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‘The Base of the Labor Pyramid’

Meg Weeks
Long exploited and denied basic rights, Brazil’s domestic workers continue to organize against an entitled elite.

AP/Felipe Dana

Two domestic workers caring for a baby at Leblon Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2014

This past May Brazilian police officers and officials from the Ministry of Labor rescued a sixty-three-year-old woman from the private home where she had worked, without pay, benefits, or vacation time, for forty-seven years. The woman, who had cooked and cleaned for three successive generations of a family living outside the southern city of Porto Alegre, could neither read nor write. The case was reported to state authorities as part of a campaign to crack down on coerced labor, or “work analogous to slavery,” as it is called in the Brazilian Penal Code, which refrains from referring to it by the name of the practice formally abolished in 1888.

After her rescue, the domestic worker, whose name has not been released to the press, received psychological services from social workers and social security benefits secured by the Ministry of Labor and the local public defender’s office. The family for whom she worked was not criminally charged, yet they were held responsible for paying nearly fifty years of retroactive wages, monetary indemnification for the damages she suffered, and the monthly social security payments she should have accrued since starting to work in 1976 at the age of sixteen. Around a week later, another elderly domestic worker was rescued from a private home in the northeastern state of Ceará. She had cooked, cleaned, and washed clothes for an affluent family for over forty years for no pay, only receiving housing and food in exchange for her services, which she performed seven days a week, even as she neared her eightieth birthday.

In their defense, the family in Ceará alleged that the woman they enslaved was neither their maid nor their housekeeper but rather a beloved “member of the family.” Wealthy and middle-class Brazilians have long deployed this trope to justify circumventing labor regulations, which since 2013 have mandated that domestic workers receive the full slate of benefits and protections stipulated in the country’s 1988 constitution. When lawmakers drafting that constitution, which marked the end of the legal order established by the military regime that had ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, debated the status of domestic workers, the president of the National Constituent Assembly reportedly announced that his primary domestic worker was so dear to him that she “might as well be part of the family.”

The hollowness of such claims is not lost on workers and their advocates. As the sociologist and government researcher Luana Simões Pinheiro has said, “If they’re part of the family, then their names should be in the will, right? But of course they never are.” Despite decades of activism, domestic workers continue to struggle against this cherished belief of the Brazilian elite. According to advocates, it naturalizes exploitation not only in the employer–employee relationship but also in Brazilian society as a whole, which relies on poorly remunerated domestic work to function.

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Last year the issue of coerced domestic labor exploded into the Brazilian popular consciousness when Chico Felitti, a journalist with the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, released a hit podcast narrating the story of Margarida Bonetti, a wealthy São Paulo woman accused of enslaving a domestic worker for nearly two decades while she and her husband lived in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. The domestic worker, who was illiterate and did not speak English, was said to have been “gifted” to the couple just before they relocated to the United States in the late 1970s for Renê Bonetti’s job as an aerospace engineer. Renê served over five years in American federal prison for enslaving the woman and denying her medical care. Meanwhile Margarida, who would also be accused of verbally and physically abusing the domestic worker, fled to Brazil before the FBI could issue a warrant for her arrest and has been secluded in a decrepit mansion in a posh São Paulo neighborhood ever since. (Renê now works for the multinational aerospace and defense technology company Northrop Grumman in Virginia.) Margarida’s many eccentricities—including painting her face white and passionately defending a neighborhood tree slated for removal—have spawned memes and spinoff podcasts. One enthusiastic listener of Felitti’s podcast made an exact replica of the house and its mysterious occupant in the latest version of The Sims.

Bonetti’s story became more than just a pop culture curiosity; it occasioned widespread discussions about a topic that had long been brushed under the rug. Most domestic workers in Brazil are paid, but often at severely undervalued wages and on terms that exclude them from the formal labor market. This quotidian exploitation may be less scandalous than more widely publicized cases of enslavement and extreme cruelty, but together they suggest how pervasively the employing class considers itself entitled to the cheap—in some cases free—and unfettered labor of poor and generally darker-skinned women.

