Brazil’s domestic workers fear for their lives — and their jobs

Brazil’s domestic workers fear for their lives — and their jobs Photo: Backgroundy/Shutterstock

Brazil has emerged as the latest global epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, with hundreds of thousands of cases affecting people from all backgrounds. But in the early weeks of the pandemic, in March, several victims of the disease shared something in common: they were domestic workers infected by their employers.

The first confirmed Covid-19 patient in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia was a woman who had recently returned from Italy. She infected her maid, who then infected her own 68-year-old mother. Then, on March 17, a 62-year-old live-in maid was the first person in Rio de Janeiro to die from the novel coronavirus, having contracted the disease from her Covid-19-positive employer.

Domestic workers are central figures in Brazil, a hidden workforce that keeps society running.

Most upper- and middle-class Brazilian households — and even many lower-middle-class homes — employ some form of domestic worker, ranging from semi-regular cleaners to nannies and live-in maids. Brazil, with a population of 209 million, has 6 million domestic workers, according to the government.</p> <p>And Covid-19 is bringing this enormous, often invisible workforce into focus.</p> <h2>High risk and no safety net</h2> <p>Brazilian domestic workers earn an average of USD 128 a month — less than the national minimum wage — though salaries and working conditions vary greatly across social strata.</p> <p>Some domestic employees are live-in maids, who usually work their entire adult lives for a single family. Others are paid monthly, and commute daily to work. Then there are <a href="">daily maids who serve multiple households</a>, akin to U.S. house cleaners.</p> <p>The tradition of domestic help can be traced back to the abolition of slavery in 1888, as I analyzed in my recent study on the evolution of Brazilian maids and their role in society.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="Raimunda, a day maid from Rio de Janeiro, is relying on government aid to get through the pandemic. Bruna Prado/Getty Images" class="wp-image-41831" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Raimunda, a day maid from Rio de Janeiro, is relying on government aid to get through the pandemic. Photo: Bruna Prado/Getty Images</figcaption></figure> <p>After slavery ended in Brazil, the government left an estimated 1 million newly freed people to survive without any reparation or help to integrate, creating a sizeable underclass. Ninety-nine percent of black Brazilians were illiterate, according to Brazil’s 1890 census. Most took menial jobs, with black women largely relegated to live-in domestic work, serving mostly white households.</p> <p>Black and multiracial women still make up the majority of Brazil’s domestic workers: 63 percent in 2018. Domestic work is so explicitly racialized in the country that, in 1994, soon-to-be Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso told reporters he “had one foot in the kitchen” to signal his multiracial heritage.</p> <p>These days, having two feet in the kitchen signals a disproportionate Covid-19 risk.</p> <p>In April, the Health Ministry reported that <a href="">black and multiracial Brazilians made up a quarter of those hospitalized with severe Covid-19</a>, but about a third of deaths. And officials in São Paulo — the epicenter of the pandemic in Brazil — recently reported that black residents were 62 percent more likely to die of Covid-19 than the general population.</p> <p>But Brazilian domestic workers of all races are vulnerable in this crisis, as most lack employment safeguards, are forced to commute long distances, and are poor, with limited access to quality health care.</p> <p>All of the intensive care beds in public hospitals from five states — Pará, Maranhão, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco and Ceará — are either occupied or soon will be, according to state reports. While wealthy Covid-19 patients can pay to be transported to top private hospitals in São Paulo or elsewhere, poorer Brazilians rely on the overwhelmed public health system.</p> <h2>Economic devastation</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="Brazilians line up for government pandemic aid outside a bank in Rio de Janeiro, May 18, 2020. Bruna Prado/Getty Images" class="wp-image-41832" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Brazilians line up for government pandemic aid outside a bank in Rio de Janeiro, May 18, 2020. Photo: Bruna Prado/Getty Images</figcaption></figure> <p>Brazilian domestic workers’ exposure to the pandemic is economic as well as physical.</p> <p>Approximately 4.3 million of Brazil’s 6 million maids are employed informally, meaning they aren’t registered with the government. As such, labor rights — which include the USD 178 national minimum monthly wage and 30-day paid vacations — do not apply.</p> <p>Since early March, 39 percent of full-time maids in Brazil have been let go. They are among the estimated 15 to 20 million Brazilians expected to be unemployed by July, according to several projections.</p> <p>Though the Federal Labor Prosecution Office recommends that maids receive paid leave to stay at home during the pandemic, only 39 percent of regular maids and 48 percent of daily maids have been given that benefit, according to the pollster Locomotiva.</p> <p>Some states in Brazil have listed domestic work as an essential service, allowing them to continue working — assuming their employers will still pay them.</p> <h2>Solidarity networks</h2> <p>The plight of domestic workers is one of many ways the pandemic is shining a hard light on inequality in Brazil. In March, Congress passed an aid bill authorizing a monthly BRL 600 (USD 116) emergency salary to the newly unemployed, including informal workers. So far, however, little more than half of the 55 million people who’ve applied have received the funds, due to faulty execution and bureaucratic delays. Lack of internet access and other poverty-related factors may prevent many millions more from even applying.</p> <p>Brazilian maids are suffering in this pandemic, but not in silence. Fenatrad, a federation of domestic workers unions, is challenging the state decrees that established domestic workers as essential service providers, pushing instead for this high-risk population to receive paid leave.</p> <p>In early May, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that Covid-19 qualifies as an occupational illness for the purposes of workers’ compensation. This decision applies to domestic workers.</p> <p>Communities have created their own grassroots initiatives to support domestic workers, too. An “Adopt a Daily Maid” donation campaign is underway in São Paulo’s Paraisópolis favela, urging people with means to support cleaners in the local area.</p> <p>And in a sign of the remarkable social mobility Brazil fostered in the boom years of the early 21st century, the first-generation college-educated children of maids started a <a href=""></a> petition asking employers to give domestic workers paid leave, advance vacation pay and isolate live-in maids who are at high Covid-19 risk. They later added a donation option to support vulnerable domestic workers.</p> <p>“Maids belong to a group of workers that represents Brazil,” reads the petition, which urges everyone raised by domestic workers to join their cause. So far, more than 90,000 people have signed, “for the lives of all our mothers.”</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 class="has-text-align-right">Originally published on<br><a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <p>

Mauricio Sellmann Oliveira

Mauricio holds a Ph.D. in Latin American Cultural Studies - University of Manchester (UK) and is a visiting professor of Language and Culture at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College.

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at