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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 00:10 GMT
Ruses that spring from Brazil's woes
By Robert Plummer
BBC News business reporter in Sao Paulo

Sandwich-board man advertising job vacancies in Sao Paulo city centre
The best way to keep up with the Brazilian job market

When Brazilian companies want to advertise vacancies for manual or clerical workers, they often rent space on the backs of sandwich-board men.

It can be an effective way of reaching people in a country where there is no formal network of government job centres.

But it also points to a wider tendency in Brazil of employing people in menial jobs that, in more developed countries, do not even exist.

Until quite recently, every smart office block in Sao Paulo used to employ an "ascensorista" - a person whose sole job was to ride up and down in the lifts all day, pushing buttons that the occupants could easily have pressed for themselves.

Likewise, automatic photo-booths on the city's streets are operated by a person who puts in the money for you and checks that your passport pictures are fully dry before dividing them with scissors and putting them into a small envelope.

Economists call this "underemployment", in the sense that the people holding such jobs are underused and do not contribute to productivity.

Their place in Brazil's economic structure may be precarious, but they enjoy a higher status than the wide variety of people working in the informal sector.

These range from "camelos" (street vendors) to "catadores de lixo" (scavengers of rubbish who look for recyclable material to sell).


These activities may not exactly boost the Brazilian economy, but at least they do no actual harm to it - unlike fraud and corruption, which continue to cause great concern to the country's businessmen.

Brazil has been slowly slipping down Transparency International's annual corruption perception index, from 54th place in 2003 to 59th in 2004 and 62nd this year.

Passport photo-booth in Rua Libero Badaro, Sao Paulo
Passport photo machines are not self-service in Brazil

But its score in the table has declined only slightly during that time, from 3.9 to 3.7, on a scale ranging from 10 (highly clean) to zero (highly corrupt).

This, however, is just an assessment of Brazil's international image, not a detailed analysis of wrongdoing, and is partly a reflection of the political corruption scandal currently afflicting the governing Workers' Party (PT).

A more useful indication of Brazilian levels of corruption can be gleaned from research conducted by risk consulting company Kroll, in collaboration with Transparency's local affiliate, Transparencia Brasil.

Their joint report, based on a survey of 78 firms conducted in 2003, found that just over half had been asked for bribes by officials responsible for tax collection.

The survey also found that more than two-thirds of the firms admitted spending up to 3% of their annual revenues on bribing officialdom. The rest spent more than that.


But at the same time, companies that become enmeshed in corrupt dealings with the Brazilian authorities tend to earn the contempt of their own employees.

"We found a very interesting correlation," Kroll Brasil managing director Eduardo de Freitas Gomide said in an interview with the BBC News website.

A "catador de lixo" (rubbish scavenger) pulls his cart through Sao Paulo city centre
Rubbish scavengers are part of Sao Paulo's informal economy

"The companies that pay bribes to government officials, the companies that avoid paying taxes, the companies that are not complying with Brazilian law are the ones that suffer internal fraud.

"When the management lacks ethical standards, people inside the company will be much more willing to commit fraud."

The problem is that high levels of Brazilian bureaucracy have always encouraged a flexible approach to the rules, merely in order to get anything done at all.

Brazilians refer to this finding a way round obstacles as the "jeitinho" (literally, the "little way").

Sometimes this can involve merely asking an official for a small favour - but on other occasions, this can overstep the mark and enter the realms of nepotism and graft.


For Mr Gomide, the existence of the "jeitinho" is a symptom of huge internal contradictions in Brazil.

"We are a very friendly people, we have carnival, but we are also a violent society that does not respect the law in many ways. We have this big disparity between rich and poor.

Former Brazilian President Getulio Vargas
Vargas shot himself in the chest in August 1954

"Some 60 to 70% of people are really suffering from lack of schools, lack of housing, lack of a good public health system, and it's very hard to make them respect the law, because they feel that the system does not respect them."

But this disrespect for the law has, in the past, come from the very top of Brazilian society.

It was memorably summed up in a phrase attributed to President Getulio Vargas - who ran Brazil with the backing of the military from 1930 to 1945, then as a democratically-elected leader from 1951 until his suicide in 1954.

"For my friends, anything - for my enemies, the law," he is reported to have said, highlighting the way in which Brazilians are seen as prizing personal loyalties over other social responsibilities.


Another politician from that era, Adhemar de Barros, became notorious for his cynical slogan, "Rouba, mas faz" (he steals, but he gets things done).

The legacy of such men has taken decades to unpick - and in some ways, still lingers.

Popcorn vendor in Sao Paulo city centre
Street vendors will not disappear from Brazil any time soon

"It's very Brazilian to think the next president will solve everything," says Embraer's director of social development, Luiz Sergio Cardoso de Oliveira.

As the aircraft manufacturer's main exponent of corporate social responsibility, he is responsible for educational projects including a secondary school for underprivileged children in the city of Sao Jose dos Campos, close to the Embraer headquarters.

"But in certain areas and in certain classes, there's now a realisation that the future is us, not Lula or whoever," he told the BBC News website.

In Mr Cardoso de Oliveira's view, the Brazilian middle classes are now starting to realise that they must bear some responsibility for helping to narrow the wealth gap in their society.

But given the scale of the task, Sao Paulo's sandwich-board men and rubbish scavengers are still likely to be fixtures of the city for some time to come.

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