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The sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of maids, nannies, and housekeepers has been commonplace since the days of formal slavery, which Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish. In Brazil, like elsewhere in the Americas, wealthy and even middle-class white families continued to rely on the services of subordinated black laborers after abolition, especially women’s domestic work. This was supported by a widespread practice of child labor, in which poor girls were “raised” by wealthier families in exchange for housework. In-kind arrangements, in which domestic workers live in the homes of their employers and receive room and board in lieu of monetary compensation, remained common throughout much of the twentieth century. The practice was only declared illegal by a 1972 law that was for nearly twenty years largely unimplemented.

In a long career that lasted from the late 1960s until her death in 1994, the black feminist and public intellectual Lélia Gonzalez wrote extensively about the figure of the enslaved woman in Brazilian social and economic life, who variously served as the wet nurse, the mãe preta (loosely equivalent to the “mammy” archetype in the United States), and the mucama, the domestic slave who was often regarded as sexually available to her master and his sons. According to Gonzalez, who as an adolescent had worked as a domestic servant and nanny, these stereotypes of the black woman as “sexual beast of burden” persisted long after enslaved people were granted their freedom and shaped a national imagination in which black women were considered suitable only for manual labor and sex.

Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Baptiste Debret: Uma Senhora Brasileira em seu Lar (“A Brazilian Lady in Her Home”), 1823

Today, according to Brazil’s census institute, 92 percent of Brazil’s six million remunerated domestic workers are women, 65 percent of whom are black. Many of them are the daughters and granddaughters of domestic workers who never had the chance to go to school and were thus denied professional mobility. Creuza Maria Oliveira, one of the most prominent spokeswomen for Brazilian domestic workers, began working at age nine for a couple who told her impoverished parents they would ensure her education, a promise that never materialized. Nor, for that matter, did a salary, at least not until she turned twenty-one and began working elsewhere. Eunice do Monte, a retired domestic worker from Recife, told me that when she started working at age twelve, her boss provided a stool for her to stand on while she washed dishes, since she was too short to reach the sink.

Activists in Brazil’s domestic worker movement have long denounced child labor, in-kind and live-in arrangements, and the widespread disregard for the laws that regulate their profession. They successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a limited slate of rights for domestic workers in the 1988 constitution, but for years they struggled to compel the federal government to enforce them. Only in 2002, when the former union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the left-wing Workers’ Party, was elected president, did the movement find itself with an ally in Brasília. The following year, representatives from the Special Secretariat for Human Rights created the National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labor (CONATRAE), which supports local efforts to investigate instances of coerced labor and rescue and compensate exploited workers. In 2013 mobilized domestic laborers secured the passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing them full parity with other workers; two years later, Congress passed a law that established a specific set of regulations by which employers of domestic workers must abide. Since then, investigations into forced domestic work have been carried out by officials from the Ministry of Labor and Employment.

When Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018—inaugurating four years of acrimonious political conflict, a grossly mismanaged public health crisis, and the further erosion of the social state that had been established during Brazil’s return to democracy—efforts to crack down on labor infractions in private homes met with resistance from an executive branch with other priorities. Shortly after assuming office, Bolsonaro reconfigured and combined the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Women and temporarily dissolved the Ministry of Labor. During this time, CONATRAE lost much of its staff and financial support. Isadora Brandão, the country’s current secretary for the promotion and defense of human rights and a member of the commission, told me that the Bolsonaro government also sought to restrict the definition of slave labor to cases of physical imprisonment and tried to stop CONATRAE and the Ministry of Labor and Employment from publishing the lista suja, a “dirty list” of employers found guilty of labor rights violations. When the Supreme Court blocked the latter move, Bolsonaro vindictively cut the ministry’s budget for workplace inspections.

