After the death of a maid who contracted Covid-19 working for her employer returning from Italy, children of domestic workers call for their paid leave
By Marques Travae
With the world reaching a level of panic due to the Covid-19, we are once again seeing how social inequalities affect everyday people. In Brazil, the so-called coronavirus has just exacerbated and evidenced these striking inequalities. The question of the rights of domestic workers has once again come up. Let us remember that Brazil has one largest workforces of informal and domestic workers in the world.
There are approximately 6.3 domestic workers in Brazil, most of whom are pretas and pardas, meaning black and brown women. Besides that, according to the IBGE, the official agency that tracks all sorts of social statistics, Brazil has nearly 41 million informal workers, or people who work “under the table”, without a formal work contract in both the public and the private sector, perform domestic work or work on their own accord.
Of these 41 million, at least 19 million without any sort of oficial registration as small business people. And when I say small business people, most of black Brazilians classified as small business people are not the type of businesspeople where they are earning six-figure incomes, but rather people who work independently out of necessity as they haven’t been able to secure employment with large or even small companies. Afro-Brazilians are actually the majority of smallbusiness owners, but more than 91% of these entrepreneurs have companies in which they have no employees besides themselves or their partners.
Now imagine how these people get hit during a crisis such as the one affecting the world right now. While you’re at it, ask yourself if you could survive on a minimum salary per month. Minimum salary in Brazil right now BRL $1,039 per month, which is worth about USD 207 (dollars). In January, it was worth USD $237. Chances are if you’re surviving on this income, missing even one check could be devastating
Almost half of black Brazilians earn one minimum salary or less per month so you can imagine that the idea of not being able to earn a living, even at such meager sums, can be a terrifying thought. But with the so many businesses closing their doors due to this crisis, it is a reality. It’s a difficult scenario. On the one hand, health specialists are advising people to stay home and practice self-quarantine, on the other hand, people need to work to survive, which is where the issue of the “haves” and the “have nots” once again reflects the vast social inequalities at the root of Brazilian society.
On March 17, the city of Miguel Pereira, with a population of 25,000, located in the south of Rio de Janeiro state, reported that a 63-year-old woman with diabetes and hypertension, continued to work in the home of her employer who had just returned from Italy. Cleonice Gonçalves had been working and cooking in her employer’s home for 20 years when she began feel sick with a fever and body pains on March 16th. Her employer was diagnosed Covid-19 and having been in contact with her boss, the maid ended up contracting the virus and dying soon after. The woman worked in the capital city of Rio and was taken the hospital after presenting symptoms of the virus.
The incident led many to start questioning the rights of domestic workers during a pandemic. We’ve already seen stories in which domestic workers continue to work in the homes of their employers, some voluntarily, others mandatorily, sometimes in situations in which the employer is known to have been diagnosed with the virus. As domestic workers usually earn somewhere around the minimum salary, most of them use public transportation to go work, sometimes taking two or three buses and maybe a subway train to get their destination, coming in contact with hundreds, if not thousands of people along the way, which puts them in a situation of risk.
Lawyer Aretha Azevedo Claudino dos Santos agrees. This demographic of the working class, made up of mostly black/brown women, often of advanced age and living in poor, peripheral neighborhoods are more vulnerable, both financially as well as in terms of their health. Speaking on a possible catastrophe in the Brazilian national health care system, SUS, dos Santos tell us:
“There are about 6 million domestic workers in Brazil. In large part, people who don’t have health insurance, depend on the Unified Health System (SUS). So, in order that we can flatten the curve of the epidemic, avoiding a peak that overloads the system, we must redouble our attention with these people. If not, just suspicious cases will already overcrowd SUS.”
For this reason, the National Federation of Domestic Workers (Fenatrad) is demanding that these workers be released from providing their services while the coronavirus crisis endures. On Tuesday, March 17th, The MPT (Public Ministry of Labor) issued on Tuesday (17) a technical note requesting that special measures be adapted to protect these workers, recommending that “domestic workers be dismissed with guaranteed salary, in the period in which the measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic are in force, except in cases where the provision of their services is absolutely essential, such as care for the elderly who live alone and the people who need permanent monitoring.”
A university student, the son of a domestic worker and was moved by the death of a woman who worked in the same profession as his mother, created a manifesto calling for paid quarantine leave to ensure that this tragedy doesn’t claim another life unnecessarily. Marcelo Rocha was in Rio when he heard of the death of the domestic worker and decided that he needed to do something. He created the manifesto which requests the continued receiving of salaries even without working. The manifesto quickly received more than a hundred messages from other concerned children of domestic workers. For Rocha, ‘releasing them at this time is a gesture of humanity’.
Marcelo revealed that his own mother has been working since she was 6 years old. He remembers that, some time ago, it was common for domestic workers to spend weeks away from home providing services to other families.
“It is these women who took care of people like children. In the midst of a global pandemic, can’t they even be entitled to a benefit so that they can be cared for? So take care of those who take care of you.”
Rocha majors in Social Sciences at FMU (Centro Universitário das Faculdades Metropolitanas Unidas), in São Paulo, and knows that it was Marcelo his mother’s work as a domestic profession that provided him the opportunity to enter a university program and also gave him a more critical view of how Brazil’s job market functions. Like many others, Marcelo analyzes Brazil’s current job market in the context of its 350 year history of slavery.
“It is a colonial process that, even today, will bring many risks to people in the community and those of low income. Most live in (low income) communities and the risks are very high because there is more contact with people. Most do not live in large houses and they can contaminate their children.”
