Basic Income

Still without emergency assistance, unemployed women struggle against hunger

Informal workers from the ghettos of São Paulo and Pará survive aided by solidarity, and in fear of the pandemic

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
One in three resident's of Brazil's slums will have difficulty buying food, the Favela Data Institute shows - Marina Duarte/Brasil de Fato

“With what we had, we paid our bills for the month of March. Next month, we don’t know what we are going to eat,” explains the 48 year old saleswoman Beatriz Mendonça, about life in times of the coronavirus.

Mendonça is a resident of the Grajaú neighborhood, in the poor neighborhoods of São Paulo’s south side, and shares a rented house with her husband, who is a self employed mason worker, her 13 year old daughter and 4 year old granddaughter. She is an informal worker in the sales sector, and since the 19th of March, after stores and malls shuttered, has had her contracts and income suspended, due to the quarantine that was imposed to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Dead people don’t pay their bills, so we first have to think about our health, about protecting our kids, only after that can we think about bills. It was tough, because this caught us by surprise, we weren’t ready with reserves to last one, three, or four months at home,” Mendonça tells us. She recounts that her self employed husband, is also having difficulties finding work, since the condominiums he serviced are prohibiting the circulation of people.

The reality the family faces, according to data published last week by the Favela Data Institute, is the same as the one faced by one in three residents of Brazil’s slums, who will have a hard time buying food during the pandemic.

Furthermore, the data shows that the pandemic has already changed the lives of almost 100% of shanty town dwellers. The majority are autonomous (47%) or informal workers (8%), and because of this, have no guarantees under labor laws, or financial assistance like for those with formal employment ties.

This is the situation that domestic worker Dilza dos Santos, who is 56 and lives with her 35 year old son in the São Savério neighborhood, in the outskirts of the Southeast of São Paulo, finds herself in. The work she provided for three different families is no longer available.

We need this money, because bills keep arriving. Where are we gonna get money to pay them? My son lives here, but cannot help, because he has two children and pays child support. What I used to make helped a lot. Without going to work, quarantined at home, things are very difficult,” she recounts.

In Pará

On the other side of the country, in the state of Pará, Zuila Amaral, who is also a domestic worker, is 48 and lives in the Pratinha 1 district in the poor neighborhoods of Belém. She is facing the same situation as Dilza Santos.

“I am anguished to not be working. It’s the worst feeling, to be stuck at home with no money. I used to have three jobs daily, now I have none because of this business”, says Amaral. She adds, “We are struggling here, going through a tough time, because only he [the husband] is working, poor guy, he makes very little. I’m at home with the boys.”

She has five kids, but only two of them live with her and her husband. She receives government school/income assistance for just one of them, but it is three months late. The other son that lives with them is unemployed. Her husband is a food deliveryman for a wholesale network, earns minimum wage, and is currently the sole provider of the four. With the money, the family still has to help her elderly mother, who has health problems.

Zuila shares that she is relieved to have benefited by measures adopted by the Pará state government, which suspended water and electricity bills. Such measures have yet to be implemented by the government of São Paulo.

In Pará however, the coronavirus crisis is a burden on top of a yearly problem that occurs in the city: tidal flooding. Due to the lack of basic sanitation and high volume of rain, daily, thousands of houses are invaded by water.

This is the case for produce seller Wanda Maria dos Santos, 42, who lives in the Jurunas neighborhood, already overrun by water. “We are going through many difficulties. When the rain falls, the street becomes completely flooded. We are scared of the high waters in April, because every house here was flooded,” she explains. She helps maintain a household of 25 people – all part of high risk groups – with the R$700 she makes by selling snacks on the streets.

Right at the outset, we were able to buy some hand sanitizer, but it ran out and we are making do with soap. But we are also having difficulties with everything else, in terms of food and hygiene, because we are not working this whole time.”