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Nonetheless, in 2021 the ministry again ramped up its efforts to crack down on the exploitation of domestic workers. In one case, a woman had worked for seventy-two years for the same family for no pay. In another from 2020, investigators rescued a forty-six-year-old woman who had been all but confined to the home of an affluent family since the age of eight, an experience that left her with a speech impairment and developmental delays.

In most cases, the people rescued from these situations have had little formal schooling and have been isolated from close relatives who might advocate on their behalf. They tend to sleep in the quarto de empregada, or maid’s quarters, a tiny, windowless room adjacent to the kitchen that is a ubiquitous architectural feature of middle- and upper-class houses in much of Latin America. Most often, as the labor court prosecutor Alline Oishi explained on Felitti’s podcast, “the workers are not necessarily locked in the houses…but they lack the autonomy,” both logistical and psychological, to leave. As a result, denunciations of this type of exploitation rarely come from the workers themselves but are most often reported by neighbors or other third parties who suspect abuse. Oliveira told me that it is not uncommon for rescued workers, who have so thoroughly internalized their own subordination, to request to return to the homes where they were exploited.

These egregious cases of coerced labor stand out for their cruelty, but less extreme versions of the same exploitation are so routine that they come to seem nearly banal. “When we talk about situations that are analogous to slavery,” Luana Simões Pinheiro told Felitti, “this doesn’t mean that women working under other conditions have good quality employment.” First and foremost, wages are extremely low: in a country with soaring real estate and food prices, the monthly minimum wage for domestic workers in Brazil is approximately $264. Furthermore, most domestic workers do not routinely access the labor rights and benefits to which they are entitled by law. According to Pinheiro, domestic service is the country’s “most informal profession.” Recent statistics show that only one in four domestic laborers has employment papers, without which their employers routinely fail to pay mandatory social security benefits, ensure paid time off, and respect limits on working hours.

Politicians are quick to note that the Brazilian GDP has, with a handful of exceptions, grown steadily since the mid-twentieth century, and the country now counts itself among the world’s top fifteen economies. But it also has the shameful designation of being one of the world’s most unequal societies. Exploitation and abuse are rampant not only in domestic work but also in agricultural and industrial settings, where workers are enticed with offers of generous wages that never materialize and are kept in line with threats, violence, and the withholding of passports and other identification documents. A recent raid on three vineyards in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul resulted in the rescue of 207 workers and a monetary settlement of over $7 million reals (about $1.5 million) in compensation. Even as the federal government has given the phenomenon renewed scrutiny, officials still struggle to gain traction against forms of debt bondage that have long enjoyed impunity, especially in rural areas.

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When Lula assumed his third term as president at the start of this year, he promptly restored CONATRAE’s funding and put together a working group tasked with creating more robust policies to combat coerced labor in private homes. Marina Cunha Sampaio, national director of the labor ministry’s Project to Combat Labor Discrimination and Promote Equality of Opportunity, told me that in addition to supporting local efforts to investigate cases of slave labor, the project has been collaborating with unions on campaigns to educate the public and civil servants alike about legislation governing domestic work. Earlier this year Lula’s minister of human rights and citizenship, the progressive lawyer and professor Silvio Almeida, opened a hotline for reporting suspected cases of domestic enslavement, which has led to an increase in denunciations of abuse from both workers and outsiders.

But even now, government officials and activists told me, the Ministry of Labor and Employment does not employ enough auditors to adequately track all complaints, leading them to surmise that cases of coerced domestic work are still severely underreported. Brazil’s entrenched traditions of patronage and the economic vulnerability of workers—not to mention the psychological effects of centuries of racial and social subordination on workers themselves—have also been powerful obstacles. There is a broadly accurate perception across the country that “those who make the laws, adjudicate, and enforce them are all employers of domestic workers,” Tatiana Fernandes Rocha Lima, an auditor with the Ministry of Labor and Employment, told me. “It is often difficult for these people to see domestic workers as subjects of rights just like the rest of society.”

