“The modern slave quarters is the maid’s room”: A former maid, rapper/historian Preta Rara releases book on the work experieces of hundreds of maids
When we are dealing with social issues in a country such as Brazil, we always have to take into consideration the foundations of the structural inequality affecting the country. And one of the biggest influences on social/racial relations and endemic inequalities can still be traced back to the countries three and half centuries of enslavement of an entire race. To this day, more than 131 years after slavery was officially abolished, we can still clearly see traces of foundational racial inequalities and hierarchy today. As I’ve demonstrated in a number of previous posts, the relationship between blacks and whites continues to be seen in a sort of master/slave hierarchy. When you see enough examples of this, you will certainly come to the conclusion that Brazilians do seem to have a certain nostalgia for the slavery era.
Another social relationship in which we see remnants of this master/slave relationship plays out is that between a family and a maid. Following this topic for a number of years, I’ve come across stories in which maids were forced to work hours against their wills, not being able to eat the same food that is served to the family, not being use the same bathroom as the family and sexual harassment/exploitation, among various other complaints. As such, when former maid Preta Rara says that “the modern senzala (slave quarters) is the maid’s room,” she may just know what she’s talking about. The analogy opens wide the degrading situations in which millions of mostly black domestic workers live daily in Brazil.
Preta Rara worked as a maid until 2009. She was fired for refusing to eat leftover food offered by her employer. She was forbidden to eat the meals she cooked herself. More than three years ago, she decided to report on this on her Facebook profile. It was just one of many episodes of human rights violations and racism she had suffered from different employers in nine years working as a maid.
In a short time, the publication gained repercussion and Preta began to receive hundreds of messages from other maids who had also suffered mistreatment and even worse violence. It was then that the historian decided to create the page “Eu, empregada doméstica” meaning, “I, a maid”, to gather testimonials from thousands of domestic workers from all over Brazil. To be sure, this sort of treatment has been going on for decades, centuries in reality, but the beauty of social networks makes it so that these experiences no longer have to wait for the research of a journalist or anthropologist to become widely known by the public.
In September, the rapper released a book that bears the same title as the page. In an interview with the Brasil de Fato website, Preta Rara states that the reports presented in the work are unpublished and make explicit the country’s structural racism.
“Housework in Brazil is still analogous to slavery. Domestic workers have color and class: They are peripheral, poor and black women. It’s a class judged as inferior,” she says. This association between black women and lower status can be noted in everyday social situations in which it is automatically assumed that a black woman cannot live in certain areas or be owners of homes outside of lower-class neighborhoods. It is the same logic that makes people automatically assume that a young black woman must be a cleaning woman. She couldn’t possibly working on her Master’s degree. Or the automtic assumption that a black woman with a white man must be a prostitute because she couldn’t possibly be a legal advisor. These are real situations that happen everyduay. When you point these things out, how does society typically react?
“Some people say that it is ‘mimimi’ (whining), that there is no racism, that there are no workers in these conditions. The book is to show that in 2019 we still have the same discourse as 1888 [the year the Golden Law was signed, which established the abolition of slavery]. Yes, slavery still exists in the country,” she explains.
A study published in 2018 – done in partnership by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) and the UN Women – compiled historical data on housework from 1995 to 2015 and found the predominance of black women in this role over time. In the last year analyzed, for example, of the 5.7 million domestic workers, 3.7 million were pretas e pardas (black and brown women).
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), in 2018, the number of domestic workers reached 6.24 million – the highest since 2012.
Rara Preta explains that housework is hereditary for black women. Like her, her mother and grandmother were also maids, who even gave reports that are recorded in the book. Breaking this cycle, she says, is extremely difficult. “This cannot be the only place for these women,” she says. When we realize just how common it is for women of black families to be stuck in generational domestic service, it becomes very understandable that the black population is concerned with the actions of current president in making the attainment of a college education for black and poor people who have been long excluded from the possibility of higher learning more difficult. It was only under the administrations of former Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rouseff that large numbers of black Brazilians were able to earn college degrees.
