A volunteer from a government workers' union comforts an elderly civil servant while giving her a food donation in Rio
Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - At the foot of a tall building in downtown Rio de Janeiro, government workers line up for donated groceries, unable to buy their own because their salaries have not been paid.
Inside, on the 13th floor, a food bank set up by a labor union is handing out plastic bags of groceries to help state employees as Brazil struggles through its worst recession in a century.
The state of Rio, which is fighting off bankruptcy, has stopped paying salaries and pensions amid the crisis -- leaving nearly half a million people and their families to depend on private charity.
Celia Moitas Pinto and her sister donated two large bags of food in "solidarity."
Pinto's sister works for the government herself. But she is still getting paid thanks to a court injunction requiring the state to keep paying salaries of employees in the justice system.
She is luckier than her colleagues in public health and education, who have not been paid since November.
"There are recessions all over the world, but here it's been caused by theft and corruption," Pinto said bitterly.
"I'm ashamed to be Brazilian," the 71-year-old added.
Sergio Cabral, the former governor who led Rio during an economic boom that has now gone bust, was jailed in November on corruption, money laundering and racketeering charges.
A judge has frozen part of his assets, ruling he "contributed to the financial crisis devastating the state" by granting undue tax breaks to favored companies during his administration (2007-2014).
Cabral's wife is now behind bars on the same charges.
- 'Humiliating situation' -
The food bank was set up by the justice system workers' union Sindijustica.
Inside its headquarters, some 30 people sorted donated food into piles.
Many wore black t-shirts that read: "The people will not pay for the crisis."
"We put rice, coffee, beans, etc.... hygiene products to lessen our colleagues' anguish and suffering," said volunteer Silvana Soares, a 57-year-old court official.
"They all passed civil service exams to get where they are, and now they find themselves in this humiliating situation."
Rio, which played host to both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, has been the state hit hardest by the crisis gripping Brazil, Latin America's largest economy.
Its hospitals are short of supplies, its streets are regularly flooded by government workers demanding their paychecks, and its police force sometimes has no paper or fuel.
Rio's payroll is one of the biggest drains on its troubled finances.
The Rio state government has more than 220,000 employees, plus 247,000 retired government workers. Its monthly wage and pension bill -- when it pays up -- comes to two billion reals ($610 million).
- Paradox city -
The food bank has collected more than 20 tons of donated groceries and distributed 1,500 baskets since it was set up just before Christmas, said fire captain Marcelo Mata, another volunteer.
He too is still getting paid as an employee deemed vital for public security.
"I consider myself lucky," the 43-year-old said. "But for how long?
"We are living a paradox in this city. We spend money for New Year's Eve fireworks on Copacabana Beach, but behind the scenes state employees have nothing."
Still, those helped by the food bank are touched by the donations.
"We're going through an unprecedented crisis. I give thanks to everyone who's helping us," said Yara da Silva, a 50-year-old nurse's aide.
She is still waiting for her November salary of $320, which the government now says will be deposited in five payments starting January 5.
"But what about December, and my Christmas bonus? It's hard. Very hard," da Silva said.
Outside the building, the long line crept along.
"This is humiliating," said septuagenarian pensioner Maurico Lucas. "I got up at 4:00 am to come get food handouts, after 38 years of work.
"All because of the government's lack of responsibility."