This post is part of the series of blogs explaining country-specific research papers. This series investigates how the non-realization (or limited realization) of distributive justice claims experienced by the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in society are dealt with in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

The 1970s in Portugal marked the end of a dictatorship and the replacement of the imperial project of colonial expansion by a democratic project of European integration. Portugal’s entrance into the European Union introduced the belief that the country was now part of a project with objectives and targets, plans, strategies and methodologies and thatat long last, it would move from the European periphery to its very centre. However, reality was different. When Portugal became part of the EU in 1986, neoliberalism was gaining ground, the priority given to the European Social Model was being questioned, and an unequal European Union was on the horizon (Santos, 2012).

In 2011, facing a very serious economic situation due to the crisis, the Portuguese government announced the decision to ask for external help and to apply to a bailout program. As a result, a group of representatives of the European Commission, the Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – the so-called “Troika” – went to Lisbon to promote a rescue plan.  In order to receive an international loan of € 78billion, the Portuguese government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Troika on May 17 2011. The document defined conditions of public policy to be followed by the Portuguese State as a condition to receive the loan. A group of eight Portuguese economists sums up the matrix of the Memorandum in three words: austerity, liberalization and privatization (Abreu et. al., 2013).

Contrasting the other subjects of the Memorandum, the references on the Labour Market were highly detailed, leaving no margin for discretion concerning unemployment benefits, working times and wage fixing. Also the effort of the Portuguese government to implement the measures was impressive. As opposed to other chapters of the Memorandum, the outlined labour measures were translated into legislation with no flaw (Caldas, 2015). The impact of these measures in the Portuguese society was reflected in several forms, including: the increase of precarious forms of employment; the raising of the numbers of unemployed people across the country; the loss of autonomy of trade unions; the reinforcement of asymmetries in the labour market; an incredibly sharp fall in the purchasing power of households; and a high number of people of working age who left the country (Hermes et. al., 2015). Besides laws directly related to the labour market, other austerity measures very strongly impacted on citizen’s security and quality of life: the raising of taxes, the reduction of civil servants and their wages, as well as cuts on pension reforms and other social benefits. In contrast to the Europe of “flexicurity” (i.e. flexibility and security in the labour market), flexibility became synonymous with vulnerabilities in the case of  Portugal.

Vulnerabilities are not gender or age-neutral. The effects of the crisis and the associated austerity policies had differentiated effects on men and women, generating detrimental effects to advancements in gender equality. Female employment decreased and gender pay gaps intensified.  Also cuts in public policies and the consequent re-privatisation of care reinforced what in the 1990’s had been called “Welfare Society”, an informal welfare society sustained over the unpaid work of women (Santos, 1993; Ribeiro et. al., 2015). Younger and older generations suffered in different ways. In the last four decades, the latter group made all the efforts to provide their children with a level of education that would ensure they would have more opportunities. However, the plan failed. Many young and qualified people were forced to emigrate and left their parents alone. Others continued to be entirely or partially supported by their parents, even though the older generation’s budget also suffered the impacts of austerity.

In face of this scenario, protests and resignation were two sides of the same coin. From 2011 to 2013 there was a great intensification and radicalization of protests in Portugal, some of them calling to mind the first years of the Portuguese democracy. Not only the trade unions intensified their struggle, but also the strategies of protest came to includa combination of efforts of different trade union centrals, social movements and other civil society organizations. The other side of the collective protests were the individual despair. As a result of four decades of democracy and investment on education, Portugal had come to have the most educated generation of all times. However, the unemployment among people aged under 24 and looking for work rose to a staggering 36.6% in 2012. The official rhetoric was one of resignation, encouraging the acceptance of reality and focusing solutions on the individuals. The best illustration of this were the declarations of different members of the government encouraging highly-qualified citizens to leave their comfort zones and to find jobs abroad.

António Casimiro Ferreira argues that in addition to the obvious economic and financial aspects of the austerity model, there is also a social model of the naturalization of inequalities and austerity, which is characterized by a) the fear as a source of legitimacy; b) the emergence of a new constellation of power that combines elected and unelected power; and c) destabilization of the normative structure with the use of a right of exception (Ferreira, 2011). Fear with no hope is the perfect combination for a resigned society and was part of the recipe used to face the crisis (Santos, 2017).


Abreu, Alexandre; Mendes, Hugo; Rodrigues, João; Gusmão, José Guilherme; Serra, Nuno; Teles, Nuno; Alves, Pedro Delgado; Mamede, Ricardo Pais (2013), A Crise da Troika e as Alternativas Urgentes. Lisboa: Tinta da China

Caldas, José Castro (2015), “Desvalorização do trabalho: do Memorando à prática”, Cadernos do Observatório, n. 6. Lisboa: CES

Ferreira, António Casimiro (2011), “A sociedade de austeridade: Poder, medo e direito do trabalho de exceção”, Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, 95: 119-136.

Ribeiro, Raquel; Coelho, Lina; Ferreira-Valente, Alexandra (2015), “Unemployment and gender equality within the family in Portugal”, ex æquo, 32, pp. 69-85

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (1993), “O Estado, as relações salariais e o bem-estar social na semiperiferia: o caso português”. In Boaventura de Sousa Santos (org.), Portugal: um retrato singular. Porto: Afrontamento

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2012), Portugal. Ensaio contra a autoflagelação. Coimbra: Almedina

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2017), “The Resilience of Abyssal Exclusions in Our Societies: Toward a Post-Abyssal Law”, Tilburg Law Review, 22: 237-258.

By Sara Araújo
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D6.2
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