Nannies and maids: relations that perpetuate racism and sexism

black women Brazil

Note from BW of Brazil: With the recent passage of the new law that expands the rights of maids in Brazil, the web is full of stories and essays that highlight the relations between maids and their employees that in many ways were reminiscent of the 350 year history of slavery in Brazil. The BW of Brazil blog has featured a numbers of reports about the experiences and conditions of maids in Brazil (see here and here, for example). The piece presented below was written on January 15th but it illustrates very well how many employers view their domestic workers, the nature of this exploitative relationship and why the historic law was necessary in the first place. 

by Renata Corrêa and Srta. Bia.

Since the weekend the following text has circulated on the internet: “Viagem levando babás (Traveling with your nannies)”. It’s a report of a big house/slave quarter vision that Brazilian society has carried since the days of slavery. The nanny is not a worker with all rights respected; she is first and foremost, a servant that on a family trip must be fully available and still thankful for having had the opportunity to travel. Some stretches (of the text) are quite illustrative:

“In my opinion, on some occasions nannies are extremely useful, in others they are expendable and in others they are an item of “third” necessity. Anyway, I think if taught well, they can work for you and won’t even always represent a new member of the family…

“…on the plane she asked if he could have lunch, if there was a bathroom, if she could choose where to sit, finally, I prefer it like this rather than on their off days in which they’ll  soon be asking for a soda or who knows what and they still love to talk about their personal experiences of travel abroad. “On other occasions in which you want for her to eat before because the restaurant is expensive or because there will be other couples there you can say something like, “today we’re going to a restaurant with different (kinds of) food that we have to wait for or very are expensive and etc, so we’ll take you someplace to eat somewhere, do you prefer pizza or McDonals” because, remember she’s working.

“…On the second trip she was delighted, she sent me a message when we arrived thanking us cute and I think it’s cute the person that appreciates this because these types of trips are not cheap for us. So, once again she gets the hint: leave everything clear, so you don’t regret it later …”

The woman who wrote this post is not the only one who thinks this way, so it’s no use just blaming and crucifying only this person. Relationships with domestic workers in Brazil have a close relationship with our slavery past. Like slavery, there are many Brazilian men and women who look at domestic workers as people who should be grateful to be employed and to have the chance to live with a family of high social class. This, when they don’t treat them like family property without allowing any kind of private life.

Housework and black women

According to 2005 data from the National Household Sample Survey (PNAD/IBGE), in Brazil there are about 6.6 million people employed in domestic work, of which 93.4% are women. Of these, 55% are black. Of all the women who work in the country, 17% are domestic workers. Domestic work as paid work is very socially devalued, concentrating a number of exclusive features such as low pay, long working hours and illegality in hiring. It influences directly  gender and racial discrimination, especially when determining a role for black women in society.

“Unfortunately, May 13th was not able to bury the past of slavery in our country. The memories of that period are present everywhere. In police violence against the black population, the slowness in relation to the implementation of the quota system in higher education, and in the precarious access to basic services guaranteed by the Government. Domestic work is also part of this historic process of invisibility and disrespect to Afro-Brazilians.”Reference: “Open Letter to the Anti-Terrorism Group of babysitters”,

by Luana Tolentino.

The social inequality in Brazilian society has its basis in these relations. And, principally, the idea that it is absurd that maids, nannies, doormen, gardeners or maids want higher wages and the same labor rights as lawyers, engineers or civil servants. Because it is absurd that people who have a nanny in this country have to cut spending, like a trip abroad, pay for overtime, vacations and other rights.

Three personal experiences of the exploitative nature of work as a domestic

Photo: Maria José Alves dos Anjos, 18, says that she worked for nearly two years in a residence in the city of Riachuelo, as a maid, cleaning the house, caring for the children of her boss, from 6am to 6pm, Sunday to Sunday, without a vacation, no holidays and only getting R$200 (about US$100) a month. Today out of work, she plans to go to court to demand her rights. And, depending on if the new rules that the country may adopt in relation to domestic workers, these rights will be increasingly broad.
Cleusa Maria de Jesus

At 12 years old, Cleusa Maria de Jesus left her eight brothers and sisters in their small home on the periphery of Salvador, Bahia after being given by her mother to a family that promised to treat her like a daughter and allow her to go to school or the first time. In return, she would work as a domestic. The reality was different. For seven years the girl served her bosses for 24 hours a day, with no salary, privacy or education. “The little I earned was in food and old clothes. I was a semi-slave”, she says. At 20, she changed jobs and began to earn a salary (below minimum wage), but still lived in her boss’s house, with no days off. It was only at 34 years old did she get a vacation after discovering the union of domestic workers of Bahia, of which today she is the president.

“In the interior of this country, what you see most is a 12-year old girl working for a plate of food”, says Cleusa, speaking with the security of someone who experienced all of the intricacies of domestic work in Brazil.

Joelma Regina Brito


At 12 year old, Joelma Regina Brito from Jequié, Bahia, was given “shelter” by a wealthy family, also in Salvador. She worked from Sunday to Sunday. “My boss said that I couldn’t go out alone because I was young”, she says. At 20 years of age, she migrated to São Paulo in search of a better life and soon found a job earning three times the salary. But her boss demanded that she sleep on the job and remain at the disposition of the family day and night. Joelma quit. Today she works in a restaurant, has weekends off and vacations but the salary is less. “It’s worth it. Today I work a set time to go and get off work.”

