FABIO TEIXEIRA and ALFREDO MERGULHAO
DOZENS of local authorities and state-owned companies in Brazil are facing lawsuits accused of failing to protect workers including doctors and nurses from COVID-19, data obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation has revealed.
Labor prosecutors filed 69 lawsuits against city governments and state-controlled firms such as Banco do Brasil SA in the first half of the year for reported coronavirus labor abuses such as not providing workers with protective equipment.
Local governments and other public sector bodies were the target of 30% of the 230 labor lawsuits related to the pandemic – more than any private sector industry except transport – according to data obtained via the Access of Information law.
The data has raised concerns about a lack of oversight by several major Brazilian companies as well as local authorities that are mostly responsible for running the public health system in a nation with the world’s second highest COVID-19 death toll.
Brazil has registered more than 4.7 million cases since the pandemic began, with at least 143,000 deaths.
“(Government) action is not just chaotic, it’s catastrophic. And they must be made responsible for this,” said Joao Domingos, head of the Confederation of Public Servants of Brazil (CSPB).
“(City governments) lack sensitivity to such a degree that we need to take them to court for a basic thing like caring for their employees’ health,” added Domingos, whose organization represents more than 1,000 public worker labor unions.
Brazil’s labor secretariat – which sits in the economy ministry – said it was not responsible for the public sector and referred questions to the management and personnel performance secretariat. The division did not reply to request for comment.
About 7,500 complaints about workplace abuses were made against public bodies in the first eight months of the year – up from 7,200 for the whole of 2019 – labor prosecutor data shows. It is unknown how many complaints were related to the pandemic.
“The large number of lawsuits stems precisely from the fact that state entities consistently fail (to protect workers)”, said Ileana Neiva, head of Conap, the prosecutors’ division responsible for addressing labor abuses in the public sector.
Labor prosecutors tend to strike deals and agree not to take further action if employers address the issues raised, but if a case reaches court, judges may sentence and fine an employer.
Beyond that, a labor judge can refer the case to regular prosecutors who may then start a criminal investigation.
A total of 1,652 lawsuits were filed by labor prosecutors in the first half of 2020, so about 14% were related to COVID-19.
HONING IN ON HEALTH WORKERS
About 30 city governments have been sued, most accused of failing to provide health workers with adequate protective equipment after COVID-19 struck Brazil in March, the data found.
In some cases, public hospitals rationed equipment among staff, while in other situations, sub-standard face masks were provided, according to Neiva of Conap.
An anesthesiologist in Belem – the capital of northern Para state and one of the governments facing a lawsuit – said he had to buy his own face masks and ultimately fell ill with COVID-19.
“I paid a steep price, but I survived,” said 65-year-old Wilson Machado. He worked at the Mario Pinotti hospital where staff protested in April about the lack of protective gear.
At least 59 health workers in Belem have died of COVID-19 to date, according to local government data.
The lawsuit against Belem was filed on April 16 and the next day a judge issued an injunction ordering the city to supply medical staff with equipment until a final ruling was reached.
In July, Belem’s administration supplied documents to the court to show it was complying with the order, but prosecutors said the submission in fact proved shortages were still ongoing.
“It is a demonstration of how the … state behaves in regards to healthcare,” said prosecutor Rejane Alves, referring not just to Para but local government responses across Brazil.
Public hospitals were already understaffed and underfunded due to years of economic hardship, several prosecutors said.
“The issues pre-date the pandemic, (which has) only made clear the real scenario, both for the population and for health professionals,” said Alves, who is handling the ongoing lawsuit.
Responding to questions from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Belem’s administration denied failing to provide equipment, and said it had proved that it supplies medical facilities weekly.
FROM BANKS TO RAILWAYS
At least eight state-owned companies have also been sued – from Banco do Brasil to Sao Paulo-based railway company CPTM.
Banco do Brasil was hit by a lawsuit in May and accused of not giving face masks to security guards in Rio de Janeiro.
The bank denied the claim, and said it was appealing an injunction ordering it to provide the masks.
CPTM was sued by prosecutors in April on the grounds that it had not provided protective gear and required staff who said they felt ill to present a doctor’s note if they missed work.
“We were made to work because we are essential workers,” said Eluiz Alves, the president of a union for railway employees in Sao Paulo.
The union said at least four CPTM employees have died of COVID-19 to date.
Earlier this month, CPTM was ordered by a judge to allow its staff to miss work if ill without a doctor’s note but was cleared of failing to provide protective gear. The company said it would appeal the court ruling regarding the doctor’s note.
Prosecutor Marcelo Freire said he considered the lawsuit a success as working conditions had since improved at the company. He is now focusing on several other cases related to the pandemic, some involving public bodies and state-owned firms.
“I have a lot of coronavirus on my docket. A lot.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation.