By Benjamin Parkin, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Trash piled up throughout Rio de Janeiro this Carnival, as street sweepers from Comlurb (Municipal Urban Cleaning Company) went on strike. The strike was declared illegal on Saturday by the Justiça do Trabalho (Labor Court), and the street sweepers’ union, the Union of Employees of Companies of Cleanliness and Conservation in Rio de Janeiro, distanced itself from those that remain on strike.
Despite this, large numbers of street sweepers continued on strike over the Carnival period. After declaring the strike illegal, the Justiça do Trabalho demanded an immediate return of street sweepers to work, with the threat of a daily fine of R$25,000.
On Tuesday morning, Comlurb announced that it will fire 300 street sweepers for not going to work on Monday. Furthermore, it announced an agreement with the union for a nine percent salary rise to R$874.79 (US$375) per month, plus a forty percent rise in health risk allowance.
The strikers were initially demanding better working conditions, with a salary rise from R$803 to R$1,200 a month, the daily food allowance to be raised from R$12 to R$20, and overtime payment for work on Sundays and public holidays.
Various protests took place during Carnival and on Saturday, over one thousand street sweepers marched along Avenida President Vargas towards the Sambódromo, but the route was barred by police, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Less than 24 hours later, several hundred protesters gathered outside City Hall to continue their protest, with criticism focusing on Comlurb and the mayor, Eduardo Paes, and large numbers continued protesting on Monday and Tuesday.
Bruno Lima, a street sweeper and one of the organisers of Saturday’s protest, told Correio do Brasil, “We cannot take it any more. We have very low salaries, around R$900, the lunch ticket is outdated, and working conditions are terrible. Failing the workers, Comlurb has turned into a political coat hanger who works mechanically, and has no value.”
Lima claimed that the Union endorsed the strike on Friday morning, after a petition by workers, but inexplicably cancelled the movement on Saturday.
A statement issued by Comlurb on Sunday clarified their position by saying, “We maintain the special cleaning routine scheduled during the Carnival period. Some parts of the city suffered with interferences of that schedule due to members of a group of strikers, who do not represent and are not with the recognized labor union movement, which is considered illegal by the Labor Court.”
Despite this, residents of areas in Centro such as Lapa, as well as Zona Sul (South Zone), complained that the streets were clearly in a state of neglect, with piles of cans, bottles, plastic bags, and leftover food littering the streets, as a result of the multitude Carnival blocos (street parties) that took place over the Carnival period.
Strike action during Carnival is a strategic move to gain attention, and two years ago a twelve-day police strike on the eve of Carnival in Salvador led to a sharp increase in violence, with the city’s murder rate rising by 156 percent over a ten-day period. A police strike also occurred in Rio that year, although not as wide-spread or for as long.