Emergency basic income

Beatriz, Dilza, Zuila and Wanda all fit the profile outlined by the National Congress last week, that would be eligible to receive the government’s emergency assistance. This is the case for around 38.1 million informal workers in the country and a good portion of the 13.6 million living in slums – according to data by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) and the Favela Data Institute respectively.

Distribution of the aid was set to begin on Tuesday April 7th for informal laborers. In turn, those who already receive aid from the government will have between the 16th and 30th of April to opt for one benefit or the other. There are still doubts on how to access the aid and how long it will be before any amount actually gets to people.

Workers can request the assistance via the Federal Bank’s website, starting on Tuesday April 7. “Now we don’t even know when they will pay us. They said that domestic workers are eligible, the motorcycle taxis as well, because truth be told, I am unemployed”, says Zulia Amaral. The doubts she has are shared by the other women Brasil de Fato interviewed.

“The government should help us, because there are a lot of people who are in need and going hungry. At least for now, I have someone who can help me and some people in the community are helping each other out, but others don’t. There are people in need, who pay rent, who have no where to live, it’s really hard,” expresses Dilza dos Santos.

For saleswoman Beatriz Mendonça, the emergency basic income needed to arrive “yesterday.” She fears that the financial resource will take long to get to her and make her situation even worse.

“The registration period should already be over, people should have already received it this week. Because if not, people will start killing each other. If they don’t die from the virus, they will die of despair,” she claims, highlighting her concern for her son and granddaughter, as well as other families in her surroundings. “We ourselves are struggling but imagine the kids? It has to be quick. It’s good that they’re doing this yes, but it has to be quick. Not just for me, because I can still get by. But there are families that have seven, eight kids at home, with four or five newborns. So it has to be quick”.

Precarious reality

The scenario described by these workers could be even worse if the marginalized neighborhoods go through a phase of uncontrolled acceleration of the pandemic. This is the view of Nani Cruz, coordinator of the Center for the Promotion and Rescue of Citizenry in Grajaú (Ceprocig), that for over 20 years has been helping children and adolescents in vulnerable situations in Grajaú, a marginalized community in São Paulo’s south side.

She points out that the very recommendations for the COVID-19 quarantine are difficult to administer, seeing that the precarious reality of the families in these communities, make hygienic procedures and social distancing hard to practice.

“The dwellings are all stacked on top of each other, there is no way to pass through those narrow corridors keeping a safe distance from other people for example. Sometimes we have 6 people living in a single bedroom with a kitchen attached to it. Some families have eight, some even more. How can they practice these things? How does this dynamic work in a reality like this? It’s a whole different ball game here, when it comes to prevention, when it comes to basic care,” describes the community leader, emphasizing that lack of information is also rampant in these areas.

Some cases of the novel coronavirus have already appeared in local hospitals, says Cruz, which makes her even more scared. She thinks these hospitals don’t have the structure to care for all those who may need it, and the living conditions in the surrounding communities only increase the chances for things to get out of control.

“The despair here will be enormous. How are we going to deal with this situation within the precarious reality these families live in? Contagion will spread quickly in the slums, and this worries me a lot. It’s not only the elderly who will die here. The young and everybody else will die too, we are going to see a rapid increase in infections,” she warns, while again emphasizing how important the emergency basic income is in preventing people from going hungry.

Not without reason, though families are worried about their jobs and wages, they are also very much concerned about the threat of the pandemic. Graça Xavier, who is the coordinator of the Union of Popular Housing Movements (UMMP), which caters to the entire southeast region of São Paulo, finds that people are in fact practicing social distancing.

“The vast majority has adhered to the quarantine, they are scared to death of contracting COVID-19. Here in our area, on the weekends the streets were filled with parties all the time, it’s no longer so. Even the party kids are acting with solidarity and responsibility in the midst of all this. It is gratifying to know, that even in this difficult moment, that these families taking things even more seriously than the president himself,” she affirms.


Nani Cruz and Graça Xavier are part of social movements that work in São Paulo’s poorer neighborhoods, in a reality similar to that in other poor neighborhoods of the country. Their movements understood the importance of unity at this point in time and to work to ensure that families get by. Thus, they formed a network of solidarity to support vulnerable families and to demand actions from authorities.