Proudly, the rapper also mentions that the federal deputy Benedita da Silva (PT), black and also a former domestic, was the one who signed the inner flap of her book.
Preta Rara tells some of the “most revolting” stories she received. “There is a report from a 73-year-old domestic worker who arrives at work and the service elevator was broken. The porter, at the behest of the residents, said that she could not use the social elevator. This lady, who should not even be working anymore, had to climb to the 8th floor of the stairs because she could not use the social elevator,” she details.
Yet another sign of an invisible social/racial hierarchy in the country, the existence of a social elevator for residents and their guests, and another for domestic servants is still an oftentimes humiliating the norm throughout Brazil. One of the most controversial incidents involving such elevators was the case of the daughter of the black governor of the state of Espírito Santo. A visitor in the building, the young woman was brutally assaulted because residents assumed that, as she was black, she must have been a maid and thus, had no business using the social elevator.
According to Preta, she still “gets reports from female workers who go 8, 9 hours without using the toilet because there’s no ‘maid’s bathroom’ and can’t use the bathroom in the house. There are many reports about sexual harassment as well. There was a worker who made a key to every room in the house, and when she goes to clean, she locks herself so she can clean,” she says.
“Like one of the family”
According to the rapper, the above phrase is often repeated by abusive bosses and commonly used to trample on all labor rights of the non-family worker but a person selling her workforce.
In Preta Rara’s opinion, this phrase makes the workers believe that they are really treated as if they were family and not demand their rights.
“Here in Brazil, the colonial rancidity is so great that most employers believe that domestic workers are privately owned. It is the question of serving. With the book, the purpose is really to provoke this discussion and to be the rock in the shoe. Generate discomfort. Through it, we will able to get change,” she says.
PEC das Domésticas
The 2013 Constitutional Amendment 72, known as PEC das Domésticas (domestic worker’s law), consolidated the workers’ central rights, such as receiving a minimum wage per month, payment guaranteed by law, working hours of 8 hours daily and 44 weekly and overtime. The law was widely celebrated and seen a breakthrough for workers’ rights.
In June 2015, then-President Dilma Rousseff (PT) promulgated seven new rights: the payment of the night premium, the travel allowance, the obligation of employee time control and the use of the timebank; reducing the rate of contribution to the employer’s National Social Security Institute (INSS) from 12% to 8%; Fund for Guaranteed Time of Service (FGTS), occupational accident insurance, anticipation of 40% of FGTS fine, unemployment insurance, and family allowance.
Preta Rara considers the amendment a step forward, but it is still necessary to guarantee its capillarity in women’s lives. Data from the 2018 IBGE, for example, showed that the number of professionals with a carteira assinada (formal work contract) was the lowest in the last six years.
Rara, a historian and content producer, believes that the few rights granted are under threat with the Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) government.
“It is noteworthy that the only one who did not accept the Domestic’s Law when he was a parliamentarian is our current president. It is a big setback for the working class. Not to mention policies such as pension reform”, she evaluates.
“Not that I think maids shouldn’t have rights, but they were pushing the line. When the PT (Workers’ Party) was in power, it was always difficult to get people to serve us at Christmas and New Year’s Eve supper, or they didn’t want to work because they were accommodated in their jobs or asked for a fortune. I remember that on New Year’s Eve 2010 or 2011 I had to pay BRL $700.00 only for the 2 waiters to serve us, because I couldn’t find anyone, and they only worked until shortly after midnight. Now I don’t know if it’s because of unemployment but I already hired 3 waiters for BRL $ 210,00 (fair value) for New Year’s Eve and to work until dawn. Now they are giving value to our money. I hope our President keeps things that way.”
Print published by the page “Eu, empregada doméstica” (Photo: Reproduction-Facebook)
With information from Brasil de Fato