Be a maid or have one: domestic work and inequality in Brazil
“If you are a woman, you either are a maid or you have one.”
This popular expression is widely known in Brazil and largely seen as an accurate reflection of reality. Women who are middle or upper class hire a maid to work in their households. Women from the lower classes work as maids to earn their living. For Brazilian people, this seems very natural. Having maids is – more often than not – considered a symbol of status: the more maids a family has, the wealthier this family is. But even more than that: having a maid is seen as necessary.
It is even hard for middle class families to think of alternative solutions for their busy lives. When a maid is on vacation, the family hires another for this period. Or, with great difficulty, the family manages to survive without her for a few weeks. Blogger and professor of Literature and Education, Lúcia Leiro, declares in an article that all middle class families she knows have maids. There are even maids who have maids.
Only when people go abroad – or meet someone from abroad - do they realize that having a maid as an extension of the household is not a common phenomenon worldwide. In some countries, – especially ‘developed’ nations – having a maid considered unusual or, at best, a privilege of very wealthy families. So that leaves us with some intriguing questions: why do Brazilians have maids? Who are Brazil’s maids? How does having maids relate to gender inequality?
First of all, the reason why so many families can afford to have maids in Brazil is because it is cheap for them. On the other hand, the reason why so many women are willing to work as maids is because, even though they do not get paid much, it is often the best they can get, considering the lack of educational opportunities and economic conditions in their youth. So, it is a very clear consequence of the huge gap that exists between rich and poor in Brazil – which is the third most socially unequal country in the world, according to a report from 2010 by the United Nations Program for Development in Latin America and the Caribbean.
It is true that labor legislators ‘protect’ domestic workers by guaranteeing them a minimum wage, which is defined by our Constitution, in the 7th article of the Chapter of Social Rights, as an amount of money sufficient to provide the worker and his/her family with decent living conditions, including hygiene, transportation, clothing, leisure, health, education, nutrition, housing and social security programs.
Nevertheless, this is –like many other articles in our so-called “citizen” Constitution – pure theory and idealism that do not translate efficiently into reality. The reality is that, despite domestic servants’ constitutional right to receive a minimum wage, domestic workers do not always have such a privilege. And when they do, minimum wage is far from being enough to provide them with decent living conditions – let alone provide for their families.
In spite of the above mentioned constitutional achievements for domestic workers, they are still more vulnerable than rural and urban non-domestic workers. This is what Helano Márcio Vieira Rangel, lawyer and university professor, highlights in his article ‘The socio-juridical discrimination of domestic workers in contemporary Brazil’. He mentions that the Constitution failed to consider rights that could be applicable to the category, such as the guarantee of employment to a pregnant maid.
Likewise, a report by the International Labor Organization asserts that the category of domestic workers is in manifest disadvantage in some of the main indicators of the labor market, in what relates to labor rights, income levels and social security coverage. In this sense, it is worth noting that one of the reasons why it is so difficult to improve the living standards of domestic workers is due to the dualism between the public and private spheres. That is, the public sphere regulates domestic work, through law, but this kind of work is actually practiced far away from the government’s scrutiny: in the privacy of households.
In addition to legal obstacles and the country’s astonishing class divide, there is a fundamental cultural and historical element: the heritage of slavery. According to Professor Helano Márcio, the history of domestic work in Brazil is deeply related to the history of slavery. Since the foundation of Brazil in the sixteenth century, slavery played a crucial role in shaping Brazilian lifestyle, mindset, everyday habits as well as the concept of morality itself. Portuguese colonizers – usually plantation landowners – imported slaves from Africa, in an extremely profitable business of human trafficking that persisted for nearly four centuries – roughly 80% of Brazil’s history.
Modern historiography emphatically recognizes the significant presence of slaves in the interior of households. Very often, the relation between the slave-owner and the slave was not merely based on work. They shared some moments of leisure, in which – except for the ethnicity – you could hardly tell who the slave was and who was the landowner. That is, domestic slavery was a social institution that had a complex and unique mixture of oppression and affection. The slave was, in some cases, seen as part of the family – but always at an inferior position.
The same can be said about domestic work in contemporary Brazil, as states the International Labor Organization: “Working at the private domicile of the employer, the constant contact between the domestic worker and the employer generates ambiguous conditions in the work relations: it becomes unclear whether the worker is an employee or a family member.”
The following comment, made in the nineteenth century, is documented in the book ‘Woman, women: identity, difference and inequality in the relation between domestic employers and employees’, by Suely Kofes:
“All domestic work is made by black people: a black man works as a charioteer, a black woman is the server… next to the oven, the cook is a black man and a black woman breastfeeds a white baby. What on earth are all these people going to do when the emancipation of slaves is decreed?” This question was largely answered by the current regime of domestic work.
This leads us to two questions: who are Brazil’s maids and how does it relate to gender inequality? Firstly, everything that has been said thus far suggests the answer for the first question above: the typical maid is black, poor and a woman.
This statement is confirmed by statistics from Brazil’s national survey sample per household. Comparing the relative percentage of men and women in domestic work, the results show that while 16.5% of all employed women in 2006 were domestic workers, contrasting with only 0.9% of men. Conservative values that mandate that taking care of the household is an essentially feminine activity are still very present and there lies the likely cause of such disparity.