A collective of over 30 social movements recently published an online platform, in which they urge the “State to fulfill its responsibility to resolve the crisis,” showcasing concrete actions that could help, like the distribution of food baskets and hygiene products.

“A quick survey revealed a need for 15,000 food baskets immediately. We began an online petition, in various places. So far we have come up with 1,500. We have distributed all of them, made a house by house registry, checking on the needs of each family, and thus were able to get this first batch to them,” explains Xavier, who adds that this a nationwide campaign.

Saleswoman Beatriz Mendonça and domestic worker Dilza dos Santos, got some supplies this week, which was a “relief” for them. They had almost nothing at home, no coffee, no sugar. “They handed out food baskets in the community, it helped a lot,” Santos recounts, reminding us that the basket has made it possible to use the little income they have left, to buy other items of immediate necessity.

“Getting this food basket will help us out a lot, somethings will be missing, like milk for the kids, and fruit. We’re gonna take the money we would have used for rice and beans to buy other things. Kids can’t eat rice and beans all day long. She [her granddaughter] misses school, but she won’t miss a meal. So this helped a lot. It came at a the right time,” Mendonça tells us.

Actions in Pará

Actions of solidarity are multiplying across the country. In Pará, the person responsible for the Coração da Leitura Project changed the initiative’s focus after 20 years. A childhood-education professional, 58 year old Socorro Conceição, has recently substituted care for children with learning difficulties, for a campaign to provide food to the families who need it most.

“We have an online food drive, to get food baskets to the out of work people in our community. A lot of people are already going hungry and have nobody to turn to, many worked as domestic workers and were let go,” she says.

Conceição reports that families are concerned about COVID-19, but also about how they will provide for themselves. She believes the government’s actions, though positive, are not enough to address all of people’s needs.

“The government’s actions are short term. They will help a little, but will not address all of people’s needs. We know they are providing these baskets, now the this money is supposed to come if they register. Some people don’t have computers, don’t have cell phones to actually register, so they’re gonna be in a bad spot”, she concludes.

The unity of these different social movements, that is growing the networks of solidarity all over the country, has also come together to propose measures to the Bolsonaro government, the judicial and legislative branches, as well as state and municipal entities.

The Brazil Popular Front and the People Without Fear Front, last week jointly released the Emergency Platform to Fight the Coronavirus Pandemic and Crisis in Brazil, which includes more than 60 suggested measures to combat the economic and health crisis.

Among the alternatives for the most vulnerable low income population, is the immediate implementation of the emergency basic income, the inclusion in this process of families that already receive other federal aid, and the suspension of utility bills such as water, gas and electricity.

“These measures were adopted by the neoconservative Macron government in France. Why not do it here in Brazil? Moreover, countries poorer than ours, like El Salvador, are implementing similar policies. We have all the conditions in place to be able to temporarily suspend these bills, we prove this on our platform,” stated Guilherme Boulos, from the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), on the day of the platform’s launch.

Furthermore, the MTST leader said that foreclosures and evictions must also be temporarily halted, in case people cannot pay their rents or mortgages. Spaces for accommodate the homeless must also be made available. For example, hotels that have been emptied due to the pandemic, could serve as shelters, and in turn the government can subsidize payments to the sector while the crisis lasts.

“This platform is here to tell the Brazilian people that the false alternative Bolsonaro is suggesting, of people being out on the streets, not respecting the quarantine, or staying at home starving is a complete fallacy”, affirms Boulos.

“We are asking and appealing for this sentiment of solidarity to spread, because this is a moment when we must unite, the working class must unite, because it’s abundantly clear that we can’t rely on a president that isn’t interested in saving lives. We want to save lives, social movements have always fought to save lives,” concludes Nani Cruz from the Center of Popular Movements, which is a signatory of the Emergency Platform released by the Brazil People’s Front.

Edited by: Vivian Fernandes