The first reported case of death caused by COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro was of a housekeeper. The 63-year-old woman contracted the virus from her employer who had tested positive for the disease after returning from a trip to Italy. Why did the employer fail to protect the domestic worker, even though she knew that this virus is highly contagious and can lead to death? Is this a question too hard to answer?
My name is Maria Izabel Monteiro Lourenço, I am 53 years old and was born in Campos dos Goytacazes, a rural area close to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I am a primary school teacher, domestic worker, actress, and president of the Domestic Workers’ Union of the City of Rio de Janeiro.
In 1984, I came to Rio de Janeiro looking for a job. Since then, I have worked both in industry and commerce, but most of my life, I was employed as a domestic worker.
In 2009, I joined “Marias do Brasil”, a theatre group of female domestic workers and actresses, based on the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology, created by Augusto Boal. Thanks to the group, I got to know the Domestic Workers’ Union, and soon I joined.
In 2018, I was elected president of the Domestic Workers’ Union of the City of Rio de Janeiro.
This article is the result of two combined texts on domestic work in Brazil amid the COVID-19 pandemic: a testimony of the struggle and resistance of domestic workers, written by Maria Izabel Monteiro Lourenço, President of the Domestic Workers’ Union of the City of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (in italics), and a presentation of the main scenarios and challenges faced by the group, written by professor and researcher (UFRJ, FLACSO-Brazil) Mary Garcia Castro. Translation by Kristina Hinz and Izadora Zubek.
Profile and Challenges of Domestic Workers in Brazil
Brazil stands out as the country with the highest number of domestic workers, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). They represent the second largest occupational group of women in Brazil, only behind women employed in commerce. In 2018, 14.6% of Brazilian women were employed in domestic service, equalling 5.7 million women, a number that is yet considered underestimated, since many domestic workers do not register themselves as such.
Several authors have highlighted the lack of recognition of domestic work for its intersections with markers related to class, gender, and “race”/ethnicity, pertaining to complex processes that structure social inequalities and discrimination in Brazil. Essentially, domestic work is considered as “women’s work”, as fewer than 1% of domestic workers were men in 2018. Besides, it was, and is, considered as “work for the poor”, as domestic labour used to be assigned to enslaved Black women during Brazil’s slavery period.
Moreover, domestic work is characterized through an intrinsic connection to gender. This structural relationship is not only expressed in the social devaluation or trivialization of domestic work as a “woman’s thing”, inscribed in the historical sexual division of labour, but also in the invisibility of its cost of reproduction, since domestic workers work in double shifts, taking care of both the employing families and their own.
The life of domestic workers, from the time when African women were exported on slave ships, has never been easy. They were sexually abused by sailors, and after being traded on Brazilian soil, the abuses continued at the hands of merchants who sold them as commodities, and eventually by the owners, inflicting constant suffering and violence on them.
The enslaved mothers were forced to leave their children to serve in the Casa Grande . They often became wet nurses  for the children of the engenho  owners. With the end of slavery, these women, without opportunities, remained inside wealthy families’ homes, keeping up the domestic work.
In Brazil, the majority of domestic workers are Black women, with little education and from lower social classes. State assistance and public policies for this group are chronically lacking.
To be a domestic worker is to be condemned to all forms of prejudice.
Labour Legislation and Failed Implementation
The prejudice faced by domestic workers is reflected in the labour legislation that, to begin with, did not recognize domestic work until 1972. With the Federal Constitution of 1988, a minimal set of rights was granted to domestic workers, such as minimum wage, paid weekly rest, annual vacations, maternity leave, and retirement.
In 2006, the 1972 law was amended, and domestic workers gained the right to 30 days of vacation, protection for pregnant women, enjoyment of civil and religious holidays, and the prohibition of having expenditures for housing, food and personal hygiene products used in the workplace discounted from their salaries. Additionally, the amended law introduced a 12% income tax deduction for employers, and guaranteed a monthly minimum wage. In October 2015, the Complementary Law 150 extended these rights by establishing a guarantee fund for length of service and the limitation of work duration to eight hours per day, and 44 hours per week. Other victories were the remuneration of extra hours, unemployment insurance, bonus for nightwork, 13th salary and prior announcement to termination.
Despite these legal achievements, domestic workers face a major challenge: the insufficient compliance with labour laws. According to workers’ unions, the important rights gained in the last years are not materialized, as state monitoring is inefficient. As of 2020, 70% of domestic workers are employed informally in Brazil.
Domestic workers come to unions with numerous complaints. They only discover the irregularities of their situation when they are fired. Many employers just sign the work card, but do not fulfil the other legal obligations, and quite often domestic workers do not check if all their rights are duly respected because they trust their employers, or are misinformed and wrongly think that the signed work card is enough to ensure that their rights are protected.
Domestic Worker Struggles under COVID-19
On Sunday, 15 March 2020, at my house in Duque de Caxias, in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, I was following the news about the COVID-19 pandemic. As soon as I realized how serious the situation was, I called the board of the Domestic Workers’ Union of the City of Rio de Janeiro to announce that I would record a video, asking employers to exempt domestic workers from their monthly or daily services, while still paying them. With over 150,000 views, the video went viral on social networks.
We knew that COVID-19 was coming to Brazil with the population that travels abroad - the main contamination source. Most of these people have domestic workers and the probability of infection is tremendous, since there are more than 6 million domestic workers in Brazil. Also, once contaminated with the virus, these workers would be a source of infection for their families, neighbours, and communities.
