Bittersweet Labor

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.

Pouring Sugar, 1992. Gelatin silver print, 20x24". Young men manually fill and pour sacks of brown sugar into the back of a truck for delivery at the packaging and distribution center.
Demerara Sugar, 1992. Gelatin silver print, 20x24". Although the refinery's work schedule is supposed to include three 8-hour shifts, the manager Clésio explains it's really two 12-hour shifts instead. Underpaid workers who depend on their minimum wage to support their families ($40/month at the time), have little say on how long they must work in order to keep their jobs.
Gelatin silver print, 16x20" Finished with his fieldwork for the day, this fourteen-year old boy peels a stalk of sugarcane to quench his thirst. He has been working in the cane fields with his mother ever since he can remember.
Man in Hard Hat, 1992
Raking Cane Pulp, 1992. Near João Pessoa, Paraíba, this sugar refinery produces brown sugar (demerara) for export, and distilled alcohol for domestic use. By law, the refineries can only sell alcohol to the government, yet they (Petrobrás) only buy 10% of the output, leaving the rest to evaporate.
Young Boy Surveying Gears, Usina Sta. Rita, 1992. Gelatin silver print, 20x24". The refinery's technology dates back to the 19th century - it cannot afford to update the equipment to increase productivity, and management doesn't do enough to promote worker safety.
Young Man Caring for Engine, 1992. Gelatin silver print, 20x24". Although underage workers are illegal, many factories and farms still employ young boys. Circumstances often require them to lie about their age, so they can help their parents support the family.
Paraíba Sugar, Gelatin silver print, 20x24". Manually oiling the steam engine's gears, Antonio spends his shift going from one oil cup to another, monitoring and refilling as needed.
João, Clésio and Adagilson, 1992
Steam Engine, Usina Santa Rita, 1992. In the northeastern states, production of sugar is the primary source of income. Ineffective laws and government, the inability of the refineries to modernize their equipment to increase production, regional drought and world recession have all contributed to the decline of the area's economy. The country also suffered again, since the U.S. started buying commodities like sugar, from other countries offering even cheaper labor.
Fernanda, Téxtil Toro Branco, 1998. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". Women are usually absent from working inside factories in Brazil, unless they are placed in traditional gender roles such as cooking and sewing. Here, Fernanda is cutting cloth with a machete (much faster than scissors) so it can be sewn into sacks for cotton-picking.
Lígia and Fernanda, 1992
Ortiz Waiting for Repairs, Téxtil Toro Branco, 1998. Gelatin silver print, 16x20" The hand picked cotton comes from both Brazil and Paraguay, and is deposited in the open warehouse. Ortiz and Blas relax while they wait for the repairs to the machine that suctions in the cotton through the large tubes hanging from the ceiling. It leads into the seed removal machines in the next building.
Muddy Driveway, 2000
Gelatin silver print, 16x20" Rain is a big worry for factory employees, as it can cause the cotton to mildew before it is processed.
Soy Oil Towers, 1998
Antoninho Baldo, 2000
Tractor and Erva Leaves, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20" Raw leaves brought in from regional farmers, being loaded onto the conveyor belt.
Gelatin silver print, 16x20" Alba brings his first harvest to Baldo for processing. He is nervous because the factory has just opened for the season and is testing the leaves from his fields. The amount of money he will be paid depends on their quality and freshness - R$3.00 (three reais) is the average pay per arroba (a bundle of 15 kilos), or R$3.50 for a high quality crop.
Moinho de Erva (Erva Mate Tea Mill), 1999. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". Baldo is located in Encantado (southern Brazil), and is the largest tea mill in South America. They produce over 100,000 kilos of Erva tea per day, with eighty percent of it exported to Uruguay for global distribution.
Lisandro and Old Native Tree, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". Lisandro recalls his grandfather harvesting the leaves of this great tree. He has taken on that job, and is preparing to collect over 150 kilos from this tree alone.
Renata's Cúia, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". Each shipment of leaves is individually tracked through the entire five-hour process. Once completed, the tea is taste-tested in a cúia (gourd) with a metal straw (bomba), in the Brazilian tradition. The cúia is re-filled with hot water, and passed from worker to worker, much like a peace pipe. Renata explains that although they can scientifically test the tea, nothing replaces an expert's sense of taste.
Bags on Conveyor Belt, 2000
Maria, Empacotamento, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". With the noise from the machinery, Maria can barely hear the other women talking, but tries to stay good humored about it. She is one of the few that keep their masks on, as the green tea dust settles everywhere. [ woman with head down]
Célso, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". Célso works at an Erva plantation in Muçúm, the largest one in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. He's in charge of braking the large branches from the Erva trees into a more manageable size for bundling. This must be done quickly as the cut leaves start oxidizing the more they are exposed to the air, and turn black.
Preta smiling, 2000
Luana and her Mother, Márcia, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20" Márcia has just delivered a lunchtime meal of rice and beans to Célso and others in the field. Her daughter Luana accompanies her on a daily basis, playing on the bales of tea.
Inside the Sapeco Oven, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". The tea leaves are spun and dried for 60 seconds inside this furnace, just enough to remove the moisture and preserve it's benefits.
Sapeco (Drying) Oven, 2000
Luis on Tractor, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". During the harvest season, Luis spends his day constantly on the tractor moving the Erva from the floor or trucks into the machine, which removes the larger branches. All teh Erva that arrives must be placed on the conveyor belt immediately, before the leaves start turning black. The conveyor belt then leads them to a carefully controlled furnace for one minute, kept at a steady 380 degrees Celsius. This removes most of their moisture without losing its flavor and medicinal qualities.
Silvia Filling Erva Bags, 2000. Gelatin silver print, 16x20". Silvia takes pride in working in teh packaging division with all the other women. She wishes her pay was the same as the men working at the factory, but management justifies it by saying the men do the hard labor, so they need to be paid more.