“Central to a Just Economy.” How a Collaborative Fund is Supporting Labor Rights in Brazil

Workers in Ilhéus, Brazil. Joa Souza/shutterstock

Erosion of labor rights, attacks on unionization, and the rise of the informal economy — whose workers have little to no protections — have put workers in an increasingly precarious position here in the U.S., but globally, as well. Even so, labor is often neglected in social justice philanthropy.

A new fund is working to protect and advance labor rights in Brazil. Launched in December 2022, the Labora Fund for Decent Work seeks to support organizations that promote labor rights in the country, focusing on its most vulnerable workers, such as informal workers and migrant and care sector workers. The intersectional initiative also seeks to tackle gender and racial discrimination in the workforce. Backed by the Ford Foundation, the Laudes Foundation and Open Society Foundations, the fund launched with a total of $8.5 million and hopes to attract more funders. Fundo Brasil de Direitos Humanos is responsible for the implementation and management of the fund. 

The Labora Fund focuses primarily on marginalized workers who typically aren't covered by any form of labor or social protections. This includes workers in the informal economy, migrant workers, Indigenous communities, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, women and gender-nonconforming people.

“The whole idea of the Labora Fund is to make funds available for those groups of workers to help them organize and advocate for better protections [and] for better working conditions,” said Ghada Abdel Tawab, a senior program officer for Ford’s Future of Work(ers) program. 

In its initial round of grants, the fund provided support for 25 organizations. To date, it has awarded almost $2 million in grants to improve working conditions for those in the gig economy and to address the needs of waste pickers and street vendors. 

“We try to prioritize organizations, unions and social movements that are striving to achieve better working conditions, better legal frameworks for protection and public policies to enhance the working conditions of these groups, but also achieve accountability and reparation for the damages and violations that they have to endure on a day-to-day basis,” said Amanda Camargo, Labora Fund coordinator.  

Informal work in Brazil

The idea for the Labora Fund began when Laudes Foundation made the decision to exit Brazil as a region of interest. Rather than leave a funding vacuum behind, it approached Ford in order to find a solution that would show the importance of centering labor rights in social justice and climate justice, said Fatima Mello, a program officer in Ford's Brazil office. 

Ford's investment in Labora is through its Future of Work(ers) program, which prioritizes protecting workers in the informal economy. “Our vision in the Future of Workers [program] is that all workers are central to a just economy. So our focus is on ensuring that all workers, regardless of their status — being formal or informal, being independent contractors, being rural, being urban — they all have the right to access labor and social protections,” said Abdel Tawab. Another part of the program's vision is to ensure that workers are able to shape the policies and economic systems that affect their daily lives. 

One of the motivating factors behind Ford's decision to support the fund was seeing the effect the pandemic had on workers and how it highlighted the “fragility of our social protection systems.”

"This was when we all came to the sobering reality of the precarity of work and also the centrality and importance of informal workers as essential workers who keep our economies going but in the meantime are usually excluded from any form of labor and social protections," Abdel Tawab said. 

Forty-two percent of Brazil's workforce is made up of informal workers. That percentage is even higher in the northern region of the country, which has a higher populations of Black and Indigenous people. 

Labora is providing one year of support — or more, depending on the project — for organizations that are working in this space. The fund inherited 14 organizations from Laudes, most of which were working on producing research on gender and racial inequalities in the labor market, and on public policies that would better address those inequalities. It also supports national advocacy efforts by worker-led grassroots organizations.

"We strive to… elevate the organizations that have already been in the trenches of this fight for a long time by giving them the opportunity and perhaps the extra mile to continue to pressure and propose solutions based on their own experiences in their own collection organization," Camargo said. 

Intersectionality in Labor Rights

Essential to Labora is its focus on addressing gender and racial discrimination in the workforce. Brazil's history is not just marked by colonialism, but by structural racism and sexism, as well. 

“That means that, for instance, Black women and Black men have fewer opportunities in the workplace.… They get paid less. They're overrepresented in informal work and in specific professional categories like domestic work and gig work,” Camargo said.

Labora is supporting organizations that seek to address these issues. With some notable exceptions such as Ford, philanthropy has largely neglected workers' rights. And while Labora is backed by three major funders, for Mello, it's crucial for funders working in other spaces to join the cause as well, in order to center labor rights in social justice philanthropy.

For this next cycle, Labora will also be focusing on environmental justice. For Mello, labor justice is crucial to climate justice. She notes, for example, that millions of Brazilians engage in illegal work in the Amazon. This includes things like illegal logging, mining and deforestation. 

In addition to supporting organizations working at the intersection of labor rights and climate justice, Labora also hopes to help create an agenda that will include labor and workers' rights into climate philanthropy's plans for COP30, which Brazil will host. 

“There are some artificial divides between the labor movement, the human rights movement and the environmental movement,” Abdel Tawab said. “We want to break the silos within civil society and across movements. I think it's very important for us to break the silos in philanthropy, as well.”

An opportune moment

Last year, U.S. President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva announced the two countries were launching a joint initiative to advance the rights of workers. 

A strong and independent civil society's advocacy, experimentation and narrative-building can, according to Ford, inform and push for governmental intervention. Initiatives like the Labora Fund can help make this possible. One of Ford's hopes for the fund is for it to be able to show what success in the labor rights field can look like and provide alternative solutions to any related issues. 

In addition, like the U.S., Brazil and other parts of the Global South have seen attacks on both democracy and efforts to unionize in recent years. 

“I think that's where the partnership with the Brazilian government and the U.S. government is so important,” Camargo said, “because for the past years, both countries have been dealing with complex political situations and workers have been at the forefront of these attacks.”

This partnership presents an opportune moment for workers to engage with the government and help share policies around improving working conditions and increasing social protections for workers.

Labora is also looking to support cross-regional learning and cross-regional solidarity. Ford hopes that workers from Brazil are able to engage with workers in other regions like Africa and the Middle East so that they can compare notes and tactics on dealing with the issue of closing civic spaces and the rise in authoritarian governments in the Global South. Beyond facilitating the exchange of information, Labora also hopes this can lead to a coordination between regions for a more international initiative to push for change in the workforce. 

With the scale of the problem being as big as it is in Brazil, Labora hopes that its work will inspire more funders to include labor rights in their grantmaking portfolios. "We need more partnerships in this struggle, in this fight. And I think the odds that we are successful… will increase if we have more organizations, more social movements and more partners thinking about this as a social justice issue that regards us all," Camargo said.