Animal Monday/Pathways RPC

Creuza Maria Oliveira, a national spokesperson for Brazil‘s domestic workers, during one of her runs for electoral office in Kat Mansoor’s documentary A Vida Politica—Creuza Oliveira (2009)

Luiza Batista Pereira, an activist from Recife and the general coordinator of FENATRAD, Brazil’s national domestic-worker union federation, told me that the government’s approach to the problem is “timid” at best. As Batista and her FENATRAD colleague, Creuza Maria Oliveira, see it, the legal and financial consequences faced by people convicted of exploiting or even enslaving domestic workers are usually not “instructive” and even more rarely punitive. Some families or individuals charged with enslaving workers face criminal penalties, but many others are only held responsible for back pay, fines for violating labor law, and other forms of monetary compensation. In addition to owing the victim financial indemnification, people accused of such offenses can be charged with “collective moral damages” in civil or criminal lawsuits. Yet the cases can take up to a decade to resolve, convictions are rare, and the financial penalties, which can be negotiated in court, “don’t serve as an example to others who violate labor laws for domestic workers,” according to Batista.

Moreover what, one may one wonder, is a punishment commensurate with a crime like denying someone wages and freedom of movement for years or even decades? For Batista, a starting point would be treating the private home like the workplace that it is. “In other sectors, there is more visibility when workers are rescued,” she said in a FENATRAD press release this past January, and the unions that represent those sectors “have more freedom to oversee their workers. They receive complaints and verify the infraction, and government investigators can show up to workplaces and inspect.” But unlike agricultural settings or industrial shop floors, family homes are not routinely inspected, as they are considered citadels of discretion and privacy that can only be entered with a warrant issued by a judge after the filing of an official report alleging abuse. “According to the Constitution, the home is inviolable, at least for those who have full bank accounts,” Batista said. “This sort of impunity,” she noted in another recent publication, “is what facilitates these crimes.”

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Recent campaigns to combat domestic enslavement have built upon nearly a century of organizing among Brazil’s domestic workers. The first professional association of domestic workers was founded in 1936 by Laudelina de Campos Melo, a maid, black movement activist, and member of the Communist Party. Despite the dogged appeals she and her colleagues made to his administration, President Getúlio Vargas did not permit domestic workers to unionize and explicitly excluded them from his landmark 1943 labor code, which remains in effect today.

After a period of dormancy, organizing among domestic workers picked up in the late 1950s and early 1960s amid a wave of labor militancy and progressive Catholic activity influenced by liberation theology, a grassroots ecclesiastical movement that advocated for redistributing wealth and empowering the poor. During these years domestic workers from Rio de Janeiro to Recife established national networks of political action with the help of Juventude Operária Católica (JOC), or Catholic Youth Workers, an international organization of lay and clerical activists. But the 1964 coup brought an abrupt halt to labor organizing, and in the following years the military government all but dismantled JOC’s Brazilian operation, along with trade unions and other left-wing political organizations. Domestic workers had meanwhile begun to chafe at the paternalism of their church sponsors, and by the time JOC ceased to be a national presence they had decided to form an autonomous movement.

Likely because they were presumed to be apolitical and thus not a threat to national security, during the most violent days of the military regime domestic workers agitating for rights did not suffer the sort of repression experienced by their comrades in labor unions, left-wing political parties, and militant student organizations. Activists such as Odete Maria da Conceição and Lenira Carvalho cleverly leveraged this prejudice to their advantage. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s they continued to build a national movement of politicized maids, nannies, and housekeepers, even lobbying the dictator Emílio Médici to pass legislation granting labor rights to the sector.

