Labor

Brazil's Domestic Servants Get Work Equality


Brazil's Domestic Servants Get Work Equality

Photograph by Ailton de Freitas/Agencia o Globo

Just after Easter, Brazil’s congress approved a constitutional amendment granting domestic servants an eight-hour workday, overtime pay, and other rights enjoyed by the rest of the workforce. For millions of maids, the law is a milestone comparable to Brazil’s 19th-century abolition of slavery. For the families that rely on low-cost domestic help, it means a budget squeeze that could force them to cook and clean for themselves. The law is spreading concern among middle- and upper-class families that the cost of employing a maid or nanny will spike again, after almost doubling since 2006.

Daniela Batista, a business executive in São Paulo, says she may fire the nanny who has cared for her children for two years to avoid paying the additional 800 reais ($400) a month she says it will now cost her in overtime pay alone. Currently she pays 1,800 reais a month for 12 hours of service, five days a week, but she may have to hunt for someone who’ll work for less. “For me, working fewer hours isn’t an option, nor for anyone else I know,” says Batista, who is chief financial officer of Simpress, a printing services provider.

Legal Domestics, a group that promotes rights for maids, estimates that 815,000 mostly poor black women could lose their jobs as a result of the stricter rules. That’s 40 percent of the 2 million documented domestic workers. “A family isn’t a business. They’re not going to hire an accountant to calculate overtime, vacation pay, and so on,” says Mario Avelino, head of Legal Domestics, which came up with its findings from an online survey of employers. The group supports boosting maids’ rights but would like to see the higher costs offset with tax breaks and other benefits for employers.

The law will accelerate a trend of rising costs for help, Avelino says. Average salaries for domestic employees jumped 13 percent last year, twice the pace of inflation, and have risen faster than any other profession in the past decade, according to the national statistics agency. One reason is that the number of maids, both documented and not, is shrinking. There were 6.7 million in 2011, down from 7.2 million in 2009, as close to record-low unemployment encouraged the poor to pursue better-paying, higher-skilled jobs.

The new law could end the Brazilian middle class’s historic reliance on servants. Even two-bedroom apartments are equipped with closet-size maid’s quarters, and babies frequently sleep in the same room as their nannies. A recent issue of Veja, a newsmagazine read by Brazil’s middle and upper classes, featured a cover of a sad-faced man in a shirt and tie washing dishes under the headline “You Tomorrow.” The country’s most popular weekend television news show, Fantastico, highlighted maids’ empowerment with a skit in which a maid is asked by her employer to take away the dishes after lunch. “I don’t think there’s time,” says Maria the fictitious maid, as she whips out from behind her apron a giant alarm clock. “Now it’s my lunch hour!” The new law grants domestics up to two hours for the midday meal.

Pricier child care could tempt some of the 9 million women who’ve joined the workforce since 2001 to stay at home, says Fernando de Holanda Barbosa Jr., an economist at Rio’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university. “If at the end of the month they’re not earning much, some may prefer to spend more time with their children,” says Barbosa, who specializes in labor market trends.

A shortage of day-care centers leaves working parents few options. Even when parents are lucky enough to enroll their kids in a center—some have to wait for a year—such facilities rarely provide the flexible hours working moms and dads need. President Dilma Rousseff has vowed to add 6,000 nursery schools before her term ends in 2014. Only 612 have been completed so far.

What’s not in doubt is the legislation’s historic nature, almost 125 years after Brazil became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to end slavery. “We’re shutting down the last of the slave quarters and throwing away the key,” Senate President Renan Calheiros said in an April 2 legislative session attended by several maids. Even though maids are concerned about the law backfiring, they say the benefits are overdue. Under the amendment, households for the first time will be required, as companies already are, to contribute 8 percent of employees’ gross pay to a state-managed severance fund. “Domestic servants work, work, work all our lives and have nothing at the end,” Lorainy Cintra Pereira, a 24-year-old nanny, said as she kept an eye on two toddlers at a park in Rio’s Ipanema neighborhood. “Now, with this new law, you can build up a little savings.”

The bottom line: Although Brazil’s domestics now have full economic rights, the accompanying costs may force families to fire the maid and the nanny.

Goodman is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Rio de Janeiro.

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