Labor groups slam Brazil's guidelines for worker safety

PINHEIRO: Health care workers walk in the riverside community of Pinheiro as they check on residents, in the municipality of Portel, on Marajo island, Para state, Brazil, on June 6. Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO — Safety guidelines for working during the pandemic in Brazil, a global epicenter of the coronavirus, came under heavy criticism on Monday by labor groups who said the rules amounted to criminal disregard for workers and public health.

The guidelines, one set for workers in meatpacking plants and another for workers in general, were riddled with errors and inadequate measures, according to a public statement released by 31 labor organizations, including Brazil's biggest trade union confederation.

Brazil has the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 57,000 fatalities, 1.34 million confirmed cases and one of the highest daily rates of new infections.

The government's response has been erratic, and President Jair Bolsonaro has come under fire for disregarding social distancing measures and promoting remedies such as anti-malarial drugs with little evidence.

The guidelines for workers were issued earlier this month.

'Technical errors and serious omissions'

"The aforementioned regulations incorporate technical errors and serious omissions," said the opening lines of the labor statement, written by Dr. Rene Mendes, one of Brazil's top experts on workers' health.

They defy widely established scientific assumptions, are biased in favor of employers and show "criminal disregard" for the health of workers and of the general population, it said.

Under the guidelines, workers should be kept at least 1 meter (3 feet) apart on the job and provided with surgical masks or face shields when social distancing is not possible.

The distance of 1 meter is inadequate, as health experts advise that social distancing should be at least 2 meters (6 feet), the labor groups said.

The guidelines also allow for employees who are part of a vulnerable group, such as the elderly, to keep working in unsafe conditions, and they do not require companies to test workers.

The nation's labor prosecutors previously criticized the regulations for meatpacking plants, considered hotbeds for transmission of the virus, as inadequate.

Despite the rising number of deaths and infections, Brazil has been trying to restart its economy, with major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo allowing businesses to reopen.

Labor authorities also have said they worry the government was using the crisis to ease regulations that protect laborers from work in dangerous conditions.

A representative of Brazil's government did not reply to a request for comment.

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