What is it like to be a domestic worker in Brazil?

. Feb 17, 2020
domestic labor brazil Scene from the movie "Domésticas" (2001)

“Having the exchange rate at BRL 1.80 [to the dollar] doesn’t exist. […] Everyone was going to Disneyland, maids were going to Disneyland, a huge party.” Despite having an opportunity to explain how the positive low-interest rate scenario in Brazil, causing changes to foreign exchange rates, could actually be beneficial for the country, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes stuck his foot in his mouth once again. While angering poorer social strata and exposing the class prejudice held by many of Brazil’s financial elites, Mr. Guedes’ unfortunate comments also shed light on a lingering phenomenon in the country: how domestic work is symptomatic of inequality.

</p> <p>The backlash to Mr. Guedes’ comments was immediate. Social media was flooded with criticism, even from some of his staunch supporters from financial markets. While the Economy Minister&#8217;s rationale may make sense—after peeling back the poor phrasing and disparaging language, it is true that Brazil increased its spending on foreign consumption during the 2010s boom years instead of focusing on tools to improve productivity—Mr. Guedes picked the wrong targets, as this economic conundrum shows little connection to the reality of domestic workers in Brazil.</p> <p>According to the national statistics bureau IBGE, Brazil has <a href="">over 6.2 million domestic workers</a>, among them maids, cleaners, nannies and other similar professions. Some 94.1 percent of this group are women, and most of them are black and work under informal conditions with little social protections, earning average wages of BRL 740, below the national minimum salary of BRL 1,000.</p> <p>“With the wage a domestic worker earns in this country, traveling to Disneyland would only have happened to accompany their employers&#8217; children. The salary barely covers the cost of a basic basket of necessities or leisure with their family,” said Luiza Batista, president of the National Federation of Domestic Workers, in an interview with newspaper <a href=""><em>Agora</em></a>.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1405875"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Historical backgrounds</h2> <p>As of 2018, Brazil had the largest number of domestic workers in the world, according to the <a href="">International Labor Organization</a>. However, despite having such a large cohort of these laborers, Brazil only signed the <a href="">2011 Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers</a> seven years late.&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, it was only in 2013 that Brazil’s Congress approved a law that granted domestic workers the same rights as urban and rural workers, granting them the right to work up to 44 hours per week, Christmas bonuses, and the guarantee to earn at least the minimum wage. However, issues such as unemployment insurance, compensation for unfair dismissals, extra pay for night shifts and overtime were <a href="">only regulated in 2015</a>.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>As researcher Louisa Acciari wrote <a href="">in a paper</a> published by the London School of Business: &#8220;domestic work is commonly described as a modern form of slavery because of the absence of labor regulations in the sector. In fact, the high proportion of black women performing domestic work is intrinsically linked to <a href="">Brazilian colonial history</a>, and its associated gender and racial divisions of labor.&#8221; Ms. Acciari goes on to say that domestic work has never been recognized as &#8220;proper work,&#8221; instead, it is &#8220;&#8216;help&#8217; provided to households, and the ‘natural’ place of black women.”</p> <h2>Has anything changed?</h2> <p>A <a href=";view=article&amp;id=35255&amp;catid=10&amp;Itemid=9">recent study</a> by the Institute of Applied Economic Research dove deep into the state of domestic work in Brazil from 1995 to 2018, using IBGE data. What they found was a scenario of profound gender, ethnic and regional differences, also with widespread precarity in working conditions.</p> <p>As a comparison, 14.6 percent of all the women employed in Brazil are domestic workers, while the ratio is less than 1 percent of all employed men. Among black women, the ratio tops 18 percent and falls to 10 percent among white women.</p> <p>Looking at wages, the study found a strong connection between domestic workers’ salaries and the increases to the minimum wage, making average pay go from roughly BRL 500 in 1995 to BRL 900 in 2018. But salary differences between regions are staggering: in Brazil&#8217;s Northeast, domestic employees still earn less than BRL 600 after 24 years of study. In comparison, their counterparts in the South and Southeast managed to earn a bit more than the minimum wage. Also, white women receive more than black women in every Brazilian region.&nbsp;</p> <p>When it comes to social protection, the number of domestic employees formally hired nearly doubled from 1995 to 2016, reaching 33.3 percent on average. However, as the economic crisis hit, many families chose to dismiss full-time live-in maids to hire part-time cleaners, known in Brazil as <em>&#8220;diaristas.&#8221;</em></p> <p>In the researchers&#8217; view, this may be a reason as to why formality levels fell to 28.6 percent in 2018. The workers, however, have been adopting other strategies to ensure they have some kind of social protection, either by paying for it themselves or joining the Individual Micro Entrepreneur System (MEI). On average, this kind of tax system increases workers&#8217; coverage levels to 38.9 percent, though full-time workers are twice as covered than part-time ones, even in this model.&nbsp;</p> <p>Here, regional differences are also stark: while 47 percent of domestic workers have social protection in Brazil&#8217;s South, coverage falls to 20.3 percent in the North.&nbsp;</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h4 style="text-align:center"><strong>Domestic workers still get less than the minimum wage</strong></h4> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img loading="lazy" width="524" height="267" src="" alt="domestic labor minimum wages" class="wp-image-31714" srcset=" 524w, 300w" sizes="(max-width: 524px) 100vw, 524px" /></figure></div> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>A different future</h2> <p>Ipea&#8217;s study identified a clear aging process among domestic workers. If young women represented 46.9 percent of Brazil&#8217;s domestic workers in 1995, in 2018 they only made up 13.4 percent of the profession.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;This average aging process reflects a low renovation rate for the profession, as it is less desired by women who have a chance to work in other fields,&#8221; says the report.&nbsp;</p> <p>The move is coupled with an increase in educational opportunities for young people in Brazil. While the average domestic employee has seven years of schooling, the number reaches nearly 11 years for women up to 29 years old and falls to nearly six for sexagenarians.&nbsp;</p> <p>The report concludes that, in the future, there may be a shortage of these professionals, &#8220;without, necessarily, a reduction in families&#8217; demand for this service.&#8221; In other words, the existing cultural structures in Brazil that lead to the perceived &#8220;need&#8221; for households in the lower-middle-class and above to hire &#8220;help&#8221; for domestic chores are likely to persist, meaning we are more likely to see live-in nannies being taken to Disneyland than we are to witness a change in habits in Brazilian families, which still overwhelmingly rely on matriarchs to carry out domestic upkeep.

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Natália Scalzaretto

Natália Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Before joining The Brazilian Report, she worked as an editor for Trading News, the information division from the TradersClub investor community.

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