Migration and Labour: A Comparative Study between Brazil and Angola

2 September 2020
Research Innovation

Flávia de Almeida Moura  | Professor and researcher, Maranhão Federal University

In this study, we identified different survival strategies and the everyday forms of resistance of rural labourers in the state of Maranhão, Brazil, and three provinces in the south of Angola (Huambo, Huíla and Benguela), in an effort to guarantee their families’ livelihood. Due to the economic, political, social and cultural particularities of the two contexts under comparison, these strategies vary according to the positions that the subjects occupy, especially with regard to land (subsistence agricultural labour) and work outside their place of origin.

We found situations in which James Scott’s concept of everyday forms of resistance helps us to better understand the dynamics of some families of workers who have been subjected to working conditions analogous to slavery[1] in the State of Maranhão. In the municipality of Codó in 2015, we interviewed a worker rescued three times from such conditions by inspection teams from the Ministry of Labour. His explanation of why he was subject to this repeated exploitation had to with the difficulty he faced with having enough resources to purchase construction materials to renovate a part of his house and to build another one. The strategy he used to gather these needed resources was to “enter and leave slave-like conditions” by making seasonal trips to other municipalities in Maranhão to work on roço da joquira—clearing pastures for grass planting—on cattle ranches. Knowing that the outcome of labour inspections of slave-like work conditions provisions a severance payment and access to unemployment insurance,—the worker explained that following his first rescue, he returned two more times to work in the same activity, staying a little more than a week, fleeing and then reporting to the authorities the degrading work conditions on the farm. As a result, he had access to unemployment insurance three times in less than two years, allowing him to renovate his house—which used to be made of mud but at the time of the interview was made out of bricks—located in a peripheral neighbourhood of Codó in Maranhão.

We also identified similar practices during fieldwork carried out in a village located in the province of Huíla in southern Angola in August 2018. On this occasion, while talking to a farmer about his survival strategies to sustain his family, he noted some temporary migrations and seasonal activities he used to undertake in the northern region of the country, close to the capital Luanda. When describing the rationale for his migration—through which he sought both to sell the surplus of his agricultural production and to work in temporary activities in commercial farms and construction—he said that he always made these temporary trips with his wife’s consent, but without asking for permission from the traditional authority of the village from whom he should ask permission to leave in search of work outside the plantation.

In both contexts, due in part to their limited access to education and subsequent lack of professional qualifications, the migrant workers were forced to subject themselves to degrading jobs, either in general services or in temporary jobs in civil construction or on farms. In addition to exhausting work hours, degrading conditions and low wages, both Angolans and Brazilians reported owing debt to the cantinas, which are small businesses located on the farms and near the construction sites. We also encountered reports of physical and/or psychological violence with threats, very similar to situations described in Brazilian studies that depicted, sociologically and not just legally, contemporary forms of slavery.

The labour that rural migrants seasonally engage in outside their localities serves to help complement the family economy and maintain roças (small farms) e lavras (crops). They often temporarily migrate in order to sell the surplus from family agricultural production, or even for informal work in municipalities or capitals. The latter sometimes entails their subjection to degrading work, akin to slave-like conditions, thereby disrupting their ability to complement the family income. Such cases usually occur with younger workers who do not always want to continue with family agricultural labour, or who go out in search of work due to their inability to sustain themselves or their families solely through subsistence agriculture, like the cases reported by Brazilian rural labourers.

This study also demonstrates that the processes of migrating for work outside their areas of origin as well as family farming are common in both contexts, even if for different reasons. In Brazil, more specifically in Maranhão, it is in the context of the development of latifúndios (large landholdings) and the consequent expulsion of farmers from the land, with the formation of agricultural frontiers and mining in the Amazon. In Angola, it is due mainly to the context of civil war, which lasted from 1975—the year Angola secured its independence from Portugal—until 2002. More recently, displacements occurred due to needs similar to those of Maranhão’s rural labourers: the survival and maintenance of the family economy.

Comparative table of the conditions of Brazilian and Angolan migrants

Source: The author, 2018

[1] Article 149 of the Brazilian Penal Code characterizes slave-like conditions as a crime. There are a set of factors such as forced labor, degrading work, exhausting work hours and debt bondage.

This article was prepared by Flávia de Almeida Moura as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As set out in the Delta 8.7 Terms and Conditions of Use, the opinions expressed in this article are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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