SAO PAULO (Reuters) - After decades as second-class citizens under Brazil’s constitution, maids and caretakers have finally won an equal seat at the table.
A constitutional amendment that Congress passed late Tuesday will remove a clause treating domestic servants as a distinct category of worker - a striking reminder of how an economic boom over the past decade has chipped away at Brazil’s vast inequalities.
“We are finally burying the slave quarters,” Senator Antonio Carlos Valadares told his colleagues from the floor of the chamber before they unanimously approved the amendment.
Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery, in 1888, and the constitution drafted 100 years later reinforced the notion of a unique relationship between families and their servants, who were overwhelmingly female and darker skinned.
An economic boom over the past decade has begun to change that, driving up maids’ wages and forcing families to be more flexible with their expectations - or go without the help.
Now, under the amended constitution, maids can expect the same rights as other Brazilian workers - ranging from employer-paid daycare to overtime wages on workdays longer than eight hours. Even workers in union bastions such as Detroit do not enjoy such guarantees under recent United Auto Workers contracts, which were renegotiated as car makers faced bankruptcy.
The timing of the move has raised some eyebrows, especially since the economy has cooled considerably over the past two years. Brazilian newspapers have been full of speculation that many people will fire their maids rather than give them the extra benefits, and the new law could potentially push more workers into the informal sector.
It’s also unclear how the new constitutional guarantees will translate into practice in a country where even well-established industries are rife with informal employment and arrangements that skirt the letter of the law.
Nonetheless, equal treatment is a symbolic victory in Brazil, where the architecture itself assumes an underclass. Many Brazilian apartments have separate entrances, elevators and closet-sized bedrooms designed for servants.
“I think it’s about time people recognized the value of this work,” said Rita Figueiredo Sousa, who began working as a maid in Sao Paulo two years ago when she discovered it was the most profitable employment available to her.
“You can see attitudes are starting to change,” she added. “If you do your work well, you deserve the same respect as anyone else.”
Having a maid has long been a part of life for many Brazilian families, but demand for such services has picked up due to a rapidly expanding middle class. There are over 7 million domestic workers here, more than twice as many as in the entire developed world, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Profound economic shifts elsewhere in the developing world have also brought the status of domestic workers to the forefront, leading to concerns of human trafficking in India and a legal battle in Hong Kong over foreign maids’ rights.
But in Brazil a string of recent minimum wage increases and a history of organizing among domestic workers have yielded better pay and working conditions even for informal workers, the ILO highlighted in a recent report.
Already, maids and caretakers are entitled to paid vacation, maternity leave and pensions under Brazil’s labor laws.
Salaries for domestic services nearly doubled over the past six years, adding to mounting inflationary pressures that have kept officials on edge.
In 2012 alone, the cost of domestic services rose over 12 percent - the largest single contribution to a rising consumer price index. Overtime pay and new benefits are likely to accelerate the trend.
Discussion of specific workers’ rights enumerated in the Brazilian constitution - 34 items in total - has also put the spotlight on a rigid labor code.
Brazilian companies complain frequently about onerous payroll taxes, high severance penalties and the tightest job market on record, even as productivity stagnates in Latin America’s largest economy.
But some say Brazil has waited too long already to offer its maids the same rights as any other worker.
With that, Brazilian law is catching up to an economic transformation that has lifted a quarter of the population out of poverty since the 1988 constitution, drafted after 20 years of military rule.
“Brazil at the time was a very young democracy, and many still had a feudal world view,” said Alexandre de Almeida Gonçalves, a Sao Paulo attorney specializing in labor law. “Servants were there to do anything employers wanted - they had no schedules, no rights.”
Since then, salaries have risen sharply and working conditions have improved for Brazil’s working poor. Measures of inequality have also tumbled over the past decade - a rare feat among rapidly growing economies.
Additional reporting by Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo and Bernie Woodall in Detroit, Editing by Brian Winter, Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman