A nation essentially dedicated to agriculture for so long has to face some serious challenges when modernization touches rural areas and expels the people who live there. “The city is, more than ever, a poverty pole”, says Milton Santos, a Brazilian geographer in “A Urbanização Brasileira”(“Urbanization in Brazil”), a place whose tremendous force of attraction fuelled by opportunites real and imagined, whose concentration of economic agents and whose cultural relevance lures in poor people but leaves them stranded on the margins.
In Brazil, urbanization is also a relatively recent process with urbanization rates rising from 31.24% in 1940 to 83.48% in 2007 – but it is a process that has always happened, and still does in a very uncontrolled, unregulated way.
This process touches individuals very differently. And in a country where the heritage of slavery is still very much alive, working women in urban areas have a particularly tough time.
One hang-over from colonial times is the habit of taking in “helpers” to perform routine household chores. The vast majority of such domestic aides are women who, even if they do not comprise the totality of poor women in big cities, still make up a very sizable contingent. There are 7.2 million domestic workers in Brazil of which 6.7 million are women, a figure representing the largest ratio of housemaids in the world in absolute numbers.
Working in families and even living with them – in Brazil there is usually a “housemaid’s room and bathroom” in middle class apartments and houses – creates something beyond the regular employer/employee relationship. Some say housemaids “are like part of the family”, and believe that because they are nicer or more generous to these workers, they don’t have to pay extra for their overtime or that they can be “invited along” with them when they go away for the weekend to obligingly take care of the children. This sort of exploitation is seen as a natural part of the relationship with workers who share the daily lives of the family.
According to the International Workers Organization, lack of legal protection increases the vulnerability of domestic workers who consequently are more likely to receive smaller salaries, work longer hours, suffer physical and psychological abuse, or fall into the “slavery” trap by getting into debt (a more common occurence in rural areas).
Because these relationships are kept within the privacy of the home, they pose a kind of barrier which state measures find it extremely difficult to penetrate even when directed to protecting citizens.
Slowly, however, laws have been changing to protect these workers and an increasing number of law suites are being brought against employers accused of committing some sort of abuse. But such cases often encounter a wave of stiff resistance. Perversely enough, middle-class women in big cities rely on housemaids to take of their children and their houses while they are out looking for gender equality.
Finally, in April of this year, Brazil approved the “Domestic Workers Amendment” (Emenda Constitucional nº 72) on the labor rights of housemaids called “domésticas” in Brazil. This was a milestone piece of legislation for regulating the rights and working conditions of such a large swath of women in Brazilian metropolitan areas. Some initiatives like the Domestic Employer’s Portal (Portal do Empregador Doméstico) were even set up in tandem to make sure there is enough information available to this particular public. On this portal employers can read about guidelines and learn about what the new Amendment means to them in terms of their obligations to the domestic workers they employ. The number of hits on the portal when it was first opened showed there was widespread interest in these matters, yet of late there has been a dramatic falling off.
And more than five months after the Amendment was passed, it still cannot be fully applied due to lack of further regulation. Add to this the fact that whereas some areas have seen an increase in formal work rates, in the wealthy Southeast region this rate has decreased, possibly demonstrating a market reaction to the new status of domestic workers as legitimate workers like any others.
Some people said that April 2, the day the Amendment was approved giving equal labor rights to housemaids, was a day as important as the end of slavery in Brazil. In truth, there is still a lot of hard work to be done in terms of further regulations, setting up proper monitoring instruments but also – and equally as as important – changing the culture of informality that has ruled the relationship between employers and employees in private spaces, that has spawned the illusion that proximity and conviviality make labor rights unnecessary and that has blurred the lines between personal and professional relationships.