In 1972 Médici introduced a bill to Congress, then dominated by the regime’s official party, which would guarantee domestic workers twenty days of paid annual vacation, give them access to the coveted work identification card necessary to eventually collect a pension, and require that employers and their domestic employees each pay 8 percent of their monthly salary into the social security system. The bill passed, and domestic workers rejoiced. But its passage arguably had to do less with pressure from below than with the technocratic military regime’s fixation on modernizing labor relations to emulate the United States and Western Europe, widely considered by the Brazilian elite to be more advanced in such matters.1 The government’s failure to enforce the law in the following years also reassured nervous employers who feared the social mobility of the poor.

When the military finally transferred power to a civilian government in 1985, Brazilians on the left and center-left looked to the drafting of a new constitution to inaugurate an era of modern, democratic governance. In 1987 representatives from the national movement of domestic workers attended the Constituent Assembly and spoke passionately before lawmakers about the importance of granting their sector the labor rights that other Brazilians enjoyed. Ultimately, after much debate in Congress, the new constitution awarded domestic workers nine of the thirty-four rights and protections guaranteed to formally employed workers, as well as the ability to unionize.

Over the next two and a half decades unionized domestic workers continued to lobby the federal government for full parity with other workers. Local unions, meanwhile, launched public information campaigns to educate workers about their rights and provided pro bono legal services to workers involved in disputes with their employers. Domestic laborers finally achieved nearly the same status as other workers in 2013, during Dilma Rousseff’s first presidential term, through a constitutional amendment that guarantees a monthly minimum wage in step with national standards, a limit on weekly working hours, unemployment insurance, protections against summary dismissal, and a number of other rights and protections.  

Other countries in Latin America, including Chile and Peru, have robust domestic worker movements, but the racialized dimensions of domestic work are especially marked in Brazil, which imported more enslaved Africans than any other country in the world and failed to meaningfully integrate freed people of color into the formal economy after abolition. The political and social effervescence surrounding redemocratization in the late 1970s and 1980s, meanwhile, gave Brazil’s domestic workers a distinctive position from which to organize. It allowed them to forge crucial ties with trade unionists, feminists, and black movement activists, some of whom went on to hold influential positions in the Workers’ Party.

Jurema Brites, a professor of anthropology at the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria and one of the country’s foremost experts on domestic work, told me that Brazilian domestic workers have been particularly savvy about developing strategic partnerships with politicians and civil society leaders over the past four decades. Yet she stressed that the movement always maintained its ideological autonomy: “These alliances did not prevent them from articulating critiques of other political organizations. They are critical of the feminists when necessary, but they also partner with feminists.” They have, she said, “a remarkable capacity for boldness.”

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When I asked Luiza Batista, the general coordinator of FENATRAD, what had changed since the 2015 ratification of Law 150, which formally implemented the constitutional amendment from two years earlier, she told me that domestic workers and their advocates have more legal tools at their disposal to hold employers to account in labor courts. Yet just as domestic workers gained access to the rights to which they were long entitled, the labor market was shifting in ways that undermined their efforts. Over the past several decades diaristas, or freelance day laborers, have been steadily replacing traditional full-time employees in domestic service. Today it is much more common for employers to hire freelance cleaners, nannies, or cooks for one or two days of work a week rather than employ a full-time worker, which would require paying social security and other benefits in addition to a salary.

This new frontier of paid domestic work has obvious benefits for employers, who often squeeze the same number of tasks into fewer weekly shifts. It can also be appealing to domestic workers, many of whom prefer the flexibility, autonomy, and clear-cut expectations that self-employment affords, and rates for a day shift of domestic work can be higher than a full-time worker’s daily wages. But freelancers, even those registered as “individual micro-entrepreneurs” (MEIs) on tax forms, tend to spend more time and money commuting and are not entitled to paid vacations and overtime. The majority of diaristas are not registered as MEIs and are therefore not even eligible for social security, the bedrock of Brazil’s social safety net and, for union activists, essential to a decent, dignified life.