Looking for domestics or servants?

This week there also came out in Estadão (newspaper) a story that shows just how catastrophic the salary of a domestic is in the range of thousand dollars: In search of domestics. Good pay.

“Married and mother of two small children, one eight and the other six, the attorney has a long workday: it’s about 12 hours away from home daily and needs two maids, one that sleeps at the job and another that comes and goes to manage the home. The problem is that Andrea was left without a maid who comes and goes. Hence began the attorney’s search through domestic employment agencies in search of a new professional.”

The only problem here is the lack of a maid? Why doesn’t this married woman have anyone to share tasks? Why do men and women work 12 hours a day and we find it normal? Why is it necessary that one of the maids sleep on the job? Doesn’t she have a home? Doesn’t she have her own family? You, who are reading this text, do you sleep at your job? How is it that people  work 12 hours a day, as many domestic workers do, but have no money to hire a maid?

What will people do when there are no maids or nannies to hire? Go import or nannies from Paraguay or Bolivia? Why don’t we question the working hours of all people in order to have time to take care of children? Why not fight for full-time school and day-care centers? Why not propose public laundromats? Leisure spaces? Why not think of elements that could help us in raising the kids and household chores that require a lot of time, but are things that we have to deal with?

In December 2012, the PEC (1) that expands rights of domestic workers passed in the Câmara dos Deputados (similar to the House of Representatives). Instead of celebrating this decision as a further advancement in workers’ rights, the majority of the comments complained of the burden it would have on the accounts of the employer. These people probably want to go back to the time when the minimum wage did not increase annually. But, what is the impact that the lack of labor rights has had on the lives of thousands of people over the years? There must have even been an impact on the economy of this part of the population, but it’s not important to research this matter search, right?

Since you can’t rely on common sense to regulate labor relations, especially of domestic workers who often are subjected to every kind of oppression under the guise of “affection” and that they “are family,” the laws must be fulfilled. Workers who travel to service receive an extra hour, daily to eat, transportation and are not on duty 24 hours a day. Why would a domestic worker not be subjected to the same rules?

Maternity and Gender

Another issue that draws attention is the misdirected aggression to the author of the post quoted at the beginning of this text. Yes, the story is a portrait of educational inequality and caste system and privileges that plagues Brazil and labor relations, but many comments were in respect to her personal choices about motherhood. They criticize the fact that she “reads a magazine” while the nanny makes sand castles. Being a mother does not forcibly oblige you to enjoy certain activities. Did anyone ask why her husband doesn’t make castles or sit on his ass in the sand to play with the child? Or how dedicated his is in giving attention to his children? We do not ask because it is understood that it is only the mother’s role.

The basic issue is that when we speak of housework it’s as if we are not speaking of work or of people, we speak of objects. I don’t question the fact that it’s no use being a super-mom, as our children’s nannies know this firsthand because oftentimes they leave their children with a neighbor, mother or grandmother to be able to take care of ours and did someone stop to think about this to make proposals that would ultimately reverberate the racism encrusted in Brazil? Reference: Quando foi que as babás viraram coisas? Durante a escravidão (When was it that nannies became things? During slavery) by Luka Franca.

Basically, the controversy shows how we’re still stuck with a view that housework is a “minor” job, whether exercised by the mother or by a hired maid. We question not only the amount paid for babysitters and day laborers, a disdained job, non-intellectual and mostly female, but also we question the way that every woman exercises her motherhood. As if “child care” was just her responsibility and her companion had no involvement in that relationship. Bosses and maids lose. Women as a whole lose, when we do not understand that the tasks of internal and domestic functions are the responsibility of all family members, regardless of gender.

Perpetuated inequality

In order that social inequality is constantly perpetuated it’s constantly necessary that the rich and the poor must know their places and spaces of power. Likewise, men and women have pre-established social roles. Anyone that escapes or doesn’t fit in this preset game is socially rejected. When we don’t question this perverse system that draws invisible lines in our social relations, we perpetuate sexism and racism in society, among other prejudices.

Thus, architects and engineers continue designing apartments with dependence on the maid and we are already exporting this idea to Miami. Afro textured hair is not seen as being synonymous with elegance and beauty. Women are the only ones responsible for childcare and household chores. Black women are passed over for positions that require “boa aparência (good appearance/looks)”. The period of slavery was long ago and our reality has no connection with our history. After all, “carne mais barata do mercado sempre foi a carne negra (the cheapest meat at the market has always been the dark/black meat).” (2)

“The fact that the market is now more favorable to the worker fosters unusual behavior. Andrea says that in the first month of employment, the new domestic has pleaded/sued for the deposit of Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Serviço (FGTS or Guarantee Fund for Length of Service) (3). The contribution to the FGTS for the domestic servant is not yet mandatory, but should soon become law. “This is a reflection of a booming economy. Today the maids are living the good life,” says Andrea. Reference: Procuram-se domésticas. Paga-se bem (Wanted: Domestics. Good pay).

1. Proposta de Emenda à Constituição (PEC or Proposed Amendment to the Constitution) Proposed Amendment to the Constitution (PEC) is an update, an amendment to the Federal Constitution. It is one of the proposals that require more time for preparation, drafting and voting, since it amends the Federal Constitution.

2. Lyric in the song “A Carne” by singer Elza Soares

3. 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 (CLT) are entitled to FGTS.

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

1 Comment

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