Informalities are common in Brazil. Perhaps the most famous of them are the favelas, or informal settlements, that present a striking image of self-made structures sitting on impossible terrain, sometimes in stark contrast to clean high-rises in close proximity. These images are often used to describe the inequality that is rampant in parts of the developing world, and to a great effect! But what is not described are the opportunities for people coming from lower class communities to create their own jobs that fill odd demands, and due to an unusually high level of greater social acceptance and legal lackadaisicalness, these jobs are possible. A deregulated, informal environment in Brazil has made the barrier of entry low for individuals to generate income by providing a service that has social value.
The moment I recognize this was when I was with a friend going to see live music at a samba club nearby where we are staying. We decided to drive because there was no good metro connection, an unusual situation in a city that is very well serviced by public transportation. When we pulled up there were a couple guys running up and down the block assuming the role of self-proclaimed street parking attendant! They would signal to see if you were looking to park, and if you nodded yes, they had a system to identify an open parking spot in the vicinity, direct you to that spot, and do what our friends usually do if we are not good at parallel parking: keep an eye on how close you came to the cars in font of and behind your vehicle as you maneuver into place. Once parked, they demand whatever change one could spare for their assistance, essentially creating an informal “parking assistant” job for themselves. Socially, the ‘customer’ in the vehicle is totally okay with tipping because, however menial, the informal parking assistant made the parking task easier and more convenient. I was intrigued at their ability to just create a job for themselves out of this air and make it work! I started to see this everywhere.
There are the people who sell things on the beach, the people who take out and sort your waste, the corner carts that sell produce, or the household laborers who bike around pulling a cart of tools, shouting the specific household repair services they specialize in like the hot dog guy at a ball game. Anything that you can think of that makes life more convenient, there is a person who created an income generating job from it. Furthermore, Accepting food as payment is also a common practice here and for how unglorified these jobs may seem, at the very least the people working them have the opportunity to make a living wage being their own boss. A rarity in the USA. The difference between here and the US is people do not judge them like they do the guy in New York who washes car windows at a red light. You don’t need a permit for any of these activities in Brazil, or at least the police are not enforcing the laws that say you do. Socially, the middle class areas find value in the convenience and competitive price, and legally, it detours them from selling illicit goods.
One might describe this economic awareness to identify a demand, whether people know is or not, and make a living from it as a crude form of entrepreneurship where the goal is not to build an empire, but instead to make a living wage. The argument against informal economic activity usually hovers around threats to public safety, but the other side of the equation is that tacking inequality also means creating opportunities for people to take control of their own future. Informal opportunities bypass bureaucratic barriers and make it socially acceptable to use these services. What happens is organic, and in this socioeconomic environment, it allows people to always have the opportunity for employment, despite how unfair the realities of the situation might be.