by which people survive and it is necessary to explain with cultural accuracy, observations relating to human dignity. It also seems impossible to make any in-depth study of people, without incorporating what they have created.
* Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA 2000, p125.
** Anderson, Sarah and Cavanaugh, John. “Bearing the Burden: The Impact of Global Financial Crisis,” Workers in the Global Economy, Instyitute for Policy Studies, Washington DC, 2000. www.laborrights.org