Female domestic workers tend to be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, as the average age of this group is increasing, due to the progress made in the education of young women, who are thus seeking new possibilities in the labour market. The elevated risk is exacerbated by other factors, such as poverty and inadequate living conditions, or the need of making long journeys to the workplace by public transport which is often precarious and overcrowded. Furthermore, domestic workers are in direct contact with their employer’s family members, especially the children and the elderly whom they take care of, and are often responsible for buying groceries and making errands. In the absence social distancing in markets and grocery stores, they are particularly exposed to potential infection.
It should be noted, however, that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, informality and precariousness were on the rise, as Brazil’s historical social inequalities are being compounded by a government that has been undermining workers’ achievements, marginalizing public health and social security services. Unemployment in Brazil has increased by 11.6% in the quarter that ended in February, the last one before the pandemic spread across the country, leaving 12.3 million people unemployed. Meanwhile, Brazil registered 206 billionaires in 2019, accumulating a total fortune of R$ 1,205.8 billion  (17.7% of Brazil’s GDP), which clearly demonstrates that, beyond poverty, systemic social inequalities of various kinds are predominant in the country.
In the first week of the crisis in Brazil, from 16 to 19 March, we were still carrying out the activities in the union. I even received an angry employer, who asked me what was this law that supposedly allowed a domestic worker to stay at home and still get paid. Another employer was determined to impose an early vacation to his housekeeper. To the angry employer, I replied that we were taking preventive measures in times of pandemic, and to the second, I replied that this option should be negotiated in the best interest of both parties.
I have a WhatsApp group with fellow domestic workers. Many of them contacted me when they heard about COVID-19, saying that their employers were refusing to comply with the quarantine and adopt protective measures. They were also feeling insecure, afraid of being fired.
A fellow worker reported that her employer was suspected of being infected by the virus, but did not provide any clarification. He only suggested that she should stay home. Without any explanation, the worker is, of course, extremely scared. I asked her if she would like to make this report publicly, even without revealing her employer’s names. She said she wouldn’t dare!
Another worker contacted me and asked: “Izabel, what should we do with these employers and their slave owner mentality, who want to force us to come to work? How do you protect yourself if you have to catch a motorcycle taxi to go to work?” Yet another worker only managed to negotiate a vacation for the second half of April. Even so, there was a lot of resistance from her employers.
Moreover, I have reports of two housekeepers who continued to work, and another one who got time off but was not paid. There is a great need for people to earn money to be able to support themselves. Employers should cooperate.
I, Maria Izabel, work as a housekeeper once a week. The lady, for whom I work, called to find out how I was doing, and was willing to deposit my weekly fees as usual.
Resistance and Unionization
It is estimated that only 18% of all domestic workers were unionized in 2009. This low rate of unionization is owed to a number of difficulties, many of them specific to domestic work, such as isolation, but also its lack of recognition and precariousness. Situations of insecurity affect all domestic workers, regardless of their “race”/ethnicity and region of residence. Nonetheless, vulnerabilities are more accentuated among certain groups: 29.3% of Black domestic workers, and 24.6% of their white counterparts, work without a signed work card and social security coverage; many work 58 hours a week, receiving less than the minimum wage stipulated by law.
Despite the country’s colonial and slavery heritages, and the adverse political and economic situation, the scenario of subservience and invisibility of the “house maids” has changed. More and more, they say no, and they say it loud and clear. The domestic workers are united and organized in trade unions at the local level, in a federation at the national level, and in a confederation at the Latin American level. Although only a minority of domestic workers are part of these organizations, they are thriving, and were able to win crucial victories for equal rights. Besides, their voices are heard as recognized representatives of the profession, including in the media.
Also during the COVID-19 pandemic, the domestic workers’ organizations play a key role in the fight for protection and justice. Their actions range from providing direct assistance to workers to advocating for state support.
The silence of many employers, and the lack of understanding make workers insecure and sick. Some workers were given time off, but there is no dialogue on the part of employers, not a word about pay.
When we present ourselves as domestic workers, we are confronted with prejudices. The looks change, the language changes, the treatment is not the same. It would be different if we introduced ourselves as professionals from another sector.
For us, domestic workers, everything is different. Even in the face of a deadly virus that came from the Casa Grande, we are denied protection. What if it was the other way around?
But resistance takes many forms. The union pressures the state for labour protection, and dialogues with our bosses and employers, trying to appeal for a sense of justice and to take the side of the worker.
We encourage resistance and, as far as possible, support the workers with some help, or at least, with a friendly word.
 Translator’s note: Casa Grande means literally the “Big House”, referring to the residence of the owners of plantations, while their enslaved servants lived in inhospitable barracks, far and crowded, the senzalas.
 Translator’s note: During Brazil’s slavery era, it was common practice to force enslaved women to wet nurse the children of their owners.
 Translator’s note: an engenho is an agricultural unit for refining sugar from sugarcane, which is characteristic of Brazil’s colonial era. Involving both enslaved persons in charge of field and domestic work, as well as salaried workers and seasonal farmers, the engenho was marked by a complex economic, social, racial and gender hierarchy, headed by the senhor do engenho as its chief patriarchal figure.
 Translator’s note: equivalent to ca. 209.19 billion euro (as of 21 April 2020).