The 2011 film “The Help” portrayed the cruel realities of the lives of black domestic workers in 1960s Mississippi. In modern day Brazil, the often demeaning, unappreciated efforts of domestic workers is still a source of employment for more than one-fifth of all working black women.
by Luana Pinheiro and Nina Madsen
The year 2011 was marked by the adoption of Convention no.189 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which deals with ensuring decent work for domestic workers. In the Brazilian case, this means, no doubt, ensuring domestic workers access to a set of rights that are not guaranteed by the Constitution. But it means more than that, it ensure that existing rights are actually effective, by reducing the conditions of insecurity, exploitation and social vulnerability of which they find themselves subjected. It also means recognizing and valuing the importance of this work for social reproduction, for the generation of wealth in the economy and the organization of society along the lines that we know today.
Domestic work is, as has already been said, an occupation of women and especially black women. In 2009, while only 1% of employed men were domestic workers, this proportion reached 17% of women, representing about 6.7 million workers. This occupation is even more important for black women, being responsible for the employment of 21.8% of these workers, compared to 12.6% of white women. The over-representation of the black and female population in this category is related not only to traditional conceptions of gender, which represent housework as a natural ability of women, but also a legacy of slavery in Brazilian society, which combined with the construction of a scenario of inequality in which black women have less education and higher levels of poverty and in which low wage, low-skilled and unregulated domestic work constitutes one of the few employment options.
In addition to greater quantitative presence, domestic work performed by black women is marked by some peculiarities. A first important fact to consider is that the feminization of the world of labor, observed over the past decades became possible, in part due to the fact that black women assumed the domestic responsibilities of white women with greater educational opportunities and income, freeing them for inclusion in the work in public space. The entry of women into the labor market, therefore, not only alters the sexual division of labor, but it also reinforces a racial division of housework.
In general, domestic work is marked by exploitation and precarious conditions. However, the working conditions of black women are invariably worse. Some data allow us to highlight this fact. Initially, it is noteworthy that there has been a steady decrease of girls and young women employed in paid domestic work. However, the difference of inclusion of black and white schoolchildren remained unchanged, indicating the persistence of racial inequality as a structural marker of the reality of domestic work in Brazil. In 2009, 3.6% of white women aged 10 to 17 years were employed in domestic work, while 4.9% of black women performed the same function.
This structural inequality is also seen when analyzing the indicators of formalization of work, i.e. the proportion of women with a formal contract and that are protected from situations of temporary or permanent incapacity for work. In this field, the stability of the differences is also noteworthy, and in 2009, only 24.6% of black women possessed a formal contract, compared to a rate of 29.3% for white women. Finally, in relation to equal pay, it is emphasized that, in that same year, black women workers earned, on average, R$ 364.80 (worth US$182.40), and white women workers, R$ 421.60 (worth US$210.80). This difference is smaller for the group that has a formal contract, which reinforces the importance of the formalization of work, as well as the policy of the appreciation of minimum wage, as coping strategies to overcome racial inequality and poverty.
It is in this context of inequality and exclusion that the country is facing at the time of the ratification of a new instrument of protection of the category is up for debate. The Brazilian government has already publicly expressed itself to be in favor of ratification. What remains now is turning political commitments into actual policies which can alter the conditions of employment and living in this huge contingent of women. The challenges are many, especially because they require a break with values filled with prejudices regarding the dimensions of gender, race and class.
Source: Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada