Final Station: Working and Struggling in the São Paulo Subway in Times of Pandemic

Written by a worker of the São Paulo Subway

Working in the São Paulo Subway on normal days is already risky and stressful. We stand for long hours and deal daily with thousands of people who pass by the stations. The risk of suffering accidents or being harmed is constant. But nothing compares to these days of the pandemic. I have never wished so much for a break as now; and I have never been so reluctant to go back to that place. My co-workers are afraid – and rightly so, because despite the radical decrease in the number of passengers in these last days, the risk of becoming infected with the new coronavirus is very high. Many already take for granted that they will be contaminated, the only thing left to know is when.

The São Paulo Subway is one of the most crowded in the world, carrying an average of 5.3 million passengers per day. But since the WHO (World Health Organization) classified Covid-19 as a pandemic, this number has dropped dramatically. At the station where I work, peak hours no longer exist and, from what I have heard from colleagues, the situation is the same at other stations. We joke among ourselves that now every day is Sunday. This also gives us some relief, as it indicates that people are staying more at home, which prevents the circulation of the virus.

Besides that, we have implemented several changes in our work routines to increase our safety, such as leaving gates permanently open so you don’t have to open them every time. We also avoid approaching passengers every time we need to release them at the turnstile, guiding them through the gate. The flow drivers, which once served to organize the crowd and make it more difficult to evade (users who enter without paying), now serve to isolate our work area, keeping a safe distance from the users. Finally, we eliminated jobs that left us more exposed, such as those on the platform. All this is being done without the consent of the management, obviously, which at best tolerates our interventions due to the exceptional situation.

Still, subway workers remain exposed to contagion. Work equipment such as transceiver radios, keys, magnetic cards and computers, are shared by all – and there is no way to sanitize them after every use. Until last week, we used expired alcohol gel to sanitize our hands because there are not enough gloves or masks for everyone. At the outsourced ticket offices there is no alcohol gel or gloves, which leaves these workers at imminent risk of contamination, since they handle cash bills and tickets all day long and cannot leave the booths to wash their hands as often as necessary.

Until last Friday, March 20, employees over 60 were still working normally, with serious risk of death. This week we also had the first confirmed cases of contaminated employees, which made us even more concerned. On Saturday, the Subway Workers’ Union obtained an injunction in the courts guaranteeing immediate leave, with all rights assured, to workers who are in the risk group (elderly people aged 60 years or more, hypertensive, cardiac, asthmatics, kidney patients and smokers with respiratory deficiency and immunodeficiency) and forcing the subway to provide adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves and alcohol gel, including for outsourced workers.

Among the staff, the feeling is that everything is wrong and we are left to our own luck. If we talk, they won’t listen. If they listen, they pretend they don’t understand us. Every train that passes has the smell of death. And everything goes on, like nothing’s happening. Even with several employees away, the subway is still operating normally because, so far, the management has not presented any service contingency plan to suit the situation. I think that, as it stands, the subway is unable to guarantee the safety of either passengers or employees. Keeping the subway open under these conditions is irresponsible, as we are actively contributing to the spread of the virus. A service contingency plan is urgently needed to meet only essential needs, guaranteeing everyone’s safety.

As I write these lines, the Subway Workers’ Union from Minas Gerais has just announced a strike starting on the 23rd. I believe that in view of the current situation, if the São Paulo subway does not present a contingency plan, we are obliged to follow the example of our colleagues in Minas Gerais. We cannot continue being a vector of transmission of the new coronavirus and do nothing. We have to take responsibility for the lives of the working population because we cannot be exempted from the catastrophe that threatens us.

São Paulo, March 22, 2020, first published in Portuguese at Passa Palavra.

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