On the border with Brazil. Photo from Flickr account barloventomagico. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
This post was originally published on the blog Las Crónicas de la Frontera.
Vicner, Raquel and Eva never thought that they would end up working abroad to make a living. But as the opportunity arose, they made their calculations and headed for the other side of the border to work and make money in Brazilian reais.
At the moment of writing this post, the currency exchange rate in the market was 55 Venezuelan bolivars for 1 real, even if the official exchange rate is 2.19 bolivars for 1 real.
This does not mean that Vicner, Raquel and Eva are emigrants. None of the them live in Brazil. They work, eat and sleep there until they are paid, when they return to Santa Elena de Uairen in Venezuela, to exchange the money and use it to pay for whatever they and their families need to buy.
Vicner, separated from her husband and with two daughters, was looking for work at the beginning of the year, when a friend came to her house to ask if she wanted to work in a restaurant in Villa Pacaraima, on the Brazilian side of the border. She works a stone's throw away the village’s main shopping street.
Pacaraima, also known as BV8 or La Línea (The Border), is the closest Brazilian town to Venezuela, home to 5,000 people, most of them government employees, farmers or traders.
BV8 flourished between 1990 and 2005, while the currency exchange favored Venezuelans, who bought products like Brazilian sausage, beauty products, hammocks, hats, Havaianas sandals and T-shirts with the colors of the Brazilian flag. In those days, it was Brazilians who would come from Boa Vista and other places in the Roraima state to work in Santa Elena on the Venezuelan side of the border.
Vicner has a higher technical university degree in industrial hygiene and safety. But she has never pursued her profession. Her friends at university who managed to get a job are paid about 8,000 to 9,000 bolivars per month (the equivalent of about two US dollars). Once, she worked in a pharmacy as a saleswoman, making minimum wage. She was a full-time mother and housewife.
This afternoon, as she has been doing for the last month and a half, she will start working at five. With her hair tied up and a chef's hat on her head, she will wash her hands and prepare to serve about 25 dinners.
Although her mother has a restaurant, when she got married she did not know how to fry an egg. Now, she makes burgers and homemade food, rice and beans, meat, pasta and salad. She has learned how to cook without using too much seasoning. She says that Brazilians like their food plain.
Around 10 p.m., she will tidy up, clean and leave the business ready for the next day. She will finish by 11.
She works throughout the week, and she doesn't know when her day off is going to be yet. She worked for the last month and a half every day, without a single day off. She makes 700 reais (about 235 US dollars) plus room and board.
Tomorrow morning she is planning on going to Santa Elena, 15 kilometers away, to spend some time with her daughters and cook for them. Both of them, 5 and 11 years old, are living with their grandmother because in Pacaraima it is increasingly difficult to get a place in school for Venezuelans. It used to be easier — there are around 200 Venezuelan children studying in BV8 — but now those who want an enrollment have to place their names on a waiting list and manage to get a student visa. Vicner will probably be able to enroll them in 2016.
“I heard that some Venezuelans complain of mistreatment, but I did not had any problems (…) I'm happy here, I love what I do and I like the atmosphere. I love the weather, people are nice and the salary is not bad.” They make the equivalent of 40,000 bolivars with no expenses.
In those six weeks, she has met four other Venezuelans in similar circumstances: a girl who works in a lingerie store, who makes 500 reais (around 170 dollars) per month and works part-time; a man who works in supermarket cashier and makes 1,000 reais (around 340 dollars) working full-time, plus a woman that works in a beauty salon. “The boy told me that he came from Valencia (a city in the north of Venezuela) because of the lack of security and also because he was unemployed.”
As of January 1, 2015, the Brazilian minimum wage is 788 reais (about 330 dollars). A person must be paid at least 27.27 reais for a day work, or 3.58 per hour.
Venezuela implemented rigorous and complex regulations on currency exchange in 2003. Currently, it has four different exchange rates, three of them regulated by the state, and the fourth is the free dollar exchange rate.
‘It suits me to work here’
Raquel and Eva alternate caring for an elderly lady in Boa Vista, the capital of the Brazilian state of Roraima, which is a city of about 350,000 people, located 220 kilometers from Santa Elena.
Right now, Eva is working and Rachel is back in Santa Elena.
Today, Eva will rise around 6 a.m., help the woman get out of bed and wash up, then she will prepare coffee with milk and bread for breakfast. They will spend the morning together. Eva will probably tidy up the house; make lunch, cooking fish from the river, chicken or steak, rice, salad and fruit juice; then they both will take a nap; afterword they will get up and pass the time talking; Eva will make dinner, cooking perhaps some vegetable soup, and finally she will help the woman go to bed.
“En Boa Vista me siento muy bien, no tengo necesidad de pagar comida ni habitación y por la situación que tenemos aquí, en Venezuela, que el dinero no da, esto me sirve. Yo allá no gasto nada. La señora hasta me paga el pasaje y en diciembre me regaló ropa para estrenar”, contó Raquel.
“I feel good in Boa Vista, I do not need to pay for room and board. And with the difficult situation we have in Venezuela, where one cannot make end meets, it suits me to work here. I do not spend any money while working in Brazil. My boss, she even pays for my commuting expenses, and in December she gave me brand new clothes to wear,” said Rachel.
Rachel makes 1,000 reais (around 350 dollars) a month, although she has heard that a Brazilian woman asks for around 50 reais ( around 18 dollars) a day to work from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The second time she traveled on public transportation from Pacaraima to Boa Vista, she met a girl from Maracay, in the Venezuelan state of Aragua, which is located approximately 1,500 kilometers from the border. The girl said that she had an uncle working in the Santa Elena airport and that he put her in touch with the owner of a food kiosk in Boa Vista. She makes 700 reais (250 dollars) per month.
Soto, a professional musician, travels to Boa Vista each time a nightclub hires him. They pay him for the gig, food, board and transportation. In one night he can make between 200 to 300 reais (80 to 100 dollars). People tease him y saying that with this amount of money, a person may live for two weeks in Venezuela.
“En el por puesto, ya he conocido a varios obreros calificados, soldadores, albañiles, que están trabajando allá. Van durante el tiempo que dure el contrato y regresan”, dice.
“I have met many skilled workers, welders, bricklayers, who are working there. They cross the border for the duration of the contract and come back,” he says.
At its headquarters in Pacaraima, the Brazilian Federal Police areusually rigorous when checking the entry of foreigners. Usually, they grant residence permits for 30 days, which don't include the right to work. Those who leave the country after the visa has expired must pay a fine — in Brazilian reais.