There’s a Brazilian ditado (saying) that says, “Vamos em frente que atrás vem gente”, which translates roughly to “if you stay still too long, others will pass you by”. It can perhaps be best applied to the work environment and with Brazil being a country fast approaching 200 million people it’s best if all those people have work. Many Brazilians have a lot of pride in being employed, even if for those who have a basic-level job in the service industry. The other day, though, I found out that it’s not just in the citizen’s own personal interest to have work but it also happens be to illegal to be unemployed in Brazil. It’s even technically punishable by a short jail term of between 15 days and 3 months.
The reason behind it is likely found in social security benefits. While in the US, you effectively pay your own future benefits out of each paycheck, I hear that it’s possible for the elderly to get a social security check in Brazil, regardless of one’s prior employment history, or lack thereof.
Before the idea of going to jail starts to worry you, read on.
Does this law explain why most retail shops have many employees? Not quite, that’s more about stringent labor laws regarding wages and firing. If each employee has a pre-arranged wage, there’s not much of an added benefit to send them home during down-time (especially in case there’s a sudden surge of customers). Firing is also made difficult due to current laws regarding employment contracts.
The fact that someone may be committing a crime without knowing it is not at all specific to Brazil. For proof, there’s a somewhat recently-published book called “Three Felonies A Day” on Amazon which discusses how the average American commits up to 3 felonies per day, that is, according to the Feds.
Getting back to Brazil, here’s the actual legal standing (specifically, Legal Decree 3.688, Article 59, from October, 1941) on the criminal misdemeanor of vagrancy, in laymen’s terms: “Being unemployed, while able to work, and without receiving other income, is the same as committing vagrancy.” What it means is, if you’re Brazilian who was stopped on the streets and your “carteira de trabalho” (employment card*) wasn’t signed (meaning testified to, by your current employer), you could have gone to jail. There’s no need to get too worried because the reality is, no one goes to jail these days for being out of work. It just doesn’t happen.
* The official name is “Carteira Nacional de Trabalho e Previdencia Social” (National Card of Employment and Social Security).