RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Dozens of local authorities and state-owned companies in Brazil face lawsuits accused of failing to protect workers including doctors and nurses from COVID-19, data obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. reveal.
Labor prosecutors filed 69 lawsuits against city governments and state-controlled companies such as Banco do Brasil SA in the first half of this year for reported labor abuses due to the coronavirus 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 transportation – according to data obtained through the Access to Information Act.
The data has raised concerns about a lack of oversight by some of Brazil’s major companies as well as local authorities largely responsible for running the public health system in a country with the second highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the world.
Brazil has recorded more than 4.7 million cases since the pandemic began, with at least 143,000 deaths.
“(The government’s) actions are not only chaotic, but also disastrous. And they have to take responsibility for this, ”said Joao Domingos, head of the Brazilian Civil Service Confederation (CSPB).
“(The city government) is less sensitive so we need to take them to court for basics like maintaining the health of their employees,” added Domingos, whose organization represents more than 1,000 public trade unions.
Brazil’s labor secretariat – which is in the economy ministry – said it was not in charge of the public sector and referred inquiries to the secretariat for performance management and personnel. The division did not reply for comment.
Some 7,500 complaints about workplace abuses were filed against public bodies in the first eight months of this year – up from 7,200 for all of 2019 – labor prosecution data show. It is not known how many complaints have been linked to the pandemic.
“A large number of lawsuits stem from the fact that state entities consistently fail (to protect workers)”, said Ileana Neiva, head of Conap, the prosecutor’s division responsible for dealing with labor abuses in the public sector.
Labor prosecutors tend to agree and agree not to take further action if the employer addresses the issues raised, but if a case reaches court, the judge can sentence and fine the employer.
In addition, a labor judge can refer the case to an ordinary prosecutor who can then initiate a criminal investigation.
A total of 1,652 lawsuits were filed by labor prosecutors in the first half of 2020, so around 14% were related to COVID-19.
RESPECT FOR HEALTH WORKERS
Some 30 municipalities have been prosecuted, most of them accused of failing to provide adequate protective equipment for health workers after COVID-19 hit Brazil in March, according to the data.
In some cases, public hospitals provide equipment rations among staff, while in other situations sub-standard face masks are provided, according to Conap’s Neiva.
An anesthetist in Belem – the capital of the northern state of Para and one of the governments facing lawsuits – said he had to buy his own face mask and ended up falling ill with COVID-19.
“I paid a heavy price, but I survived,” said Wilson Machado, 65. He works at the Mario Pinotti hospital where staff protested in April about a lack of protective gear.
At least 59 health workers in Belem have died from COVID-19 to date, according to local government data.
A lawsuit against Belem was filed on April 16 and the following day a judge issued an order ordering the city to supply medical equipment to staff until a final decision was reached.
In July, the Belem administration provided documents to the court to show they complied with the order, but prosecutors said the filing actually proved shortcomings were still ongoing.
“This is a demonstration of how … the state is behaving in terms of health care,” said prosecutor Rejane Alves, referring not only to Para but also to local government responses across Brazil.
Public hospitals have been understaffed and underfunded due to years of economic hardship, prosecutors said.
“The issue predates the pandemic, (which has) only clarified the true scenario, for both the population and health professionals,” said Alves, who is handling the ongoing lawsuit.
Responding to inquiries from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Belem administration denied failing to provide equipment, saying it had proven it was supplying medical facilities on a weekly basis.
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 sued in May and accused of not giving face masks to security guards in Rio de Janeiro.
The bank denies the claim, and says it is appealing an order ordering him to provide a mask.
CPTM was sued by prosecutors in April on the grounds of not providing protective gear and asking staff who said they felt ill to show doctors notes if they did not show up for work.
“We were made to work because we were essential workers,” said Eluiz Alves, president of the railway workers’ union in Sao Paulo.
The union said at least four CPTM employees had died from COVID-19 to date.
Earlier this month, CPTM was ordered by a judge to allow its staff to skip work if sick without a doctor’s note but was exempted from failing to provide protective gear. The company said it would appeal the court’s ruling on the doctor’s letter.
Prosecutor Marcelo Freire said he considered the lawsuit successful because working conditions at the company had improved. He is now focused on several other cases related to the pandemic, some involving public bodies and state-owned companies.
“I have a lot of coronavirus in my folder. Lots of them.” (Reported by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Edited by Kieran Guilbert and Belinda Goldsmith. Please pay tribute to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Thomson Reuters charity, covering the lives of people around the world who struggle to live free or fair. news.trust.org)