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Editorial, by Stone Korshak

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – After being here over six years I’ve seen a lot of people (foreigners) come and go from the Cidade Maravilhosa. Almost everyone is spell-bound when they arrive, immediately in love with the rich tropical setting of geography, culture and excitement of a exotic unfamiliar environment. Then people find out how hard it can be to live here.

Stone Korshak, Editor and Publisher of The Rio Times.
Stone Korshak, Editor and Publisher of The Rio Times.

The reason it is so difficult is because finding gainful employment seems about ten times harder than in the U.S. – or parts of Europe. The unemployment rate is relatively low officially, but the minimum wage here is R$788/month, and the average wage for Brazil is just over R$2,100. This may afford (along with cost-of-living expenses) someone to rent an apartment in a favela community, but it’s certainly not the post-card dream that brings most here.

As far as the work, that salaried job includes a “thirteenth month” of vacation pay and a seemingly endless amount of holidays, food and transit allowances and so on – if the employee is legal. However, while becoming a legal resident of Brazil is not as hard as the reciprocal scenario in the U.S., it is difficult, and takes time, and time takes money.

Still every year more people arrive with the dream of staying here, and what I always tell them is, it’s an amazing place to live – just a hard place to work. People do it, but few realize how difficult it is, and in my experience the foreigners living here fall into three general categories.

The Multinational:
The first are the very lucky and very few who were able to find senior level positions in multinational companies and organizations. This includes companies like KPMG or AmBev and used to be heavily stacked with energy and oil companies like BG (recently purchased by Shell), Exxon, and Statoil – who have for the most part moved on to green pastures. This group also includes the government positions from the consulates and military, U.S., British, German, Swiss, and so on.

These jobs are found and negotiated back home though, almost never while in Brazil. The best part about these jobs is the high salary and that they usually come with a living stipend including free rent at relatively luxurious level standards (R$10,000–R$15,000/month rent). The bad part about these positions is that they are almost always short-lived, 2-3 years and then faced with the option of living here without the financial support on regular wages paying rent, they almost always have to leave, heartbroken.

The Backpacker:
This group represents the largest in numbers and does not always literally have a backpack on, but they are usually younger, and have come across Rio and Brazil on some other travels and decided to try to stay. Almost always starting on a tourist visa, the options for “irregular” work are few, usually teaching English, or renting temporary apartments. It is possible to make a living doing both, but it will take a long time to build up to it, and it will never be as easy as working back home.

The pay usually starts so low that it requires living in a favela community and or a shared apartment somewhere a bit off the beaten path. As an irregular worker, the generous labor laws noted above do not necessarily apply, so it can lead to some exploitation and under compensation – but with some time and tenacity, people can make it work. The big warning here is it may take at least 6-12 months longer than hoped to get to this level, so people often have to live off whatever savings they may have until then,… And a lot of folks don’t make it that long.

The Entrepreneur:
Starting a business is never an easy thing and even harder in Brazil where the culture, economy and government is inherently tilted toward big government/business and subsidizing the underpaid worker, yet entrepreneurs can’t help themselves from trying. This group comes to Brazil with a vision (or has one while here) and through the love of the idea tries to make it work.

The thing about this approach is it takes even more resources to start – often a minimum of R$150,000 for the Investor Visa, not to mention the cash flow reserves for things to take 2-3 times longer then hoped due to the “Brazil Cost” and learning curve of how to navigate the system. And, a system that is stacked against foreign interests here in a natural protectionist mentality (no one wants to be exploited).

All this sounds a little negative, but it is only intended to be helpful to those planning to come to Rio to live. Brazilians know how hard it is to survive here, and that’s why so many are puzzled why us gringos keep coming. Yet for those that plan ahead and are willing to compromise and scrap in pursuit of the dream, the quality-of-life payoff can be amazing, it is after all, the Cidade Maravilhosa.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Working and Living
Rio de Janeiro offers some of the best quality-of-life in the world, if you can afford it, photo by Pedro Kirilos/Riotur.
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11 COMMENTS

  1. I really like the article. I’m from Rio and I love my city. Rio has an amazing energy, people are really friendly, you have infinite things to do (beaches, bars, music, theater, restaurants, movies, outdoors, Lake, Mountains, etc) but the day-to-day experience is as hard as the article describes: everything is really expensive in Rio nowadays, there are few decend jobs and one thing that the author forgot to mention: the traffic is a complete chaos (it takes us 1 hour to cross Copacabana’s 2 miles). Rio has the most unbelievable traffic jams! Of course this is due to Rio’s Zona Sul (South Region) being a small strip of land between the ocean, the lake and the mountains.
    I wouldn’t say is Rio has best quality of life in the world, but it sure is a fun one when it comes to partying and eating well. If you like quiet, Rio is not the place to be (however there are a few quiet areas around the city), but if you like busy places, lots of people on the street that’s where you should be!
    It’s been 11 years I’m out of Rio, but I miss it every single weekend.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge of the place.
    Quite helpful information for the new-comers. However you forgot to mention here about the language barrier :)

  3. From the eight years that I’ve been coming and going to Brazil, I can say that this article hits the nail right on the head!