Separating this percentage by ethnicity, the results show that domestic work is mostly an occupation of black women. In 2006, while 12.6% of all employed white women were maids, the percentage for employed black women was 21.7%.
In what relates to the impact of these inequalities on social protection and in the precariousness of labor for domestic workers, one indicator is essential for the analysis, according to the International Labor Organization: a formal work contract. The percentage of white women who work under a formal contract was 30.2% in 2006, while for black women the number was around 23.9%. Although there was an increase in the number of formal domestic workers in the last decade, the percentage is still very low and the disparity regarding race is still an issue.
Actually, the whole situation shown above reveals a lot of the persisting patterns of inequalities based on gender, social class and ethnicity – unfortunate heritage of a strictly racist and patriarchal model.
It is true that women in Brazil have already made great achievements in the last few decades, following the pace of world’s feminist movements. However, mainstream feminism fails to address the vulnerability of those people who, in addition to being a woman, are part of other socio-political minorities as well. That is, mainstream feminists have indeed helped emancipating Brazilian women; mostly middle and upper class, white women.
Concrete examples of this can be easily seen in Brazil’s everyday life. Brazilian women have the right, and are expected to have a career and contribute to the family as bread-winners. This was one of the main achievements of feminism. However, the cultural norm that mandates that women are the ones responsible for taking care of the kids and the household did not abandon Brazilian culture. Women are still believed to be the ones who must carry the duties that ‘naturally’ come with motherhood. This sexist fallacy is still very present. It is reflected by the most common attitude of Brazilian men towards household affairs – an attitude that blatantly says: ‘this is none of our business’.
Therefore, it seems that women were freed from masculine oppression in a way – by gaining access to the public sphere and not being restrained to life in the privacy of households – but became oppressed in others. The “emancipated women” are left with a double burden: a new prison that has nothing to do with the liberation women have been fighting for. So how do women free themselves from this new oppression - a disproportional workload as mothers and professionals?
It is quite simple: if we belong to the middle or upper classes, we pay a minimum wage for someone to take over our domestic responsibilities. This situation could be an opportunity to take the feminist struggle one step further and challenge the norm of men patriarchal attitude towards domestic affairs. That is, women could advocate a more balanced and equal distribution of domestic tasks between the couple.
But the social inequality that marks Brazil and disempowers the lower classes to advocate higher wages has made it easier, cheaper and less time-demanding to hire a maid. In addition, Brazil’s cultural background is burdened by four hundred years of slavery. This defines manual work as inferior, implicitly reserving it for black people – especially women, which helps legitimize the widespread presence of domestic workers.
Therefore, male domination over women has been partially shifted to wealthy women’s domination over poor women. One legitimate question that can be asked here is: who takes over the maid’s domestic duties? The most realistic answer is: the domestic workers themselves. They are then left with the double burden and have no economic bargaining power to pass it on to someone else. Many of the maids work and live at the employer’s house, and only have free time in the weekend or once every two weeks. Therefore, what often happens is that these women do not have enough time or energy to dedicate to their own domestic affairs, which includes the education of their children.
It is not uncommon to hear stories of children who grew to be criminals or ended up having psychological problems, as well as not very promising prospects for the future. These are consequences of many social problems, but an absent mother is undoubtedly one of the possible causes. With girls, the most common outcome is having them become a maid at a very early age, in a self-perpetuating cycle that comes from the times of slavery.
This shows that the historical and social processes from which forms of discrimination have originated are diverse and interact in very complex and dynamic ways. The combination of different forms of oppression produces something unique and distinct from any other form of stand-alone discrimination. It transforms into a new specific kind of oppression – which sociologists call ‘intersectional’ discrimination.
The perception that discrimination is felt in the same way by all women – only with more intensity by women that are also victims of other forms of oppression – is a false one. Maids in Brazil are among the most discriminated groups in the country, as most of them accumulate the burdens of being not only women, but also black and poor.
The oppression they suffer has little to do with that suffered by wealthy white women. Therefore, their claims are not well expressed by mainstream feminism (dominated by white women) nor by racial movements or worker unions (dominated by men). They are thus left more vulnerable than other minority groups, because to participating in these movements, would involve fragmenting themselves – which is clearly impossible.
People who think about this topic – that is so often taken for granted and ignored – sometimes jump to conclusions. Many believe that if having a maid is an oppressive practice, it is a moral obligation for all middle and upper class families to fire their maids, in order to “free” them. However, this would probably mean that the domestic workers would be able then to “freely” starve. If Brazilians recognize this regime as oppressive and want to change it, they have to tackle what motivates these women to ‘willingly’ subject themselves to such a role – and that is: lack of alternative opportunities or, in one word, inequality.
Only when black people are seen as equal – and not portrayed as the “inferior” manual workers; only when poverty, as well as the gap between rich and poor, is reduced, will this oppression end. On the other hand, only when middle class women achieve equality in the privacy of their homes, equally sharing responsibilities with the rest of the family, will middle and upper class families be less dependent on maids. Only then – when we abandon these archaic and discriminatory values - will we be able to build a society with social justice.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.