Brazil has most maids of any country in the world; a legacy of slavery, oppression and social inequality, middle and upper classes want to keep it that way

black Brazilian women

While the film The Help may have brought back memories of paternalistic, oppressive relationships in the recent past of the US, domestic service in Brazil continues to be a widespread facet of Brazilian life. In order to understand the world of place, race, class and privilege in Brazilian society, one need only turn to the lives and working conditions of more than 7 million maids, who in some ways, are a continuation of the country’s slave past. The battles and hard fought victories for the rights of domestics in Brazil today are the result of a 40 year formal struggle of the classification. 

A legacy of slavery and middle class privilege; more domestics rights being won

Country has 7.2 million domestics

by Agência, Isabel Braga, Alyson Freire and Carol Nogueira

Brazil has the largest number of domestic workers in the world and, despite advances in working conditions, they continue to receive less than half the average wage and are exposed to poor conditions. Data released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicate that there are 7.2 million domestics in Brazil, one of each eight in a total of 117 countries.

According to the ILO, at least 52.6 million people are working as maids in the world, in what would be the first effort of the entity to calculate the segment. Of these, 83% are women. The number does not include the 7.5 million children under the age of 15 who also serve as maids.

The ILO admits that the real number should be “significantly higher” and informs that the data was collected based on what each country classifies as domestic employment, with different years of references for each piece of information. But, despite all the limitations and the difficulty in comparing data, the ILO estimates that Brazil has the highest number worldwide.

The country would also be “by far” the market with largest number of employees in Latin America. In regional terms, Asia is the leader in the number of domestics, with 41% of workers in the world. In Latin America, they represent 37% of the total.

In 15 years, over 19 million people went to work as maids in the world, an increase of 58%. In Brazil, there was a jump from 5.1 million in 1995 to 7.2 million in 2009, the latest year with available data.


But the segment is also a reflection of social problems. Of these workers, 93% are women. In Brazil, one in every six women works as a domestic. For black women, one in five work as a maid. Black women also make up 62% of all domestics and blacks are 64% of economically active Brazilians with less than three years of schooling. The heritage comes from the time of the abolition of slavery, when blacks were admitted to the labor market without education or qualification.

The result is that most of the newly freed slaves were incorporated into menial jobs. Free black women fit the housework that occurred in conditions very similar to the period before abolition. The newspapers of the time carried ads of youth being offered for “rent” not for wages, but for food and clothes.

The president of the Federação Nacional de Empregadas Domésticas (National Federation of Domestic Workers), Creuza Maria de Oliveira, parallels what we still see today in the domestic jobs section of the Brazilian newspapers. “If you pick up a newspaper, you see: we need a domestic that doesn’t go to school and that sleeps at the job. She is an object in the house of the employer,” critiques Creuza. “She needs to do her job and return to her family, go to college, like any other human being.”


Creuza Maria de Oliveira, president of National Federation of Domestic Workers


“Social inequality largely explains these numbers,” said the deputy director general of the ILO, Sandra Polaski to the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. “There are families with enough income to pay for these services, while there are also people willing to work for those wages and in these conditions.” In Europe, with a population greater than Brazil, the number of domestics is much lower.

Despite leading, Brazil is cited by the ILO as an example of a country that has begun to take steps to deal with the situation (see in next section, “Câmara approves…”). According to the survey, domestics in Brazil work on average 36 hours per week, a standard closer to Europe than countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Malaysia, where they work over 60 hours a week.

Only 30% of domestics have a formal work contract

Between 2003 and 2011, the average household income in the country rose from R$333 (US$167) to R$489 (US$244), an increase of 47% compared to the 20% average of other salaries. The ILO said that in Brazil, domestics are entitled to 120 days of maternity leave. A challenge is informality. Only about 30% have a carteira assinada (formal contract) (1). In 1993, there were only 18%.

