An image of the Brazilian flag adorns the presidential palace in Brasilia. The Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid millions in bribes to President Michel Temer’s party and another party to ensure a contract with the state oil company, according to plea bargain testimony from a former executive in April. Since 2015, Odebrecht has lost half its workforce in connection with the Operation Car corruption probe. (Eraldo Peres/AP)
SAO PAULO, Brazil — Ricardo Coelho was a 50-year-old engineer at the peak of his career when he traded his calculator for a pair of eyebrow tweezers.
Once a top executive at the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, he found himself stranded with no prospects two years ago when the firm’s chief executive was arrested and jailed, triggering the loss of 100,000 jobs. With his savings dwindling, Coelho opened a hair removal salon, Eyebrow Design, in a mall on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.
“I had 27 years of experience and a diploma from Brazil’s best university, but I couldn’t even get an interview callback,” he said.
Coelho is one of thousands of skilled workers trying to navigate Brazil’s wrecked economy in the wake of Operation Car Wash, a sprawling investigation that has used plea-bargain deals to trace corruption from a Brasilia gas station to the highest levels of government.
The investigation has resulted in prison terms for many politicians, as well as executives in Brazil’s construction, petrochemical and meat industries, on charges of trading bribes involving lucrative government contracts. Three years in, the industry purges have sparked mass layoffs, hollowing out companies that were once world-renowned.
Brazilians overwhelmingly support the Car Wash probe and say they hope it will end systemic graft and usher in a new culture of transparency. But although the investigation is expected to pave the way for stronger accountability and governance over the long term, the progress has not been pain-free.
Many Brazilian workers who had no direct involvement in the scandal have paid a steep price. And as top executives negotiated plea deals with authorities, their employees found themselves trapped under crumbling empires, with whole sectors of the economy gutted overnight.
“Working at Odebrecht was an engineer’s dream. I was on track for retirement,” Coelho said.
Five years ago, Odebrecht and other big firms were riding a commodities boom to international prominence, soaking up the country’s top engineering talent to build highways across the Andes, airports in Miami and World Cup stadiums across Brazil.
That dream came crashing…