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Ireland’s Brazilians pack their bags

October 6th, 2009

brazshopWalk through Gort in western Ireland any weekday morning and you see them standing around in twos and threes.

As many as 20 men will be waiting in the town square hoping someone – a farmer, builder or somebody simply needing to sort out their garden – will drive up to offer a day’s work.

The going rate is about 70 euros ($101.85; £64) a day.

All the men are Brazilian, the employers Irish. But work here is in far shorter supply than even a year ago.

More recent arrivals, who speak little or no English, may now find employment for just a couple of days a week.

Good living

Henrique, 24, is luckier.

He has been in Ireland for seven years, speaks good English and has regular work with a local builder. His compatriots followed on because they heard tales of plentiful work, but things have changed.

Henrique says he is still well-paid, earning 85 euros a day. If he does extra jobs in the evenings and over the weekends he can still make a good living, he says.

But these days he is the exception.

“This is the worst time I’ve seen in Ireland,” he says.

“But you have to keep going and try to get work. You can’t just stop and stare at the sky.”

Gort’s Latin Americans started arriving a decade ago, with almost all coming from a single big housing project near Anapolis in Brazil.

The meat industry at Vila Fabril was in decline, while a meat plant in Gort desperately needed workers for the dirty and unpleasant jobs locals no longer wanted or needed.


The first Brazilians were actively recruited to come to County Galway, and just a few years ago they made up almost half of the town’s population.

The plant in Gort has since closed, but the range of work to be had has diversified.

The Brazilians worked on the land, in small factories, on building sites, in child care and in the town’s shops. Most spoke only Portuguese, but soon acquired enough English to get by.

It seemed that almost everyone was guaranteed a ride on the Celtic Tiger of new-found prosperity.

And if they were getting less pay than local people it was far better than being at home earning a pittance – or being unemployed.

For the Irish it was an historic change. For decades young people had moved away and overseas in search of work.

Then Ireland shifted to a high tech, knowledge-based economy and the dirty work went to others.

Boom and bust

But about 18 months ago the Celtic Tiger lost its bounce.

As a result, more than two-thirds of Gort’s Brazilian population, which a couple of years ago was 1,500 strong, has left.

More of them might go the same way this winter as seasonal work disappears. Perhaps a couple of hundred will remain – though if the Irish economy does not pick up next year that could fall again.

Frank Murray is running a project for the Combat Poverty Agency to track what is happening in Gort as the economy shrinks.

“Between 1999 and 2007 things were booming. Ireland couldn’t get enough people to do the work,” Mr Murray explains.

“Some of those who came in were undocumented but blind eyes were turned.

“A lot of them did fantastically well and realised their dream. But it’s the ones who arrived in the last two years who are finding it tough.

“They had to borrow money to get here and they didn’t have that first year or two to pay the money back and get on your feet. And there are no jobs around.”

Gort’s Brazilians are unfailingly positive and polite; even the late-comers who have done much less well.

Frank Murray, who has travelled a lot in Brazil, says at home they were victims of a rigid social hierarchy that trapped them in poverty.

Returning home

Nonetheless Carlos and Wanda are leaving in December.

For five years Carlos has supported his family as a painter and decorator.

He and Wanda have a pleasant house on an estate that is 50% Brazilian, and though he admits he has lacked work this year he insists the years in Ireland have been good.

Wanda says they have sent enough money home to enable them to establish a small business in Vila Fabril on their return. That would have been unthinkable before.

Their 10-year-old son, John Victor, says he is ready to go but will miss playing hurling at school.

Mr Murray says for those who arrived in the last two years their doubtful legal position is now a problem.

“There’s a lot of people who are going to go into destitution now,” he says.

“They don’t have the ticket to get home. They don’t have recourse to social benefits because they’re undocumented. They’re off every kind of radar.”

There has been very little social tension even as the Irish economy has slowed, though unemployment in the area has been rising sharply for the Irish too.

But many of the Brazilians booking tickets home have attained a financial stability their own country was never going to offer them.

They have also discovered it is not a law of nature that they will always be poor.

That realisation echoes the experience not so long ago of many of the rural and small-town Irish with whom they have co-existed for a decade.

By Vincent Dowd

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