Câmara (House) approves Proposal of Constitutional Amendment


On December 4, 2012, Brazil’s Câmara (House) approved in the second round a Proposta de Emenda Constitucional (Proposed Constitutional Amendment or PEC) that extends the labor rights of domestic workers. The amendment, which extends the rights guaranteed category to all urban and rural workers, was approved by (a count of) 347 votes to 2, with 2 abstentions. Now it goes to the Senate for a vote. After passing both houses of Congress and being enacted, it will take effect.


The amendment guarantees the right to a 44 hour work week, eight hour work days and overtime pay. It also ensures the following rights without regulation; “guaranteed minimum wage when the remuneration is variable; wage protection, crime constituting willful retention, reduction of risks inherent to the job; recognition of collective bargaining agreements; prohibition of discrimination in salary, function and criteria of admission and prohibition of night, dangerous or unhealthy work, for persons under 16 years (of age).”

Other rights will depend on the new law, which will deal with simplifying the fulfillment of tax obligations on the part of the employer and the domestic worker and also on the issue of pension adequacy. Among them is the requirement of the FGTS (2) (today it is optional), night premium pay, unemployment insurance, family wage and protection against arbitrary dismissal without cause.

Today, the Constitution already provides some workers labor rights, as well as integration with Social Security. They are: minimum wage, set by law, nationally unified; irreducibility of pay; thirteenth salary (3), paid weekly rest, preferably on Sundays, annual leave and payment of additional one-third of the normal wage, maternity leave of 120 days; paternity leave; prior notice of least 30 days and retirement.


The Domestic Workers and the Middle Class Privilege


Few things in Brazil are at once so familiar and exotic to our eyes as the institution of domestic. Throughout our history, the labor of this uniquely Brazilian institution, composed overwhelmingly by women, has been given several names: mucama, criadaserva, empregadadoméstica and today, for the most ascetic, “secretária do lar (home secretary).” Or, simply, without further ado, the “person who works there at home.” After all, it seems, for some home is not a place of labor for its legitimate inhabitants, nor that of a person who needs a name, personal or occupation. It’s just a body, endowed with power and brute force, and willing to do the work and rudimentary, “dirty” work that “people of the family” don’t want or need (to do).

Familiarity with the maid mixes with the exoticism, not to say indifference, that we render to the perverse aspects of this relationship and institution.


It would not be an exaggeration to say that the institution domestic is a perverse synthesis of the social formation of Brazil. It condenses in the same space and sociability, some of the most inauspicious and persistent traits of Brazilian society: the legacy of slavery, social inequality and the disqualification of body, muscular and physical toil.

Slave domestic – Domestic employee: Has anything changed?

The social space of maid’s work can be seen as the place par excellence of inequality. In it, we find the merging of various oppressions, discrimination and social inequalities that characterize Brazilian society. The hierarchies and biases of gender, race, class, and, in the case of large cities, geographical origin (northeastern migrants, northerners) overlap each other and are felt viscerally in the workplace and in social relations established between maids and bosses/women of the home within households.

As if the weight and the coercion of these stigmatizing markers of social inferiority were not enough, the work of the maids is still understood as a kind of work, largely “out of love” and “affection” for the family of the bosses. This confusion between professional service provided and affection, summarized in the hypocritical saying,“it’s as if she was (part of the) family” expresses not only the persistence of the master/boss environment and their personalized, supposedly cordial relationships. It works, in effect, as a subtle ploy to vilify labor rights and obligations to domestic workers. Thus, even affection can sometimes be perverse, according to the relations and ideology in that it helps to legitimize.

It’s quite true that significant changes are occurring, because of the social transformations of the last decade and the struggle of domestic workers, as shown by several studies. The number of employees sleeping at their place of employment declined while that of daily and monthly salaried laborers rose. There are some that note, also, that it is a profession heading toward extinction. However, the number of domestic workers remains quite significant, as the PNAD (Pesquisa Nacional de Amostra por Domicílio or National Survey by Household Sample) of 2009 shows, these workers amount to more than seven million people. Nothing less than 7.8% of the economically active population living in the country. The infamous maid’s “quarters”, in truth, almost-hidden cells within the confines of the house or apartment, are no longer required items in a building, as they were decades ago. Despite the still rampant insecurity and scant regulation, timid achievements in favor of the latter were obtained; formal contract, minimum wage fixed by law, 13th salary, transportation and vacations, among other things.