Leo Malafaia/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters gather after the death of a Black domestic worker‘s five-year-old-son, who fell from a balcony under the watch of his mother’s white employer, Recife, June 5, 2020

According to Batista, the Uberization of domestic work and the advent of the MEI have also weakened union participation and eroded the collective sense that domestic workers belong to the working class. “The freelancer…is under the illusion that she doesn’t have a boss, despite the fact that the person who hires her determines the day and time that she works, so she is still subordinated,” she told me. This problem became even more acute during the pandemic, when more families opted to transition from employing formally registered workers to contracting day laborers, who overwhelmingly work without documentation. Over the past ten years, phone apps and agencies for short-term hires have proliferated, and the rate of registered domestic workers has fallen by nearly 6 percent, now only accounting for a quarter of all those laboring in private homes.

For activists, it is not a coincidence that, just as the sector gained hard-won legislative victories, paid domestic work has followed the path of neoliberalization. Nor is this phenomenon unrelated to the sensational instances of domestic slavery and extreme abuse reported in recent years. “What is a constant, despite all of our legislative advances, is the disrespect of the law,” Batista told me. “It all goes back to the abolition of slavery,” she said.

Slaves were left to their own devices. They didn’t have a right to anything, and no one gave any thought to how they would survive…. Today, sadly, black people continue to suffer the consequences of this poorly planned abolition…. Our employers are the descendants of slaveowners from Brazil’s colonial period, just like black people, especially the women who are rescued from conditions analogous to slavery, are the descendants of people who were trafficked and enslaved.

Domestic worker activists frequently cite an anecdote that succinctly expresses the elite’s stubborn refusal to accept the social mobility, however tenuous, of Brazil’s poor and black underclasses. In 2020 Bolsonaro’s finance minister, Paulo Guedes, attempted to put a positive spin on the unfavorable exchange rate between the Brazilian real and the US dollar. During the previous decade, he said, when the real was stronger, “everyone, even domestic workers, was going to Disneyland. That was one hell of a party.” Now that the exchange rate was on the rise, he implied, at least wealthy Brazilians would no longer see their underlings enjoying themselves abroad, previously the exclusive province of the well-heeled. Domestic worker activists were quick to note that Guedes’s comments were reflections less of reality than of elite paranoia about wealth redistribution. As they pointed out, any maid or nanny earning minimum wage—which at the time was $1,045 reals, or just over $250 a month—could only afford to travel internationally if she were accompanying her employers.

Oliveira told me that, despite the setbacks of the Bolsonaro years and the persistent obstacles to the full enfranchisement of domestic workers, the sector has more resources than it did twenty years ago. “But achieving this wasn’t easy and it still isn’t easy,” she said. “It will never be, as no one will ever open the door cordially for us.” For activists like Oliveira and Batista, the greatest challenge is to shift the beliefs and attitudes not only of the political establishment but also of the social elite. Laws regulating domestic work will be toothless as long as employers, labor court judges, and some of the bureaucrats who staff the Ministry of Labor and Employment consider them to be nominal. Oliveira told me that this sort of consciousness-raising also applies to workers themselves: “We need to continue rehabilitating the self-esteem of domestic workers, emboldening them to confront their bosses and not accept working without formal registration, without their rights being respected.” 

In all their advocacy, Batista, Oliveira, and their fellow activists denounce the racism and classism that allow wealthy, white Brazilians to believe they have a right to cheap labor at any human cost. But domestic worker advocates also stress that their work matters for the broader functioning of society—a discursive strategy that activists have pursued since the 1970s, when such arguments became a cornerstone of leftist feminism. “Our work is at the base of the labor pyramid, organizing other people’s lives, especially those of women,” Batista told me.

If a woman has a job and a domestic worker at home organizing her domestic tasks, she’ll have more time for her children, for her partner, for reading, for work, for leisure…. So how can you say our labor doesn’t have value? It has value, that is obvious, but what it doesn’t have is recognition.

“We have gotten a lot of nos over the course of our struggle,” she said. “So we will keep fighting until we get a yes.”

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