While the film The Help may have brought back memories of paternalistic, oppressive relationships in the recent past of the US, domestic service in Brazil continues to be a widespread facet of Brazilian life. In order to understand the world of place, race, class and privilege in Brazilian society, one need only turn to the lives and working conditions of more than 7 million maids, who in some ways, are a continuation of the country’s slave past. The battles and hard fought victories for the rights of domestics in Brazil today are the result of a 40 year formal struggle of the classification.
A legacy of slavery and middle class privilege; more domestics rights being won
Country has 7.2 million domestics
by Agência, Isabel Braga, Alyson Freire and Carol Nogueira
Brazil has the largest number of domestic workers in the world and, despite advances in working conditions, they continue to receive less than half the average wage and are exposed to poor conditions. Data released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicate that there are 7.2 million domestics in Brazil, one of each eight in a total of 117 countries.
According to the ILO, at least 52.6 million people are working as maids in the world, in what would be the first effort of the entity to calculate the segment. Of these, 83% are women. The number does not include the 7.5 million children under the age of 15 who also serve as maids.
The ILO admits that the real number should be “significantly higher” and informs that the data was collected based on what each country classifies as domestic employment, with different years of references for each piece of information. But, despite all the limitations and the difficulty in comparing data, the ILO estimates that Brazil has the highest number worldwide.
The country would also be “by far” the market with largest number of employees in Latin America. In regional terms, Asia is the leader in the number of domestics, with 41% of workers in the world. In Latin America, they represent 37% of the total.
In 15 years, over 19 million people went to work as maids in the world, an increase of 58%. In Brazil, there was a jump from 5.1 million in 1995 to 7.2 million in 2009, the latest year with available data.
But the segment is also a reflection of social problems. Of these workers, 93% are women. In Brazil, one in every six women works as a domestic. For black women, one in five work as a maid. Black women also make up 62% of all domestics and blacks are 64% of economically active Brazilians with less than three years of schooling. The heritage comes from the time of the abolition of slavery, when blacks were admitted to the labor market without education or qualification.
The result is that most of the newly freed slaves were incorporated into menial jobs. Free black women fit the housework that occurred in conditions very similar to the period before abolition. The newspapers of the time carried ads of youth being offered for “rent” not for wages, but for food and clothes.
The president of the Federação Nacional de Empregadas Domésticas (National Federation of Domestic Workers), Creuza Maria de Oliveira, parallels what we still see today in the domestic jobs section of the Brazilian newspapers. “If you pick up a newspaper, you see: we need a domestic that doesn’t go to school and that sleeps at the job. She is an object in the house of the employer,” critiques Creuza. “She needs to do her job and return to her family, go to college, like any other human being.”
“Social inequality largely explains these numbers,” said the deputy director general of the ILO, Sandra Polaski to the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. “There are families with enough income to pay for these services, while there are also people willing to work for those wages and in these conditions.” In Europe, with a population greater than Brazil, the number of domestics is much lower.
Despite leading, Brazil is cited by the ILO as an example of a country that has begun to take steps to deal with the situation (see in next section, “Câmara approves…”). According to the survey, domestics in Brazil work on average 36 hours per week, a standard closer to Europe than countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Malaysia, where they work over 60 hours a week.
Between 2003 and 2011, the average household income in the country rose from R$333 (US$167) to R$489 (US$244), an increase of 47% compared to the 20% average of other salaries. The ILO said that in Brazil, domestics are entitled to 120 days of maternity leave. A challenge is informality. Only about 30% have a carteira assinada (formal contract) (1). In 1993, there were only 18%.
Câmara (House) approves Proposal of Constitutional Amendment
On December 4, 2012, Brazil’s Câmara (House) approved in the second round a Proposta de Emenda Constitucional (Proposed Constitutional Amendment or PEC) that extends the labor rights of domestic workers. The amendment, which extends the rights guaranteed category to all urban and rural workers, was approved by (a count of) 347 votes to 2, with 2 abstentions. Now it goes to the Senate for a vote. After passing both houses of Congress and being enacted, it will take effect.
