Creuza Oliveira: The first domestic worker celebrated with the honorary doctorate in Brazil

Survivor of child exploitation, Creuza works to guarantee the freedom of other children with the same experience. Photo by Comunicación/ Fenatrad. Used with permission.

This article was written by Afroféminas on December 12, 2023.  An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

On November 24, 2023, Creuza Oliveira, historical leader of the Brazilian and Latin American domestic workers movement, obtained the maximum recognition for her vast career of  achievements by being granted an honorary doctorate by the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), Brazil, becoming the first union leader of her category to receive this title.

In a statement, the International Domestic Workers Federation, a global organization that works to advance the rights of domestic workers, a category with 76 million people, of which 76 percent are women, said that the title of Oliveira marks a before and after for the movement itself.

The federation says:

Oliveira le demuestra al mundo entero que las trabajadoras del hogar ya no son sólo objeto de estudio para el ámbito académico, sino también productoras de conocimiento. El trabajo doméstico a menudo se caracteriza por condiciones de trabajo inseguras y abusivas, salarios bajos (o inexistentes), jornadas extremadamente largas, ausencia de días de descanso o vacaciones, y falta de beneficios y protección social.

Oliveira shows the entire world that domestic workers are no longer only an object of study for the academic field, but also producers of knowledge. Domestic work is often characterized by unsafe and abusive working conditions, low (or non-existent) wages, extremely long hours, no days of rest or vacation, and lack of benefits and social protection.

Presentation of the Honoris Causa Doctorate degree to Creuza Oliveira, 2023. Photo used with permission.

In her presentation speech, Creuza Oliveira explained:

el ámbito académico siempre estuvo lejos del pueblo y de las clases menos favorecidas. Fue recién a partir de la Ley de Cuotas (2012) que los hijos e hijas de las trabajadoras del hogar y de la población indígena y negra pudieron acceder a la universidad en Brasil. Este título les abrirá las puertas a más personas. Es una victoria muy importante para nuestra lucha y nuestra historia.

The academic field has always been isolated from the working classes. It was only after the Quota Law (2012) that the sons and daughters of domestic workers and the Indigenous and Black population were able to access university education in Brazil. This title will open doors to more people. It is a very important victory for our struggle and our history.

The words of Professor Elisabete Pinto, representative of the UFBA Institute of Psychology and promoter of the initiative, make it clear why this diploma marks a milestone for the movement of domestic workers.

Creuza Oliveira es una intelectual orgánica que logró organizar a las mujeres negras de todo Brasil en torno a la cuestión laboral. Pocos doctores consiguen que el conocimiento que producen en la universidad tenga un impacto social y pueda transformar vidas. Creuza tiene un doctorado porque ha logrado conquistar los derechos humanos de las trabajadoras domésticas, y la UFBA entiende la importancia de su lucha.

Creuza Oliveira is an organic intellectual who managed to organize Black women throughout Brazil around the labor issue. Few doctors ensure that the knowledge they produce at the university has a social impact and can transform lives. Creuza has a doctorate because she has managed to lead the human rights of domestic workers, and the UFBA understands the importance of their struggle.

Read more: How the Caribbean influenced domestic work and the ‘international parliament of labour’

Bahia state representative Olívia Santana emphasized:

Creuza es una referencia práctica en la construcción de conocimientos sobre las trabajadoras domésticas, denunciando la súper explotación de esta fuerza laboral, rompiendo los límites del cuartito del fondo de las grandes estancias coloniales, proyectando su voz hacia la organización y la lucha de las mujeres negras, la defensa de las trabajadoras domésticas y la conquista de derechos laborales.

Creuza is a practical reference in the construction of knowledge about domestic workers, denouncing the exploitation of this workforce, breaking the limits of the back room of the large colonial rooms, projecting its voice towards the organization and struggle of black women, the defense of domestic workers and the achievement of labor rights.

A life of activism and social commitment

Creuza Oliveira was born in 1957 in the city of Santo Amaro, Bahia, in the northeast region of Brazil, into a family of poor rural workers. At just 10 years old, she began working as a domestic worker to contribute to the family income

At 12, homeless due to the death of her parents, she was forced to work as a live-in domestic worker. For nine years, she served her employers without any remuneration: only getting clothing, food and accommodation in exchange, a common practice in Brazil for years.

With a lot of effort, Oliveira was able to start primary school at the age of 16, and managed to finish secondary school at the age of 30, studying at night. Only when she turned 21 did she begin to receive a salary, although it was so low that it did not allow her maintain her own home. She had to wait 10 more years to receive her first minimum wage, after a change in the constitution recognized it as a right, in 1988.

In the 1980s, upon learning that a group of domestic workers met periodically at a school in the city of Salvador, she did not hesitate to join them. Little by little, she became the leader of the Bahian domestic workers movement, made up mostly of Black and poor women.

Read more: ‘Invisible hands': How millions of domestic workers fare under COVID-19

In 1986, Oliveira founded the Association of Domestic Employees of Bahia. At that time, domestic workers were not yet recognized as workers and, therefore, did not have the right to form a union. Only in 1988, with the promulgation of the Federal Constitution, was the category able to unionize. Four years later, she co-founded the Bahia Domestic Workers Union, which she presided over for eleven years without abandoning her job as a domestic worker. In addition, Oliveira was one of the founders of the 27 de Abril Housing Complex in Salvador, created specifically for domestic workers.

Oliveira's outstanding work at the head of the Bahia union led her to serve as president of the Fenatrad (National Federation of Domestic Workers) for 14 years. In June 2011, she was part of the official Brazilian delegation to the General Conference of the International Labor Organization in Geneva and actively participated in the drafting of the Domestic Workers Convention, No. 189. 

In 2013, she contributed to Constitutional Reform 72, known as “PEC de las Domésticas,” which granted previously unrecognized rights to domestic workers: minimum wage set by law, bonus, weekly rest, paid vacations, maternity leave, retirement, and access to Social Security, among others.

According to Oliveira:

La lucha de las trabajadoras domésticas en Brasil está relacionada con cuestiones de raza, género y clase.

Nuestra categoría siempre fue menospreciada, maltratada y violentada por estar ser conformada por mujeres negras. Nosotras contribuimos al desarrollo económico y ejercemos un rol fundamental en la independencia de la mujer blanca de clase media, porque cuidamos de sus hijos y sus hogares para que ellas puedan estudiar y ser parte del mercado laboral.

The struggle of domestic workers in Brazil is related to issues of race, gender and class.

Our category was always belittled, mistreated and violated for being made up of Black women. We contribute to economic development and play a fundamental role in the independence of middle-class white women, because we take care of their children and their homes so that they can study and be part of the labor market.

The title of Doctor Honoris Causa comes to crown a long list of distinctions that Creuza Oliveira has received during her union career, among them the Human Rights Award, from the Human Rights Secretariat of the Federal Government of Brazil, for her fight against child labor (2003) and for her fight for racial equality (2011); Claudia Magazine Award, “Women who make a difference,” in the Social Work category (2003); Distinction “Knight of the Order of Labor Merit,” awarded by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2005), and the Nomination for the 1,000 Women Prize for the Nobel Peace Prize (2005), among others.

Oliveira also received several proposals to hold public positions at the regional and national level: in 2008 and 2012, she was elected councilor of the city of Salvador for the Workers’ Party (PT); and in 2014 she was a candidate for national representative for the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB).

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