The doorman/guard at our local sushi restaurant is a Haitian named Jean. He speaks French and English, and is learning Portuguese through immersion. Jean is a big, friendly fellow who always greets “mes amis” as we walk past with the dogs of an evening. Always willing to chat, he seems happy and content.
But when we really stop and talk, we realize how hard life is for him here in Brazil. He came a year ago, leaving his family behind in Haiti as he works to raise money to support them, and, he hopes, to start a better life for himself and them when he returns. Here in our neighborhood, he works two jobs that we know of — doorman at Sushi Nabe and valet at a Mineran restaurant — making survival wages.
Jean’s story is not unique in Brazil, where the government, until 2012, had an almost “open door” policy of immigration for Haitians. Since 2012, the government has limited working visas to 100 per month. This open-door policy prompted the largest immigration wave into Brazil since World War II, prompting lawmakers to demand more to help the new arrivals.
But there are simply too many Haitians coming across the border, and not enough work for them. In Sao Paulo, unemployment hovers around an astonishing 4 percent (almost the lowest it can be, given the number of people unable to work in any city at any time), but that is because the government loads up on municipal jobs, having four people do the work of two, etc. But it can’t support immigrants in the same manner.
Haiti’s capital was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake in 2010, and the nation is still struggling to recover; the economy is a mess. Meanwhile, Brazil’s economy appears to be thriving, and many Haitian nationals are flocking to the south to take part in the economic boom. But, for most, it is a pipe dream. Once they reach Brazil, they find that jobs are few and hard to come by.
Here in Sao Paulo, Haitian day workers jockey for jobs every morning, much as we used to see immigrant workers do in San Diego, eager for one day of pay if not a full-time job. Given their low wages, if any, most live together in favelas, struggling to survive until a job can be had. But they are are on the lowest rung of the ladder, getting only the leftovers.
Wages are reportedly lower for Haitians than for Brazilians, and employers work them harder. The situation here is better than in Haiti, but it isn’t what most of the newcomers had hoped for.
Jean speaks about returning to Haiti and going to college to become an engineer. Given that he is already in his mid-40s, I think this is a pipe dream as well. But, he dreams. And he dreams of a better life for his children. As fathers everywhere do.