Over the last week, protests with crowds in the tens and even hundreds of thousands have erupted in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities. Protesters have taken to city streets, facing down twitchy, unprepared military police and seizing the steps of the federal congress building in Brasília. Most of the protesters are students and low-wage workers. Triggered most immediately by rising public transportation fares, the protests are really about the terms of inequality. Brazil has long been one of the world’s most unequal countries. Over the past twenty years, inequality has declined while the economy has grown and formal employment has expanded—a rare trifecta that has won Brazil well-deserved plaudits, favorable bond ratings, and the international recognition brought by hosting mega-events such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
So why are Brazilians, especially members of the urban working class, complaining? For one thing, economic growth has stalled over the last year, and job growth in the major cities has stalled along with it. More generally, the pressure points of inequality have changed, making the price of public transportation a particularly sensitive issue.
Between the 1950s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, municipal governments kept bus fares low, and public and private employers covered most transportation costs for low-income workers. Although private companies held concessions for most urban bus routes, municipal governments determined bus fares and indexed them to the country’s low minimum wage, which tended to hover at about $100 per month through much of that period. Employers then gave low-wage workers “vale-transportes,” or bus passes, which covered one round trip per day. Students at all levels also benefited from vale-transportes. In 1980, as Brazil began its gradual emergence from a long military dictatorship, the vale-transporte moved from paternalistic concession to legal right for most low-wage workers in the formal sector.
Historically, subsidized bus fare was the price local government and employers paid to maintain subsistence-wage labor in expensive cities. In return, workers got the privilege of exhausting commutes in dangerous, overcrowded buses. The light-rail metro systems that grew in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro from the 1970s on, meanwhile, was primarily used by the middle class. Metro fares were traditionally about double the bus fare, and were not usually covered by employer-paid vale-transportes.
Since 1993, Brazil’s minimum wage has climbed steadily. It is now about $300 per month. This is woefully far below the cost of living in São Paulo and Rio, but because most salaries are calculated as a multiple of minimum wage (minimum wage X five, for example), the increasing minimum wage has raised working and middle-class salaries farther up the chain. Public transportation costs have risen as well. Bus fare in São Paulo is now R$3.20, or about U.S.$1.50.
The gap between bus and metro fares, meanwhile, has shrunk, and in São Paulo a single metro ticket gives riders fare on the bus, as well, facilitating integration of bus and metro travel. Over the past twenty years, working-class use of metro in both São Paulo and Rio has expanded dramatically.
Overall, this transition has been positive for the working and lower-middle class residents of these major cities. But there are two problems: the first is that the value of the vale-transporte has declined, and the second is that city buses remain dangerous and overcrowded.
As the costs and mobility of urban labor have risen, public and private employers have sought to shift that cost to workers themselves. Minimum-wage workers and those covered by the complex regulations of the Brazilian Labor Code still receive the vale-transporte. But although the protections of the Brazilian Labor Code expanded during the re-democratization of the 1980s, they have not kept pace with the changing shape of the Brazilian economy. Employers have found ways of withholding the vale-transporte, or, more commonly, of deducting its costs from wages. As a result, the rising expense of getting to and from work erodes much of recent wage hikes. The coverage of vale-transportes for students, particularly those at the post-secondary level, has also diminished. Through it all, buses have continued to get more crowded and decrepit. Commute times have only lengthened as urban traffic has become more congested and real-estate pressures have pushed low-income workers farther out on the urban periphery.
As a result, an apparently minor rate hike, from R$3 to R3.20 for bus fare in São Paulo, triggered broad protests. Similar hikes in Rio and other major cities went into effect simultaneously, prompting less vociferous but related responses.
These quickly turned into protests about much more than bus fares, as participants seized the opportunity to vent dissatisfaction with the millions of dollars in public funds being spent on World Cup and Olympic preparations while the rest of the economy slumps. The heavy-handed police reaction to initial protests has only spurred further demonstrations, objecting to the government focus on maintaining the appearance of social peace in anticipation of upcoming mega-events at all costs. In other words, the protests have become a call to recognize that Brazil’s economic and political emergence has costs as well as benefits, and that those costs are not yet being equally borne.
What will be the outcome? Recent rate hikes are not likely to be repealed. But municipal, state, and federal governments are now on notice that public transportation is one of the key pressure points for the new shape of Brazilian inequality. Whether they will be able to respond in ways that meet the needs of low-wage workers will depend in part on the overall state of the Brazilian economy. But it will depend more immediately on recognizing the value of affordable, dignified public transportation for the functioning of Brazilian society.
Bryan McCann is the author of Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, forthcoming from Duke University Press.