The precarious status of domestic workers in Brazil

Brazil has the highest number of domestic workers in the world: 7.2 million people, 93 per cent of them women. Rosa Alves is a domestic worker who works four days a week for a family in Sao Paulo. Two years ago, she signed a contract that brings her more work security and stability. Photo by Mathilde Dorcadie/EqualTimes

With almost 7.2 million domestic workers, Brazil has ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189, covering decent work for those carrying out domestic tasks in the home.

São Paulo, State of São Paulo, Brazil

On 1 February 2018, Brazil became the 25th country to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189, covering decent work for those carrying out domestic tasks in the home.

Can this international commitment have real impact for these workers, while the country remains weakened by the economic crisis, informal employment is rocketing, and “zero hour” contracts have been introduced through the recent labour code reforms?

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder thinks Brazil’s adoption of this convention is an important milestone, as the giant Latin American country has almost 7.2 million domestic workers, more than any other country in the world. These are still the most precarious and the most poorly remunerated workers.

This represents a new phase for the Brazilian government in the protection of these workers. For a long time, they have had very few rights, due to strong resistance from employers to fully recognising domestic staff as workers.

As the researcher Carla Conde reminds us, domestic service is effectively rooted in the colonialism and slavery of the past, when the poor provided a free workforce and there were obvious social and racial hierarchies.

It was only in 2015 that the country introduced a comprehensive law on the rights and duties of every individual. Until then, most of these men and women employed as cleaners, cooks, housekeepers, gardeners or chauffeurs – even if they had a contract – worked without any real social protection and with no opportunity to claim their rights in the case of a dispute.

Lilian Steiner remembers, when the law was passed just over ten years ago, “lots of television coverage outlining the new procedures for declaring your cleaner or nanny”.

They had been paying Rosa, a 38-year-old single mother from the outskirts of São Paulo, a daily rate for cleaning, but Lilian and her husband Osvaldo decided to draw up a proper contract with her at that point.

“Since then, she has been employed four days a week to work for us and our children. In addition to her salary, she now also gets pension and unemployment contributions, and accident insurance,” explains Osvaldo, showing us the slips issued by the online administrative portal eSocial, which has a dedicated department for declarations for domestic workers. The young woman now also pays tax, which is deducted at source.

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Being formally declared has not made much difference to Rosa Alves’s routine. She says she prefers to keep working through her 30 days’ paid holiday, so she has a bit more money at the end of the year. Although her employers pay her above the minimum wage, the mother of three, who has been working since she was 12, still has difficulty making ends meet in raising her children. “I pay taxes now, but the state school and health system are still just as bad,” she laments.

As well as social protection rights, 2015 saw the introduction of an eight-hour limit to the working day, a ban on child labour, fines in cases of unfair dismissal, and the right to paid holiday and a thirteen-month salary.

The rules state that wages must be based on the legal minimum, but many workers are still earning an income below minimum wage.

Before the law was introduced, there were no set hourly rates. In 2013, an initial maximum of 44 working hours a week was set. Until very recently, it was customary for architects designing most middle-class houses in Brazil to include a “maid’s room”. This results in workers living on-site – usually women – never counting their hours of work in the house.

New challenges

For six and a half years, Maria Lima, 31, worked for a family of three in a town in the São Paulo conurbation. She lived on-site, in a small house at the bottom of the garden, with her son, now aged ten.

“According to my contract, my working hours were 8am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday, with a break of one hour and 30 minutes to have lunch with my son. But I was often asked to do chores in the evenings and on Sundays,” explains Maria, also a single mother. “I never refused or claimed for the hours, although I know it wasn’t legal,” admits the young woman, who recently lost her job and her home when the family moved to another state.

Although they are still on a low income (US$550 and US$370 respectively), Rosa and Maria feel that the new legal framework has brought some social recognition. “Before, being a domestic worker was not considered a ‘real job’. You were ashamed to say what you did for a living,” explains Maria.

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They are also glad to have a bit more security, especially for their old age. And in Maria’s case, she will now be able to claim unemployment benefit.

Over the past few years, domestic workers, 93 per cent of whom are women, have started to form unions, despite the isolation caused by the very nature of their work.

Organisations such as the National Federation of Domestic Workers report employers who impose illegal working conditions and help workers in need of legal support.

The federation’s president, Luiza Batista Ferreira, was surprised when the current government signed the ILO convention, even though the process had been under way for several years, mainly driven by an International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) campaign.

In recent months, the organisation has been worried about the introduction of a new ‘intermittent employment’ contract that allows hourly payment for domestic tasks, with no guarantee of minimum wage or number of hours. “It makes it easy for employers: they can reduce the hours of work and pay less,” says Ferreira.

The economic crisis affecting Brazil since 2014 has meant that many domestic workers have lost their full-time jobs and had to return to diarista (daily rate) roles. The proportion of diaristas rose from 18.5 per cent in 1995 to 31.7 per cent in 2015, according to the country’s Institute for Applied Economic Research.

Maria Lima feels a lot more needs to be done to achieve social recognition for domestic work: “This work requires a lot of time, a lot of personal commitment and a lot of confidence. It is not easy to find someone reliable and efficient to take care of your family and your home. This needs to be recognised too.”

Even with international laws and commitments in place, it will take time for social perception in this area to change.

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