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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Scientists at several Brazilian public universities and research institutes have been holding strikes in protest at a proposal by the government to modify current rules under which they are entitled to continue to receive a full salary after they retire.

More than 1,000 researchers have already decided to take early retirement in the first half of this year, acting out of concern about the implications of the proposed change in the pension rules.

However the government is now reconsidering its position in the light of widespread protests from the whole of the public sector, to whom the new regulations would apply.

Under current rules, publicly funded scientists continue to receive their full salary — adjusted by the government on the same basis as other public sector workers — on retirement.

In contrast, those in the private sector — including private laboratories and research institutes — receive a maximum monthly pension of 1,870 reais (US$645), about one third the amount received by a retired university professor.

The government argues that this situation in unjust, and is contributing to a substantial shortfall in the budget of the National Institute of Social Security, which is responsible for handling pensions.

Under its initial proposals for reform, all public sector employees — including university researchers — would lose the right to retire on their full salary, and would also be required to continue to make social security contributions after their retirement.

However government critics argue that retiring on full salary is not a privilege but a legal right that has already been paid for. "Public sector employees pay 11 per cent of their salary every month into a pension fund to ensure that they continue to receive a full salary after their retirement,” says Chico Alencar, a member of the federal parliament. “These are the terms of the contract defined by law."

The government has been warned by university leaders that the decision by many university researchers to take early retirement in order to avoid the consequences of the proposed reform is likely to have a damaging effect on the country’s research and teaching capacity.

The National Association of Leaders of Federal Institutions of Higher Education (Andifes), for example, points out that in addition to the 1,000 academics who have already retired this year, a further 7,000 are also eligible to do so.

"Valuable human resources are leaving [higher education federal institutions] and there is no possibility that we can immediately replace such professionals", warns Wrana Maria Panizzi, dean of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and president of Andifes.

A statement issued by Andifes warns that the changes may also prompt researchers to leave public universities — whose generous pension rights are currently a powerful attraction — to work in the private sector, and that the change will also make it difficult for public universities and research laboratories to recruit staff.

Following a wave of protests throughout the country, president Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva announced that the proposed changes in the pension laws would be modified. But he later strengthened the proposed changes again under pressure from state governors — who have to provide the money to pay the pensions of their employees — and the media. A new proposal has now been sent to the National Congress that includes some changes in the original text, but modifies some of the most controversial issues.

For example, current public sector officials would be able to retire on a full wage, but only if they had worked at least 10 years in their final post, had worked at least 20 years in a public institution, and were more than 60 years old (for men) and 55 years (for women).

Those recruited in future would receive a maximum retirement income of 2,400 reais (US$830) a month, with the same value being proposed for those working in the private sector.

These proposals are likely to be hotly debated — and potentially modified yet further — in the National Congress over the next few weeks.

Link to the new proposal sent to the National Congress  (in Portuguese)
Link to the statement by Andifes (in Portuguese)