Minutes after lining up alongside 1994 FIFA World Cup™ winner Bebeto in a casual game involving representatives of FIFA and the Brazilian Local Organising Committee, construction worker Jonathan Rodrigo says he never would have dreamed that he would one day be so closely involved in preparations for world football’s biggest event. It’s the kind of sentiment you might expect to hear from a working man who has just been handed the chance to play football with one of his childhood heroes, but in Rodrigo’s specific case, the words take on an even deeper meaning.

The 25-year-old is one of around 60 prisoners and former prisoners selected to join the regular workers at six FIFA World Cup stadiums as part of Brazil’s nationwide “Começar de Novo” (“Start Over Again”) rehabilitation programme.

Launched in October 2009 by Brazil’s National Council of Justice (CNJ), the project offers participants the chance to restart their lives with the help of dignified work. It received a massive boost in January 2010, when the Brazil 2014 Local Organising Committee, the Ministry of Sports and all 12 Host Cities and their respective states signed a declaration of intent to include “Começar de Novo” participants in the construction of FIFA World Cup stadiums.           

“The principle of a prisoner’s right to work has actually been part of Brazil’s criminal legislation since 1984, but what the ‘Começar de Novo’ programme did was to institutionalise this concept, at which point it was promptly accepted by several companies from all over the country,” explains Federal Judge Luciano Losekann, coordinator of the CNJ department charged with monitoring and supervising Brazil’s prison system.

“The inclusion of the FIFA World Cup in the programme obviously provides an enormous source of job placements, with the potential to reintegrate these prisoners into society with jobs that restore their dignity.” 

Pride and dignity are certainly in evidence as Rodrigo describes his role in the construction of Cuiabá’s Arena Pantanal - the brand new multi-sport stadium which is set to host four group-stage matches during the 2014 finals.

“I work in the environment department,” he explained, before carefully detailing what this means in clear but knowledgeable terms as if he were one of the engineers responsible for designing the stadium’s ambitious plan to have zero carbon emissions.

“Our goal is to save or re-use energy and also to reduce pollution levels,” Rodrigo told FIFA World. “I supervise the work and sometimes take action myself, for example when a certain engine exceeds its permitted oil emission levels, then I have to bring those levels back down and collect any residues.”

Rodrigo’s eloquence on such a technical subject says a lot about the training process that is a pivotal part of the programme. Ever since he joined the consortium of companies building the Arena Pantanal, the former convict has gone through a six-month training period that included eight weeks of practical and theoretical classes on his role as a member of the environment team. “That is when I understood what we want to achieve with the stadium,” said Rodrigo. “It is a beautiful approach to the construction.” 

This project is more than just a unique opportunity for me. It is a key that will open new doors to my future.

Construction worker Jonathan Rodrigo

A different type of prison
As well as setting a leading example in terms of their environmentally friendly approach, the Cuiabá stadium planners have also taken the prisoners project a step further than most by embracing another social inclusion project. In May 2011, the host city agreed to adopt the “Ação Integrada” initiative, which offers the same dignifying conditions - professional training, a proper job, a monthly salary and on-site accommodation - to 25 workers who had been stuck in another form of detention: slave labour.

It may sound incredible to even mention those words now, 124 years after slavery was formally abolished in Brazil, but according to statistics from the country’s Ministry of Labour, more than 2,600 people were “freed” in 2010 from working conditions that can hardly be described in any other way than slavery - many of them found on remote farms in Brazil’s northern and midwestern regions.                  

Nivaldo Inácio da Silva is one of the 25 workers at the Arena Pantanal who were rescued by “Ação Integrada”. All of them had been picking cotton or cutting sugar for negligible wages, or simply no wages at all, while being kept in farms under degrading conditions.

“I remember when we were first taken to our so-called housing facilities, which had no beds, no drinking water and no sign of food,” Inácio recalls. “The next morning we were told what would be our daily task: picking 3,600 metres of cotton in order to make eight Brazilian reais. After one week, we decided to stand up against the farm owner and demand better working conditions. He took us all to the city with BRL 200 in our pockets and told us to go back home.”

More than a job
Luckily for Inácio, by the time he and the others got back to the district of Nossa Senhora do Chumbo, some 45 kilometres west of Cuiabá, people from “Ação Integrada” had begun drafting potential construction workers for the Arena Pantanal. With a wife and four kids to support, he was in desperate need of any type of job, but has ended up with much more.

“Now I have not only a job, but also one that provides good food, proper housing facilities and full respect for my working rights. On top of all that, I have been given the chance to achieve one of my dreams: to learn how to read and write.”

Given Brazil’s renowned passion for football, it was always clear that the country’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup™ would form a major moment in the lives of millions of Brazilians. What sometimes goes unnoticed beneath the detailed day-to-day preparations for the big event, however, is just how many lives are already being transformed during the build-up to the football extravaganza.

“I know my work on the World Cup stadium will not last forever,” Rodrigo points out, “but the training and the experience that I have gained, and the changes that my life has gone through - those will be with me forever. This project is more than just a unique opportunity for me. It is a key that will open new doors to my future.”