Opinion, By Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Readers of last week’s column will recall that the Curmudgeon fearlessly (yea, verily, recklessly) predicted that Belgium would win the World Cup in Rio because Brazil resembled both Belgium and India. The latter country got short shrift because India’s addicted to cricket, not football.
But, if you read the New York Times or the Times of India, you will have noticed that the U.S. and India got into a fearful row last month over a certain “empregada doméstica” working for an Indian diplomat in NYC. It turns out that in today’s India, everyone in the middle to upper classes has a live-in maid, and senior Indian diplomats abroad are allowed to have one.
In Brazil, until recently, everyone in the middle and upper classes had a live-in maid. Most Rio apartments come with maid’s quarters. The Curmudgeon, when a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brasília in 1970, struggled to change the Brasilia Housing Code to permit poor people to construct 3-bedroom homes WITHOUT maid’s quarters.
The live-in maid was an integral part of Brazilian culture until a very few years ago. Then the combination of twenty years without hyperinflation plus social and educational programs had the effect of creating jobs and lifting some 40 million people into the middle class.
With economic growth, fewer and fewer women chose to become live-in maids, because there were opportunities for work more meaningful than labor from dawn till dusk and (perhaps) the following dawn if the “patroa” stayed out late partying.
Now for a personal disclosure. From shortly after his arrival in Rio in 1977 until Christmas 2011, the Curmudgeon had a live-in maid. Elisete lived and worked in our household for almost thirty years; she was not a “serf” nor a slave but rather a part of the family. She earned more than the market wage, she had every weekend off to visit her sisters in a Rio “community”. She was staying there over Christmas 2011 with her family, when she died suddenly.
She protected our home, which was hers as well. In 1989, she fooled the bandidos who held up our home into believing my visiting mother-in-law couldn’t walk because of varicose veins, so they didn’t tie her up. After they left, Elisete told her where the hidden telephone was under the stairwell; she called the cops and eventually we got almost everything back.
Before Elisete’s death, she had been officially “retired” on INSS, but she refused to work part time, she insisted on staying on full time. After her death, we knew we could never have another live-in maid. A marvelous young woman now comes and cleans twice a week, arriving at 7:45 AM and leaving at 4:45 PM. That suffices for our empty nest.
In April of 2013, President Dilma Rousseff signed a law providing, just as in NYC, that the salary for “domestic servants” covers only forty hours work per week; overtime must be paid for more than that. Other labor benefits have also been granted, and the result is that unless you’re rich, you can’t afford a live-in maid in Rio or in NYC. Apartments here are no longer built with maid’s quarters; older apartments convert them into pantries or guest bedrooms.
Life has changed; life goes on, on the whole for the better.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, fetched up on these shores exactly 36 years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)