In Grenoble, France, there is a 40-metre-long scale model of the Jirau dam that is being built in Brazil’s Amazon jungle. The exact replica of the project makes is possible to foresee and analyse possible risks, such as the heavy flow of sediment in the Madeira River.
But “the model does not take people into account,” which is why it did not help anticipate the workers’ uprisings and strikes against poor working conditions that have twice held up construction for lengthy periods of time since 2011, said Ari Ott, a professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Rondônia in Porto Velho, who describes the dam as “an engineering marvel.”
Jirau is one of the two big hydroelectric complexes under construction on the Madeira River in the northwestern Brazilian state of Rondônia. Jirau is 130 km from Porto Velho, the state capital, while the Santo Antônio dam is just seven km outside of the city.
In the revolt that broke out in March 2011, apparently after a worker was denied transportation to visit a sick family member in the city, nearly all of the lodgings built to house the 16,000 workers were burnt down, along with other buildings and 60 buses and other vehicles.
The uprising gave rise to a lengthy strike demanding wage hikes, better transportation, and more frequent permits allowing workers from distant areas to visit home.
Work on the dam only gradually got under way again three months later.
On Apr. 3, protesters once again set fire to one-third of the housing at Jirau, leaving some 3,200 workers without lodging.
But this time, a small group of workers, described as vandals by the company and the government, were identified and arrest warrants were issued for 24 suspects.
The new attack on the installations occurred after an assembly in which the Jirau workers decided to put an end to a 25-day strike.
The March 2011 rebellion was the catalyst of a movement that brought work to a halt not only on Jirau but on other major construction projects around Brazil.
But the violence this time was less widespread, and was apparently the work of a small minority of employees who disagreed with the decision reached by the assembly.
“They aren’t radicals, because they have no cause; they just like chaos,” said Altair Donizete de Oliveira, vice president of the Rondônia construction workers’ union, STICCERO.
After the latest incidents, police were posted at the plant, where they are likely to become a semi-permanent fixture, the trade unionist lamented.
The companies building the hydropower complex should also be more rigorous in the selection of workers, Oliveira said. But he conceded that this would be difficult “because of the shortage of workers,” which basically means, he said, that anyone available is hired.
The unrest among the workers at Jirau, who this month won a seven percent wage increase and other benefits, also extended to Santo Antônio, although no violence was reported there.
Santo Antônio benefits from its proximity to Porto Velho. Because most of its workers are housed in town, it only needs to provide on-site lodging for 2,500 workers, said Oliveira. Jirau, by contrast, houses six times as many workers, in an isolated jungle area far from the city.
As a result of the unrest and strikes, a growing number of workers have quit their jobs at the dams and returned home. Since work began in 2008 on the Santo Antônio dam, which currently employs about 15,000 people, more than 50,000 workers have spent time on the construction site, Oliveira said.
A year ago, the trade unionist had predicted that unrest would break out again at Jirau because the dam is being built by a consortium controlled by a foreign company, the French utility GDF Suez.
Analysing the factors fuelling the conflicts, Oliveira said “Brazilian companies have a heart,” while foreign firms only use cold logic based on technical considerations. He also mentioned cultural differences.
In addition, the large concentration of workers at enormous construction sites scattered across the country seems to be fomenting worker unity and a more combative stance in search of improved wages and conditions.
Brazil’s construction industry has historically had a reputation of paying low wages and offering precarious working conditions.
But the swift rise in demand for workers has strengthened their mobilisation, and the workers now often spontaneously take action even before their unions decide to do so, as occurred at the Jirau dam in 2011.
Growth in wages has not kept up with the increase in demand for labour power. “A few years ago, a construction worker earned three minimum salaries (equivalent to just over 1,000 dollars today) while they now earn less than two,” Oliveira said.
Besides the dams, mega-construction projects under way in Brazil include four oil refineries, two petrochemical complexes, several port and steel works complexes, railways, roads, and a network of canals to divert water from the São Francisco River, which cuts across Brazil from the centre to the east, to improve the water supply in the semi-arid Northeast.
The wave of strikes that has accompanied the construction fever has also affected Belo Monte, another hydropower complex where work has been delayed on the Xingú River in the eastern Amazon rainforest. A large part of the construction site’s 7,000 workers took part in a strike from late March to early April, demanding better working conditions. They resumed the stoppage on Monday Apr. 23.
In the meantime, the Rio de Janeiro Petrochemical Complex (Comperj), which now employs nearly 15,000 people, has been hit since December by intermittent strikes in the different companies in charge of construction of the complex since March 2008, 40 km from Rio de Janeiro.
The inauguration of the project, under the state-run Petrobras oil giant, has been postponed for a year, to 2014. And the cost of construction has steadily risen, to 20 billion dollars.
Comperj will include a refinery capable of handling Brazil’s heavy crude oil, and first, second and third-generation units for producing petrochemicals. The project will generate 200,000 direct and indirect jobs.
But work stoppages, as well as environmental conflicts, have plagued the mega-project. The start of operations of the refineries, which are urgently needed to reduce imports of gasoline and other oil derivatives, has been delayed. Brazil is already self-sufficient in crude oil, but lacks refining capacity to respond to fast-growing consumption needs.
By Mario Osava