Rio Olympics: Mass Unemployment Fears As Works Wind Down

Builders work on the construction site of the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2015
Builders work on the construction site of the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2015
Nicola Pamplona, Bruno Villas Boas and Lucas Vettorazzo

RIO DE JANEIRO â€" If the much-criticized but equally awaited Rio Summer Olympics have had one advantage, it’s that they have shielded the Rio de Janeiro construction industry from the massive layoffs seen elsewhere in Brazil.

But as the August launch of the Games approches, so does the fear that some 35,000 workers are going to swiftly lose their jobs.

On top of an ongoing series of political scandals, the Brazilian economy has also been badly hit in recent months, and inflation is on the rise again. Thanks to the preparations for the Olympics however, the number of jobs lost in the building sector in the 12 months leading to November 2015 was much lower in Rio, with 4,491 compared to 28,213 in São Paulo.

This will all end soon, however, and as the works linked to the Games are completed, an estimated one-fifth of those working in construction and civil engineering will join the more than 9 million unemployed Brazilians across the country.

The Olympic village (Parque Olímpico da Barra) and the TransOlímpica bus line are among the 15 new sites where some 17,000 workers are putting the final touches. When they’re completed however, the effect will be a real thump on Rio’s working market, which has already lost close to 72,000 jobs in the 12 months to November.

“There’s no new construction prospect that would allow for the creation of new jobs,” says Nilton Duarte Costa, president of a Rio-based trade union in the civil engineering sector. He estimates that there will be more than 15,000 layoffs by May.

José Carlos Martins, president of the Brazilian Chamber of Construction Industry, says that the total will reach 35,000 once the Olympic Games are over. But that’s not the only potential social issue. Martins fears that a large proportion of these workers migrated from other cities and other parts of the country, attracted by the then safe prospect of finding a job. “Some of them tend to stay in the city, even after the construction they were working on is completed and even if they fail to find another job there,” Martins says.

Turn to trash

Gabriel da Conceição Santana, 21, is one of them. He came to Rio four years ago. And though he recently lost his job at the soon-to-be-finished Olympic Tennis Center, he doesn’t want to go back to his home state of Bahia.

“We came out of a full employment period and have now entered one where unemployment is going through the roof,” says Pedro Celestino, president of Clube de Engenharia, a group that brings together engineers and technicians from the Rio de Janeiro state.

Though he too estimates some 30,000 construction workers will soon lose their jobs, Celestino says he has a solution, by shifting these people in a program to improve public sanitation, a longstanding issue in Brazil. “It doesn’t require a lot of investments but it does require a lot of workforce,” he says.

Local authorities are planning to make up for the job losses with a program called “Em Frente Rio” (Rio Forward), which includes 10 projects on mobility, logistics, infrastructure and sanitation that will employ an estimated 38,300 people, with a total investment of 26.7 billion reais ($6.6 billion).

There one problem however: this plan will rely on investments from the private sector, where confidence may be lowest of all.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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