    Brazil has been a great place to travel through and vacation, but for a gringo to equal the quality of life you can have back home with a job or business there is extremely low.
    The fun is short lived and the novelty wears out, once you realize how expensive Rio has become and experience how difficult it is to earn an income that can sustain a lifestyle that you maybe used to back home.

    Brazil is an amazing country and I look forward to visiting the Amazon and Pantanal, yet for doing business I will stick with US based opportunities that not only gives Americans the ability to work abroad, but also give world citizens the opportunity to expand their boundaries to have more fun, freedom and fulfillment in their lives.

  4. The caption of the picture says Rio has some of the best quality of life in the world. That is SUCH a ludicrously false statement. I challenge you to do this test: Select 10 Cariocas in the 20-50 age category, that have lived, not just visited but LIVED, in any other city of the world outside of Brazil; Ask those 10 people if they agree that Rio has some of the best QOL in the entire world. I guarantee you that 10 of 10 will most emphatically say ‘NO!’. Rio has a large number of eating and entertainment options and beaches. Rio CAN be a great place to visit, but it is NOT a great place to live. Ask anyone, ANYONE who actually lives there, and they will agree. If Rio is such a great place, why do Cariocas who can afford to travel somewhere on vacation invariably choose to travel to the USA, or Europe, or the south, or the northeast? It would benefit Rio more if you told the truth about it, and stopped propagating the myth that it is such a wonderful place.

  5. Stone, a very insightful article. I can’t fault you on any of your points… I have been fortunate to have been able to live here for almost 14 years and I have enjoyed every day of it. I doubt, if I had not been a member of that miniscule 4th group, retirees, that I would have been able to enjoy the experience as much as I have. There is no question that first and foremost the language and cultural barriers are formidable. The skyrocketing cost of living can make a poorly planned venture to Rio into a truly sad experience. Hopefully, forewarned is forearmed.

  6. The author forgot to mention a fourth type of immigrant to Rio……….. The Retired. I have been to Brasil but never to Rio and it would not be a place of choice for me due to extremely high cost and traffic problems

  7. I’ve never lived in Rio for any extended period but have travelled on and off to Rio and Brazil during the 1990’s and early 2000’s for vacations and some business (I’m a lawyer).

    I met and spent time with Brazilians from all social classes (in different social contexts of course). What I did notice was that Brazilian young adults from the upper middle classes (who were completing their tertiary studies) tended to live with their parents until well into their late twenties and usually until they got married after which the parents still supported their living costs.

    Funnily enough, I also knew a Rio family where both the parents held down medical jobs in both the private and public sector and the whole family (four children – one a lawyer, one a student and the other an engineer) lived pretty far outside Rio (in order to save money of course) in one house. It seemed the parents had a plan to live comfortably using the “jeitinho” system to the whole family’s advantage.

    My point here is that unless one arrives in Brazil with money as a gringo, I think the possibility of getting a job and having a good standard of living is close to impossible. Even if you know wealthy local people, this won’t really help with upward mobility unless you marry the ugly daughter. I would assume the moment you get divorced, you would be treated as a leper by the family.

    The Brazil system is a maze to navigate as Mr Korshak rightly noted even for the upper middle Brazilian classes. Unless you come from a very rich Brazilian family or are connected (i.e. rich people knowing other rich people) the chance of success as a foreigner having your own business and not churning through your savings at a rapid rate is very small. And as an employee – just forget it. As an expat on a contract – well enjoy your stay while it lasts and goodbye when you get re-located.

    Rio = party town for the monied. Not a place for work. Sao Paulo is a different animal and not part of this article.

    My advice – enjoy Rio until the money runs out and then head back home with memories of weird and wonderful moments.

    I salute your efforts Mr Korshak!!

    Warm regards

    Barry Varkel

  8. Stone, your article was really interesting. I grew up in São Paulo but lived my adult life in the US until I retiring and have been living in Niterói ever since and love it. Every time I cross the Rio-Niterói bridge and see the city skyline and the mountains in the distance I say to myself that I am so lucky to live in such a beautiful place. I spent 4 years searching for the perfect location to call home and literally spent that time with realtors looking at beach properties between the cities of Buzios and Recreio dos Bandeirantes and ended up settling in the city of Niterói in a residencial neighborhood called Itacoatiara which has one of the most isolated and beautiful beaches I have ever seen.

  9. Valuable insights, Stone. From my 45 expatriate years here I think the comment attributed to Charles DeGaulle and/or Tom Jobim still applies: “Brazil is not for amateurs.” But it IS possible to succeed, especially with persistence and language skills and the ability to bounce back from certain defeat. Cheers to all who try!

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