Brazilian Embassy staffers hold up signs protesting low wages in front of their country’s mission on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. Photo by Larry Luxner, used with permission.

Not that investors are necessarily banging down Brazil’s doors at this sensitive time, but getting access to the country could get even tougher if a labor stoppage within its foreign ministry doesn’t abate soon. 

Staffers tasked with processing visa applications at the Consulate General of Brazil in Atlanta have joined their foreign-ministry colleagues at more than 100 Brazilian missions in more than 80 countries in striking for higher wages. 

The effect could be longer processing times as a visa exemption for Americans traveling on business and tourism around the Rio de Janeiro summer Olympic Games comes to an end this month.

Travelers entering before Sept. 18 can stay for up to 90 days without a visa, which normally costs Americans $160 and requires an in-person visit to a Brazilian consulate. Travel professionals lobbied for the waiver, which they say is a hurdle for tourists. 

But new applications have again begun piling up as travelers book flights and make their fall plans. 

“We could see that in July, because people start planning long before the trips, so I’m sure that there’s a lot of people asking for tourist visas right now,” says Ivana Lima, a vice consul at the Atlanta consulate who is among the four of eight support staff there protesting what they see as unlivable wages and unfair employment practices leveled by their superiors.

With the work stoppage, Ms. Lima said that the diplomats at the consulate and their support staff have had to start processing visas, distracting from the higher-level tasks of the mission.

“What they’re doing is not doing their jobs and doing ours,” said Ms. Lima, 40.  

Negotiations are ongoing, but she doesn’t see the strike disbanding at least for a few more weeks. 

Launched in August, the work stoppage is organized by National Union of Public Servants of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, known as Sinditamaraty. The crux of the issue is the salary for Brazilian Foreign Ministry workers when they return home to Brazil. 

While abroad, Ms. Lima’s position of vice consul — specifically, chancellery officer — gets $6,000 per month, plus a housing stipend, which she says is plenty to live on. But when they go back, they’re forced to live on the equivalent of one-third of that, not nearly enough to maintain the same standard of living. Lower-level chancellery assistants, meanwhile, make just $1,000 a month upon their return home.  

“To be outside the country is good, but sometimes you want to go home; you want to be in your own country, and for us that is almost impossible. Usually we only go back to Brazil when there is no way to stay outside the country,” she said, noting that housing and education costs there are formidable in light of stagnant wages. 

According to the Washington Diplomat, the union is seeking a 52 percent raise for chancellery officers, 41 percent for chancellery assistants and even a 9 percent increase for diplomats, which despite their widespread opposition to the strike still get paid too little, Ms. Lima said. 

It’s a decidedly inopportune time to ask for a raise, as Brazil combats a ballooning budget deficit and works to rein in public finances that have been pummeled during a recession in part triggered by the Petrobras scandal and the government’s purge of corrupt officials, known as Operation Car Wash, or Lava Jato. 

Ms. Lima says she and her compatriots were spurred to action by an alarming proposal of the new government of President Michel Temer, who took over for impeached President Dilma Rousseff a few weeks ago. As part of a broader austerity plan to reassure investors, he has proposed a 20-year freeze on foreign-ministry salaries. 

“We got really stressed out about that, so it’s like, it’s now or never. We have to try it,” she told Global Atlanta in an interview. 

She said since talks began in 2008, no action has been taken to raise salaries of support staff, even as diplomats saw their wages rise.

“There’s no appropriate time in Brazil. We’ve been struggling for seven years now,” she said. 

But she added that the conflict is deeper than money: the workers’ demands reflect a long-simmering generational struggle for the labor culture of the foreign ministry.

For too long, the old guard has been content to take what the higher-ups of the ministry give them, she said.  

“Basically all of them are going to retire in about five years. They are really from another generation, a generation that was not used to fight for its rights and was taught to just stand by and wait for the orders,” Ms. Lima said. That changed with a new crop of about 300 workers that entered the foreign service in 2005 after a moratorium on new applications. 

Brazil’s new consul general in Atlanta, Maria Stela Pompeu Brasil Frota, a former Brazilian ambassador to Switzerland, is likely one of those resisting the strike, Ms. Lima added. 

The Consulate General of Brazil in Atlanta forwarded Global Atlanta’s questions to Ms. Pompeu to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brasilia, which did not respond. 

Ms. Lima, who is married with an 8-year-old son, said there will likely be retribution for those employees who participated in the strike. 

“We are even prepared for that. We know that for the next months after we go back, we will see at least them trying to retaliate,” she said. “We are prepared to fire back.” 

Read more: Silver Lining in Impeachment Vote – Brazilians ‘Fed Up’ With Corruption

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...