Brazil: Domestic Work in Transition

Discussing GDP and interest rates is not enough to apprehend the profound changes that Brazilian society has been facing recently. New trends in the social fabric are emerging and citizen media has been keeping track of them.

One such example is domestic work. During 2011, the subject came up as a debate around social inclusion, bad work conditions, social hierarchies, gender issues and empowerment.

New trends

Social inclusion seems to be a key element to many of the changes. Research [pt] by Instituto Data Popular has put into perspective the rise of the ‘C Class’, “the new middle class” – a social group that has taken advantage of more access to education, revenue increase and social programs. Now finally seen as a relevant market niche, this is the reason why many companies are interested in understanding this group's characteristics.

Untitled (Performance documentation). Painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez, used with permission.

Untitled (Performance documentation). Painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez, used with permission.

The research has identified empowerment trends in women's career profiles; in comparison with the previous generation, the number of women involved with domestic work has decreased by a half as they pursue other employment options concerning their own career development.

Marketing consultant Luiz Marinho, on his blog presented [pt] some data that reflects this process: in the last nine years, the number of domestic workers has only increased 9% while the population has had a 13.5% growth. Domestic workers’ rising wages are also influenced by this fact.

To put that in numbers, Espinho no dedo (Thorn in the finger) [pt], a blog on philoshphy and politics, has replicated data published in an article on the matter by BBC Brasil: while the Brazilian average went up by 25%, the domestic worker got a 43.5% wage increase in the same period.

It is important to take into consideration that the issue of domestic work in Brazil goes far beyond a market approach to the matter. There are many social and cultural traits linked to the role of domestic workers, their self-esteem, their rights as workers, and also prejudice and gender issues.

Social transformation

Cristina P. Rodrigues, on the blog Somos Andando (We are walking) [pt], wrote some reflections about a recent article by The Economist, regarding domestic work in Brazil, saying that Brazil, in a way, is freeing its domestic workers as part of a process of social transformation in which the poor will not abide by the rich's rules anymore.

Comba Marques Porto, on Consciência feminista (Feminist conscience) [pt], argues that the home, where the most intimate interpersonal relations take place, is also the stage where subtle gender discrimination occurs. Since the beginning of Brazilian history, domestic duties were always responsibility of women, “a patriarchal heritage that made its way into modern times, setting inequalities incompatible with the new democratic ways”:

A figura da criada chega aos meados do século XX pela permanência do modelo de desmedida exploração da força de trabalho no âmbito doméstico. Segue-se, assim, uma constante de tratamentos desiguais, de descumprimento das leis, fatos somente explicáveis pelo desvalor conferido ao trabalho nos setores do mercado em que há concentração da mão de obra feminina.

The role of the maidservant [role played by slaves during slavery times] reached the mid-20th century due to the continued exploitation of domestic workers. What followed was a default pattern of unequal treatment, not abiding by the laws, facts that can only be explained by the undervalued character of those tasks in a market with predominance of female workers.

In a post for a blogging carnival on domestic work, journalist Luka adds that [pt] domestic work is invisible and somewhat marginalized, usually performed by women due to a gender division of work in which it's the role of women to care for the private space and the families. She wonders if that is not a reason why this type of employment is so precarious.

Michell Niero, in O Patifúndio [pt], comments on the “maid´s little room”, still present in modern residential buildings.

A presença do “quartinho de empregada” nas plantas residenciais, longe de ser tratada como um aspecto “atrasado” da sociedade do país, representa um dentre tantos elementos formadores da modernidade brasileira, avessa a rupturas e adepta a repaginações de processos que se mantém inalterados na sua essência.

The existence of the “maid's little room” in residential plants [developments], far from being considered a backwater, represents, in fact, one amongst various founding elements of modern Brazilians’ society, averse to ruptures and fond of redesigning processes just to keep them unaltered in essence.
Untitled (Performance documentation at San Diego/Tijuana border). Painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez, used with permission.

Untitled (Performance documentation at San Diego/Tijuana border). Painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez, used with permission.

Even today, there is much evidence of a persistent clash in the relations between domestic workers and those who hire them. Michell Niero, in O Patifúndio [pt] talks about the multitasking nature of domestic work, one that leads to the incorporation of extra activities with no concern about the limits of the worker's contract, because usually such a contract doesn't formally exist. So, taking care of the children, educating and entertaining them, all become part of the daily routine.

Na ausência da mãe, a empregada se ocupa de tarefas maternas (…)

In the mother's absence, the maid is charged with maternal duties (…)

That is apparently the case of the blogger behind Sem Empregada (Living without a maid) [pt], who explains why she misses her maid:

Às vésperas de completar quatro anos sem empregada, pela primeira vez, estou cogitando voltar a ter uma na minha vida… as meninas estão em recuperação no colégio, com perigo real de repetir de ano (…). Um absurdo. Eu e meu marido estamos nos perguntando se isso tudo não está acontecendo porque não tem ninguém dentro de casa para cobrar horário de estudo, fiscalizar se estão na internet ou vendo televisão.

On the verge of celebrating four years without a maid, for the first time, I am considering hiring one back… the girls weren't approved at school and are at risk of having to repeat the school year (…). How ridiculous. My husband and I are questioning ourselves if that is not due to the lack of someone present at home to demand study hours, to check if they are browsing the web or watching television.

Revelar-se (Unfold) [pt] complains:

E então que, logo que me mudei, minha querida funcionária me pediu demissão com um bilhete na geladeira. Sim, um bilhete!!! E ela saiu da minha casa em uma 2a feira à tarde deixando louça na pia, uma pilha de roupa pra lavar e passar.

And as soon as I moved to a new home, my dear maid quit with a note on the fridge. Yes, a note!!! And she left my house on a monday, leaving the tableware on the sink and a pile of clothes to be washed and ironed.

Writer and translator Maria do Sol, on the blog Família Floresta (Forest family) [pt] says that counting on the services of a domestic worker holds an element of glamour, the idea of being free to enjoy life and family without getting too involved with routine tasks. But she reminds herself and the readers that is an ideal and far from reality.

Jeanne Callegari on the blog Blogueiras Feministas (Feminist bloggers) [pt] presents an alternative approach to a future without domestic workers: acknowledge that counting on a domestic worker is a privilege that tends to disappear and start taking care of your stuff, “and it's good that it goes that way”.

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