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Editorial: To Work and Survive in Rio de Janeiro

Editorial, by Stone Korshak

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – After being here over six years I’ve seen a lot of people (foreigners) come and go from the Cidade Maravilhosa. Almost everyone is spell-bound when they arrive, immediately in love with the rich tropical setting of geography, culture and excitement of a exotic unfamiliar environment. Then people find out how hard it can be to live here.

Stone Korshak, Editor and Publisher of The Rio Times.
Stone Korshak, Editor and Publisher of The Rio Times.

The reason it is so difficult is because finding gainful employment seems about ten times harder than in the U.S. – or parts of Europe. The unemployment rate is relatively low officially, but the minimum wage here is R$788/month, and the average wage for Brazil is just over R$2,100. This may afford (along with cost-of-living expenses) someone to rent an apartment in a favela community, but it’s certainly not the post-card dream that brings most here.

As far as the work, that salaried job includes a “thirteenth month” of vacation pay and a seemingly endless amount of holidays, food and transit allowances and so on – if the employee is legal. However, while becoming a legal resident of Brazil is not as hard as the reciprocal scenario in the U.S., it is difficult, and takes time, and time takes money.

Still every year more people arrive with the dream of staying here, and what I always tell them is, it’s an amazing place to live – just a hard place to work. People do it, but few realize how difficult it is, and in my experience the foreigners living here fall into three general categories.

The Multinational:
The first are the very lucky and very few who were able to find senior level positions in multinational companies and organizations. This includes companies like KPMG or AmBev and used to be heavily stacked with energy and oil companies like BG (recently purchased by Shell), Exxon, and Statoil – who have for the most part moved on to green pastures. This group also includes the government positions from the consulates and military, U.S., British, German, Swiss, and so on.

These jobs are found and negotiated back home though, almost never while in Brazil. The best part about these jobs is the high salary and that they usually come with a living stipend including free rent at relatively luxurious level standards (R$10,000–R$15,000/month rent). The bad part about these positions is that they are almost always short-lived, 2-3 years and then faced with the option of living here without the financial support on regular wages paying rent, they almost always have to leave, heartbroken.

The Backpacker:
This group represents the largest in numbers and does not always literally have a backpack on, but they are usually younger, and have come across Rio and Brazil on some other travels and decided to try to stay. Almost always starting on a tourist visa, the options for “irregular” work are few, usually teaching English, or renting temporary apartments. It is possible to make a living doing both, but it will take a long time to build up to it, and it will never be as easy as working back home.

The pay usually starts so low that it requires living in a favela community and or a shared apartment somewhere a bit off the beaten path. As an irregular worker, the generous labor laws noted above do not necessarily apply, so it can lead to some exploitation and under compensation – but with some time and tenacity, people can make it work. The big warning here is it may take at least 6-12 months longer than hoped to get to this level, so people often have to live off whatever savings they may have until then,… And a lot of folks don’t make it that long.

The Entrepreneur:
Starting a business is never an easy thing and even harder in Brazil where the culture, economy and government is inherently tilted toward big government/business and subsidizing the underpaid worker, yet entrepreneurs can’t help themselves from trying. This group comes to Brazil with a vision (or has one while here) and through the love of the idea tries to make it work.

The thing about this approach is it takes even more resources to start – often a minimum of R$150,000 for the Investor Visa, not to mention the cash flow reserves for things to take 2-3 times longer then hoped due to the “Brazil Cost” and learning curve of how to navigate the system. And, a system that is stacked against foreign interests here in a natural protectionist mentality (no one wants to be exploited).

All this sounds a little negative, but it is only intended to be helpful to those planning to come to Rio to live. Brazilians know how hard it is to survive here, and that’s why so many are puzzled why us gringos keep coming. Yet for those that plan ahead and are willing to compromise and scrap in pursuit of the dream, the quality-of-life payoff can be amazing, it is after all, the Cidade Maravilhosa.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Working and Living
Rio de Janeiro offers some of the best quality-of-life in the world, if you can afford it, photo by Pedro Kirilos/Riotur.

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