By Maria Lopez Conde, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Brazilian Congress finalized a constitutional amendment that grants domestic workers the same rights as salaried workers last week, including eight-hour work days and overtime pay. Lawmakers and labor rights advocates lauded the amendment, while others feared rounds of dismissals and the end of hired help for the upper-middle classes.
“Today, 125 years after the end of slavery, only today are we closing the last slave’s house and throwing away the key,” said the President of Congress, Renan Calheiros, last week.
In 1888, Brazil became the last country to abolish slavery in the Americas. The Constitution, drafted a century later, codified the unique relationship between domestic employees and the families they served, providing them fewer rights than workers in other industries.
The amendment removes the clause that treats domestic servants as a distinct category of worker, giving maids overtime pay, an eight-hour workday with a two-hour break, extra pay for late night work, as well as other benefits that include unemployment insurance and day care assistance.
This is set to impact the estimated ten percent of Brazilians who have a maid at home. Brazil has the largest number of domestic workers in the world, with 7.2 million, almost twice as much as India, according to data from the International Labor Organization.
The country’s wide economic disparities and lack of work-family reconciliation policies contribute to the high figure. Over 92 percent of domestic workers are women, making a living as maids, cooks and nannies in the homes of upper-middle class and wealthy Brazilians.
Rio de Janeiro is the state with the highest proportion of maids, who represent over nine percent of the state’s employed work force. Regina Brandão, 48, a nanny who has worked in an apartment in Rio’s Zona Sul (South Zone) for the last eleven years, welcomed the new law, but fears it will be hard to enforce.
“I think the law is good because I think there are a lot of houses that exploit maids, but in practice, I am not sure how it is going to work, or if it’s going to work at all,” Brandão explained.
In the past six years, salaries for house staff have nearly doubled in a country with high labor costs. In 2012, the average cost of domestic work rose over twelve percent, more than any other service.
Although widely considered a positive, historic law, some believe it might prompt firings and push maids into informal agreements with their bosses to avoid losing their jobs as the law makes hired help more expensive.
Mario Avelino, president of Doméstica Legal, an NGO that advocates for maids’ rights, estimates that 815,000 women could lose their jobs as a result of the law, which is almost half of all documented workers.
“A family isn’t a business – they’re not going to hire an accountant to calculate overtime, vacation pay, and so on,” Avelino told Bloomberg in an interview. According to Avelino, the new measure will precipitate Brazil’s entry into an America-style system, “where soon only the rich will be able to afford a maid.”
For others, pricier house servants could introduce far-reaching cultural changes that might range from imposing a more equitable division of chores between families at home to increasing the availability of affordable day care facilities and improved full-time schools.