Incidentally, besides novelas (soap operas) and songs, there is now a beauty contest for “most beautiful maid” – obviously the boss grabs part of the award, because in the slave mentality still in force, “the lady (of the house)” is the intended owner, even, of the beauty and the genes of her maid.

Despite these and other changes, which may lead us to believe, naively, in the greater social acceptance and recognition of domestic workers, the level of social relations within the private environment between employers and employees remains, in many cases, marked by a pattern of hierarchical, oppressive and degrading sociability. Allegations against the bosses (or ladies of the houses) are not limited to breach of labor laws. They involve, though fewer in number and frequency, accusations of bullying and exposure to humiliating and embarrassing situations.

A days ago, I learned of a startling report. At the home of an acquaintance, I was told that a former employee was treated like a “second class citizen”. She assumed the most diverse responsibilities. Employers were not content just to have her as the arms and legs of the house, serving even the dog and its needs for evening walks. The maid also the took care of the family’s itinerant agenda. It was up to her to remember and manage the dates of appointments, bill payments and the residents’ favorite items missing from the house to buy. Thus, even being the true physical sustenance of the life and family routine of that house, that does not guarantee one the right to be perceived or perceiving one’s self as equal to those that she supports so much.
Social distance, its “place” was clearly defined by the bosses, so as to avoid the idea according to which she could dare think to “mix” with “those of the house.” Thus, plates, cutlery, toiletries – always generic brands – and even their food, were distinguished and separated from the rest of the use of “family people”, the persons of the “home.” They ate lunch in their little room, separate from the table and people, and along with garbage, the ironing board and car tires with whom she shared said “room”.
As we see in this report, in many “respectable houses”, the maids are treated as sub-people and sub-citizens. Although, said legitimate residents were outraged in regards to the “attack” of the quota policies to the principle of equality. They are kept in this condition to serve, at low-cost, and with hard and dirty work, needs without which, if not satisfied with the work of some else, privileges and virtues of middle class and upper class Brazilians would not be possible to be enjoyed and applied as such. Behold, part of the true cruel objective of domestic work is it acts as the collateral for the privileges of those of who can, for economic or cultural reasons, abstain.
In the case of domestics, it means that their work allows individuals of the middle-class the appropriation of a decisive and essential resource in social competition: time. By getting rid of basic and “undesirable” household chores, the middle classes earn “time.” This, in turn, can be reinvested in productive work, study, preparation, leisure, etc., outside the home, seeking the fulfillment of their various personal projects. The conditions that ensure the unequal conditions of appropriation of time is one of the keys to understanding the reproduction of social inequality and the rate of “success and failure” in school and professional life.
The hysteria of the middle class against the increase of claims and against the decline in the number of people willing to accept this work for survival, there is the fear of being forced to “get their hands dirty.” And, so, they wish to maintain their privileges and social virtues of free time and enjoyment, (rather than) having to sweat, also, in their own home, and not just outside (of it).


1. Carteira assinada is an official document recognizing someone as a participant in the job market. In 2008, research showed that domestic workers working without a signed card earned 27% less than the same worker with a signed card. For black women, the situation is even worse: 59% don’t possess this formal contract of employment and they received only 67.4% of the official minimum monthly salary in 2008, which was about R$415 (Brazilian reais or about $230 American dollars).

2. The FGTS (Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Serviço or Guaranteed Fund for Time of Service) is a savings account opened by an employer on behalf of an employee and acts as a guarantee to protecting the employee in case of unfair dismissal. All registered workers in formal employment are entitled to FGTS.

3. 13th salary is an extra salary offered to the employee at the end of each year, calculated based on full pay or the value of the retirement of the citizen.

Source: Jornal do Commercio, Yahoo! Notícias, Carta PotiguarPortal da Câmara dos Deputados

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About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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