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'We Are Not Valued': Brazil's Domestic Workers Seek Rights

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'We Are Not Valued': Brazil's Domestic Workers Seek Rights

'We Are Not Valued': Brazil's Domestic Workers Seek Rights

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Brazil has more household workers per capita than any other country, around seven million maids and nannies, and most of them are black and female. Brazil has a new law that's intended to expand the rights of domestic workers. It's seen as a milestone in the country's struggle against inequality.

But as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro found in Sao Paulo, Brazil still has a long way to go to change its social dynamic.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The waiting room is crowded and the phone is ringing off the hook at the Domestic Workers Union in downtown Sao Paulo.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the last decade, millions of Brazilians have joined the middle class. Advocates say this isn't just the result of a growing economy or social spending, but also laws like the one just passed enshrining domestic workers' rights.

ELIANA GOMES MENEZES: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eliana Gomes Menezes is the director of Domestica, a union representing household workers. She says the new law gives housemaids a working week of 44 hours, grants pay for overtime, and gives an hour off for lunch. It also allows for a month of paid vacation a year plus maternity benefits. Added to that, the employer has to contribute to their employee's Social Security. Domestic staff have been flooding into the office to try and get informed on what the new law entails.

GOMES MENEZES: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But our victory is not the end, she says, it's only the beginning. We have to make that law have value, she says. It's a question of social justice.

In fact, despite the law being on the books now for almost two months, most domestic workers are still paid under the table. Seventy percent of housemaids still haven't registered to legalize their status. One of the reasons, advocates say, is fear, and it's not hard to see why.

Vilma Souza is among those in the waiting room of the Domestic Workers Union. Like most of the women here today, she's black and from Brazil's poorer north. She's on the phone with her former employer.

VILMA SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mr. Carlos, it's Vilma, she says. I'm here at the union. I'm waiting for you.

It's a lengthy discussion, but one that goes nowhere. After she hangs up, she tells me she's been trying to get her employer to pay her the salary he owes her. Even though the law is on her side, he's refusing to see her.

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The union person has shown me my rights, she says, and how much my employer owes me. But he's still not paying me, she says.

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I did everything: wash, clean, iron, cook. There is huge inequality here, she says. We are not valued. I am treated like an insignificant person. They think because I work in their house it's because I am incapable of doing anything else. They don't understand it's a job worthy of respect like any other, she says.

Nearby is Valdemira da Silva. She also came to the union to find out about her rights under the new law.

VALDEMIRA DA SILVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was hired to take care of one child, she tells me, and now the third is on its way. They fired the person who used to come to iron the clothes and the cleaner, and I'm doing all the work in the house. They push a bit more every day and now I have no time to even sit and eat, she says.

She says she gets paid about $500 a month and there are no fixed hours. Whenever they come home is when I get to leave, she says. She says she wants to be registered and get her rights, but she's afraid of how her employers will react.

The plight of domestic servants is also the subject of a new documentary.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Called simply "Domesticas" or "Housemaids," the director gave a series of cameras to middle-class teenage film students. Over a week, he told them to film their maids at home. Director Gabriel Mascaro says he wanted to show the often complex relationships, servants and the families they serve have. They often live together. There is affection, he says, but also abuse.

GABRIEL MASCARO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a legacy of Brazilian slavery, he says. Until now, society here didn't even consider domesticas as a working class. This new law tries to minimize the exploitation.

But some observers say what will really change the dynamic here is not laws, but the opportunities that come with economic empowerment. William Eid is an economist at the Foundation Getulio Vargas. He says employment is at record highs in Brazil; domestic workers have seen their options expand.

WILLIAM EID: They'll go into the service industry. Service is growing very fast in Brazil. Why? Because most of the people that came from big cities goes to work in the service industry. Not more in the homes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the union office, Vilma Souza agrees.

SOUZA: (Foreign language spoken)


GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, she won't work as a cleaner anymore. She wants to fulfill her dream of becoming a baker, making cakes for the rich, she says.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.

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