Rocha is one of the sons and daughter of domestic workers who are requesting that employers do the right thing by continuing to pay their workers even during this time when it is best that they stay home. Through a movement they call Pela Vida de Nossas Mães, meaning For the Life of Our Mothers, Rocha and many others hope to move employers of more privileged backgrounds to look out for those who look out for them and their families. Besides other children of domestics, some employers have already signed on in support of the movement.
Read the full manifesto below
MANIFESTO OF DAUGHTERS AND CHILDREN OF DOMESTIC WORKERS AND DAILY EMPLOYEES
To the government, employers and employers of domestic workers and day laborers, and all civil society.
This manifest letter aims to trigger the policy of the common good, in which individual actions are essential for the well-being of the community. We take into account that, according to the OMS (WHO – World Health Organization), we are inserted in a pandemic, with international recommendations to remain in isolation and voluntary quarantines, being necessary, momentarily, the restriction of social life.
And when we find that our family members who are maids and day laborers continue to work normally, we emphasize the EMERGENCY to comply with the quarantine stipulated by the authorities and we demand PAID DISPENSE of the housekeepers and day laborers by the employers so that, thus, they comply with the precautionary requirements in the combating of the contagious spread of COVID-19.
Social isolation is crucial and goes far beyond the labor relationship. It is an effective way to avoid exposure to agglomeration in public transport and other situations that favor mass contamination, leading to community contagion, as has already been happening. A fact that brings risks to employers and employees.
In Miguel Pereira, in the south of the state of Rio de Janeiro, a 63-year-old woman died infected by the new coronavirus. She continued to work as a domestic worker at the home of her employer in RJ, who had already been diagnosed with COVID-19, upon her return from a trip to Italy.
Domestic servants belong to a category of workers who represent Brazil. According to the IBGE, professionals who provide domestic services – which may include gardeners, caretakers, maids and day laborers – represent a total of 6.3 million workers. All of these professionals are economically active in the country.
Of this group, 1.5 million work with a carteira assinada (formal work contract). Another 2.3 million workers work without a carta assinada and 2.5 million are day laborers, which makes them a vulnerable group in the current scenario.
The pandemic situation indicates that the greatest number of workers at this time (at great risk of contagion) are unsupported by labor laws. The day laborers are in an even more precarious and vulnerable situation, without legal contracts that make it possible, for example, to negotiate vacation advances. For this reason, they encounter even more obstacles in maintaining themselves and guaranteeing the safety of their collective family, as they receive per day worked.
For years, our mothers, grandparents, aunts, cousins have dedicated their lives to other families, we are all affected by this “labor relationship” of regression and slave-like ways. We had our lives marked by this context, which needs to be rethought by the whole society, especially by employers. In this context, we, daughters and sons of domestic workers and day laborers, experience the discomfort reported by our relatives:
In my case, my grandmother worked for years in a family home. She was 63, she arrived there at 6am twice a week, then she started cooking, ironing, washing the terrace… Earning only BRL 100, without money for travel. In January she died and the message received by WhatsApp was “Dona Conceição, I got someone else to put it in your place, since you didn’t come anymore, my house is all dirty because the walls were spotted.” – Nicole Nascimento, Japeri / RJ
“My mother has been working since she was 6 years old as a domestic worker and a day laborer, and I saw her often go to work sick to keep her commitments. Even talking about the risks of Corona, she has no way of missing work with the risk of being fired. Domestic workers are taking great risks and are also a great possibility of contagion, especially in transport in the metropolises.” – Marcelo Rocha – Mauá / SP
Mainha is a diarist every day in a different house, this Monday when the coronavirus thing exploded, my brother sends me a zap (WhatsApp message) saying that our mother didn’t want to enter the house because the boss told her that she had a fever and that it was for my mother to take care of her. This episode made my mother take an alcohol gel bath, not out of misinformation, but because of the DESPERATION of someone she loves at in the home getting the coronavirus. – Yane Mendes, 28- Totó-Recife PE
I remember several stories, overwork, overload and I still see her working at 66 years old, even retired. Once a situation happened, not once, several times, she had to be absent from work due to illness and asked to call saying she wasn’t going, so I did and heard: “But when will your mother be back?” At the time, my answer was accurate: “Simple, when she gets better!”. – Laura Cristina, 29 years old – Santa Luzia/Minas Gerais
That said, we present concrete measures that can and need to be followed by employers, aiming at the common good, which are:
Immediate paid dismissal for domestic workers, with formal or informal papers, and for day workers;
Advance of vacation in whole or in part;
If the employee lives at the employer’s house and is in a risk group, she cannot be placed in situations of risk of contagion, such as: going to supermarkets, pharmacies, shopping malls and other public spaces, thus avoiding any type of agglomerations.
This letter is signed by the daughters and sons of housekeepers and day laborers who value health, care, the collective and above all, the lives of their mothers!
Brazil, March 2020
In the city of Mauá, located in the state of São Paulo, where Marcelo and his mother live, one death from the virus has been reported. The buses in the city have already stopped running. But Marcelo’s mother is already starting to see a benefit from her son’s activism.
“Starting on the 26th, my mom’s boss will pay for an Uber for her to come and go,” says Marcelo
Hopefully, more employers will emulate this gesture.
With information from Brasil de Fato, UOL, G1, Rede Brasil Atual, Gaúcha ZH