The amendment guarantees the right to a 44 hour work week, eight hour work days and overtime pay. It also ensures the following rights without regulation; “guaranteed minimum wage when the remuneration is variable; wage protection, crime constituting willful retention, reduction of risks inherent to the job; recognition of collective bargaining agreements; prohibition of discrimination in salary, function and criteria of admission and prohibition of night, dangerous or unhealthy work, for persons under 16 years (of age).”
Other rights will depend on the new law, which will deal with simplifying the fulfillment of tax obligations on the part of the employer and the domestic worker and also on the issue of pension adequacy. Among them is the requirement of the FGTS (2) (today it is optional), night premium pay, unemployment insurance, family wage and protection against arbitrary dismissal without cause.
Today, the Constitution already provides some workers labor rights, as well as integration with Social Security. They are: minimum wage, set by law, nationally unified; irreducibility of pay; thirteenth salary (3), paid weekly rest, preferably on Sundays, annual leave and payment of additional one-third of the normal wage, maternity leave of 120 days; paternity leave; prior notice of least 30 days and retirement.
The Domestic Workers and the Middle Class Privilege
Few things in Brazil are at once so familiar and exotic to our eyes as the institution of domestic. Throughout our history, the labor of this uniquely Brazilian institution, composed overwhelmingly by women, has been given several names: mucama, criada, serva, empregada, doméstica and today, for the most ascetic, “secretária do lar (home secretary).” Or, simply, without further ado, the “person who works there at home.” After all, it seems, for some home is not a place of labor for its legitimate inhabitants, nor that of a person who needs a name, personal or occupation. It’s just a body, endowed with power and brute force, and willing to do the work and rudimentary, “dirty” work that “people of the family” don’t want or need (to do).
Familiarity with the maid mixes with the exoticism, not to say indifference, that we render to the perverse aspects of this relationship and institution.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the institution domestic is a perverse synthesis of the social formation of Brazil. It condenses in the same space and sociability, some of the most inauspicious and persistent traits of Brazilian society: the legacy of slavery, social inequality and the disqualification of body, muscular and physical toil.
The social space of maid’s work can be seen as the place par excellence of inequality. In it, we find the merging of various oppressions, discrimination and social inequalities that characterize Brazilian society. The hierarchies and biases of gender, race, class, and, in the case of large cities, geographical origin (northeastern migrants, northerners) overlap each other and are felt viscerally in the workplace and in social relations established between maids and bosses/women of the home within households.
It’s quite true that significant changes are occurring, because of the social transformations of the last decade and the struggle of domestic workers, as shown by several studies. The number of employees sleeping at their place of employment declined while that of daily and monthly salaried laborers rose. There are some that note, also, that it is a profession heading toward extinction. However, the number of domestic workers remains quite significant, as the PNAD (Pesquisa Nacional de Amostra por Domicílio or National Survey by Household Sample) of 2009 shows, these workers amount to more than seven million people. Nothing less than 7.8% of the economically active population living in the country. The infamous maid’s “quarters”, in truth, almost-hidden cells within the confines of the house or apartment, are no longer required items in a building, as they were decades ago. Despite the still rampant insecurity and scant regulation, timid achievements in favor of the latter were obtained; formal contract, minimum wage fixed by law, 13th salary, transportation and vacations, among other things.
Despite these and other changes, which may lead us to believe, naively, in the greater social acceptance and recognition of domestic workers, the level of social relations within the private environment between employers and employees remains, in many cases, marked by a pattern of hierarchical, oppressive and degrading sociability. Allegations against the bosses (or ladies of the houses) are not limited to breach of labor laws. They involve, though fewer in number and frequency, accusations of bullying and exposure to humiliating and embarrassing situations.
1. Carteira assinada is an official document recognizing someone as a participant in the job market. In 2008, research showed that domestic workers working without a signed card earned 27% less than the same worker with a signed card. For black women, the situation is even worse: 59% don’t possess this formal contract of employment and they received only 67.4% of the official minimum monthly salary in 2008, which was about R$415 (Brazilian reais or about $230 American dollars).
2. The FGTS (Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Serviço or Guaranteed Fund for Time of Service) is a savings account opened by an employer on behalf of an employee and acts as a guarantee to protecting the employee in case of unfair dismissal. All registered workers in formal employment are entitled to FGTS.
3. 13th salary is an extra salary offered to the employee at the end of each year, calculated based on full pay or the value of the retirement of the citizen.
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