Brazil in 1999: The Impact of Rigid Labor Regulations

By Jennifer P. Poole and Rita Almeida*

The outside of a building in Brasilia, Brazil

Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment in Brasília. / Grupo Vestcon / Creative Commons

During Brazil’s currency crisis and devaluation in 1999, stringent implementation of labor regulations hindered, rather than enhanced, manufacturing plants’ recovery and workers’ wellbeing – an important lesson to keep in mind in current debates in many countries.  In an article published in the May 2017 Journal of Development Economics (JDE), we examine the implications of global economic integration through international trade on local labor markets during that critical period in 1999.

  • Many economic policymakers agree that reforms in the latter half of the 20th century, such as liberalizing trade relations and encouraging foreign investment, have been powerful drivers of efficiency gains, income growth, and consumer choice around the globe. At the same time, however, there is agreement that – as firms adapt to a more competitive global environment – the gains are often accompanied by short-term costs for workers in terms of unemployment and income risk.  Policymakers have to weigh the broad economic benefits from globalization and technological change, on the one hand, against workers’ opportunities and security on the other.

A micro-econometric estimation analysis of detailed, confidential, and proprietary micro-data sets – collected in part while visiting the Brazilian Labor Ministry – reveals a causal impact of trade reform on employment.  Brazil’s policy environment of strict labor market regulations (e.g., hiring and firing costs), coupled with its dramatic trade liberalization and currency devaluation, make it a particularly appropriate setting to study the implications of globalization on employment opportunities in a middle-income country.  As in many countries, much of the de jure labor market framework was established on a national basis in Brazil (in the Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988), but de facto labor regulations – the varying levels of implementation through labor inspections, fines, and other processes in different locales – are heterogeneous.

  • Administrative data on the enforcement of labor regulations during the 1999 currency crisis, a shock to trade openness, show that the way trade affects employment largely depends on the stringency of de facto labor regulations that companies face. The impact of the currency devaluation – widely predicted to expand employment by facilitating access to foreign markets and weakening import competition – was less significant in plants facing strong labor enforcement than in those facing more lax enforcement.  The findings suggest that stringent labor regulations limit job creation and lower productivity gains.
  • Not only was the efficient reallocation of labor in response to shocks inhibited by strict de facto labor market regulations; rigid enforcement also restricted the within-plant potential for productivity gains. The data reveal that regulations, for example, may limit plants’ ability to introduce new goods or investment in more complex production technologies that might have higher value-added.  The burden of having to retain unproductive workers, making plants less able to compete, is another possible explanation for weak productivity gains.

Previous research – arguing that weak enforcement leaves regulations ineffective – ruled out the possibility of labor regulations as an explanation for slow labor adjustment to trade reform.  But our research shows that flexible regulations maximize the gains of reforms such as trade liberalization.  As middle-income countries continue to face a globalizing and technologically advancing world economy, their strict labor market policies, limiting adjustment and reallocation, may have potentially distortive, unintended consequences.  The trade-off between job security, on the one hand, and productivity and growth is already one of the most prominent public policy debates worldwide.  Regulations designed to protect workers may actually further reduce employment as costs increase.  Countries must show flexibility, while enhancing education and training programs, to benefit fully from changes driven by the global economy.  As populist, protectionist policies gain influence in the world, policymakers should know that increasing the flexibility of de jure regulations will allow for increased job creation and thus offer broader access to productivity gains.

March 7, 2018

*Jennifer Poole is Assistant Professor of Economics, School of International Service, and Research Fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics and the CESifo Research Network.  Rita Almeida is a Research Fellow at the World Bank and the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.  Their article is titled “Trade and Labor Reallocation with Heterogeneous Enforcement of Labor Regulations.”

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