Domestic employees “emancipated”

Brazil sets down strict standards for workers in households who have never had the same labor rights as others Many families treated them like “slaves”

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (r) hugs Creuza Maria Oliveira, president of the National Federation of Domestic Workers, in 2011.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (r) hugs Creuza Maria Oliveira, president of the National Federation of Domestic Workers, in 2011.ap

Some 10 million domestic employees in Brazil will now officially have the same rights as other workers across the country, and even some additional benefits. A new law approved on March 27, which has now gone into effect, is considered one of the broadest labor reforms ever made since the Constitution was drafted.

Some observers have emphasized that the date of this new law actually marks the official “end to slavery” in Brazil, and not 1888, when it was the last country in the world to abolish it altogether.

Without any clear rules that obligated employers to provide decent conditions for employees, many domestic workers were at the mercy of the goodwill of the families that hired them. It is estimated that before the law only 30 percent of the 10 million received a minimum wage and had their duties restricted to the 48-hour legal working week.

Because the new law calls for severe penalties in cases of infractions, it is estimated that at least one million families will have to lay off their domestic employees because they cannot afford to cover the new conditions required. The law is so far-reaching and complex that families have had to hire to lawyers to catch up on their paperwork regarding employees. The daily Folha de São Paulo recently responded to 60 questions submitted by readers about the law.

The work of the domestic laborer is different from that of other employees in a shop, office or factory. Sometimes the hours are varied, or sometimes families need them at night or on weekends. Some live in with the families for 24 hours, and they get food and lodging as part of their remuneration.

Those who spend the entire day with the family cannot perform any other chores, not even setting the table

There are cases where these employees have to hire other employees if they are working with a family all day to take care of a child since 90 percent of public schools operate on a half-day basis.

But now domestic workers won’t have to hire babysitters because they will only have to work three days a week to receive full labor benefits under the law, including the minimum wage and becoming registered with tax authorities.

Domestic workers must now work only up to 44 hours a week, and cannot be allowed to cover more than two daily overtime shifts, which must be paid with a 50-percent surplus. They are now entitled to the Christmas bonuses and a month of paid vacation. Families now will have to pay their social security and unemployment insurance.

The law is so strict that, for example, those who spend the entire day with the family and have finished their day's chores, cannot perform any other activities, including even helping set the dinner table, and must have a complete 24-hour rest period a week.

Everyone in the street – from families to lawyers – has been talking about the new law and its impact. Some months back, the former Economy Minister Antônio Delfim Netto had to publicly apologize for saying that soon that the domestic worker in Brazil would be an "endangered animal” if the law was passed.

These workers, mostly colored and uneducated, now have rights protected under the law and no one can treat them as slaves as had been the case in the past. Even at fancy restaurants, which once required such women to accompany their employers in order to care for children, can no longer oblige them to wear uniforms "to avoid confusing them with the family,” as they claimed. The new standard, despite all the criticism and possible legal complications, is one of the greatest social achievements in Brazil in many years.

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