MAID IN BRAZIL
TO UNDERSTAND how maids are regarded by many in Brazil you only have to look at @AMinhaEmpregada (“my maid”), a Twitter feed that retweets the unpleasant, aggressive and sometimes racist things that some employers say about their staff. In 2011 there were 6.7m domestic workers among the country’s 201m people. These workers are overwhelmingly female, many of them black and most of them poor. They have long been treated as second-class citizens, not only by their employers but also, until recently, by the law.
In April 2013 a constitutional amendment was passed to give domestic workers the same rights as everyone else. The new law defined basic entitlements, such as an eight-hour working day, a maximum of 44 hours work per week, the right to the minimum wage, a lunch break, social security and severance pay. Most of these changes have been implemented relatively easily; but seven points remain stuck in Congress. Their details are still being debated; until they are voted on they will not be enforced.
Two issues are especially controversial. The first is about the Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Servico (FGTS), a government severance fund into which an employer must pay 8% of their employee’s total salary each month. The money is spent on public infrastructure works. Should an employee be fired without just cause, the employer is obliged to pay her a lump sum worth 40% of the accumulated pot, plus another 10% to the government. Some argue that the prospect of paying an amount tied to length of service will discourage people from employing domestic staff in the first place: politicians are now debating whether the sum should be reduced to 20% or offset by tax relief for employers. The second contentious issue relates to how many months’ pay workers will be entitled to should they be made redundant. Until these matters are settled, Brazil’s domestic workers have little of the (admittedly lavish) job security that others enjoy.
Of the changes that have been enacted, the one that has made the most difference is the regulation of working hours. All workers, and particularly the 2.7% of domestic staff who live with their employers—your correspondent’s modest two-bedroom flat has a pokey windowless dorm off the kitchen meant for a maid—are now entitled to regular breaks, overtime and money for working through the night. Crèches in Brazil are expensive and oversubscribed, and care homes are thin on the ground despite government promises to provide more. So many families who employ staff to look after their children or the elderly for long stretches must now either employ another person to do alternate shifts or do more of the work themselves.
The law is not the only thing affecting the market. The number of women who choose to go into domestic service is shrinking, mainly because they now have access to better education and opportunities. That is particularly true of women from the poor north-east who traditionally have travelled south in search of work. Those that do still become maids are commanding higher fees: in 2012, the average salary for domestic workers increased by 13%. For many in the middle classes the live-in maid service they grew up with is no longer an option. As a result the culture in Brazil is starting to change. More people are employing staff by the day; more household chores are being done by women (and even by some men); and more household appliances are being bought. In time, people may even start being nicer about their maids on Twitter.