Maids’ win impinges on Brazil’s economy

SAO PAULO — Josimayra Ayres is one of the luckier members of Sao Paulo’s army of domestic workers.

While many live in suffocating conditions at their employers’ houses, she works set hours and lives at her own home with her husband.

“We know maids who never leave the house in which they work. They can’t breathe,” she says. “When they do succeed in going out, they come back to a complete mess. The sink is so full there’s nowhere else to put dirty dishes.”

But this week, Brazil’s Senate finally ended entrenched legal discrimination against maids, seen by some as a holdover from slavery in a country that in 1888 was the last large Western country to abandon the trade.

The constitutional amendment, which follows other recent efforts in Brazil to improve the rights of manual workers, including truck drivers, comes as the rise of a new lower middle-class in Brazil is leading to greater pressure for equal rights and an end to informality in the labor market.

For the government of President Dilma Rousseff, this highlights another concern — that these changes to labor practices are coming at an inopportune time. Brazil is already struggling with a slowdown in economic growth accompanied by high inflation.

Under the amended law, maids will for the first time have the right to overtime payments and other benefits, such as severance pay.

“Now with this law, this will become a more attractive job, on par with those in industry,” said Paulo Perrotti, a partner at the legal firm Perrotti and Barrueco Advogados Associados in Sao Paulo.

In Brazil, the number of domestic workers rose from more than 5 million to more than 7 million between 1995 and 2009, according to the International Labor Organization, while in Mexico the number nearly doubled between the 1990s and 2008 to about 1.9 million. In Brazil, black women are also much more likely to be maids than non-blacks, according to the ILO.

Under Brazil’s constitutional amendment, maids’ working hours will be capped at 44 hours a week with overtime for any extra hours. Employers must pay the equivalent of 8 percent of salaries to a workers’ severance indemnity fund, which maids can claim if they are dismissed.

While equal rights for maids is lauded as overdue, there is a concern the changes could slow the formalization of the workforce. Perrotti estimates that only 30 percent of Brazilian maids are registered under the law.

“With this increase in costs, there is a considerable danger that the number of informal situations will increase,” he said.

There is anecdotal evidence that a similar situation has occurred in the trucking industry. Congress passed legislation last year to reduce working hours of the almost 2 million drivers to eight a day and force them to rest for 30 minutes every four hours. But the law has proved impractical to implement, given the lack of rest stops on Brazilian highways and weak enforcement.

“No one has ever mentioned anything to me about it,” said truck driver Mario Rodrigues Pereira of the changes. Parked near Brazil’s chronically congested main port of Santos, he said the authorities never monitor his hours. “If I get a good sleep, I can drive for 14 hours straight,” he said.

Transport companies that have implemented the changes reckon the reduced productivity has increased costs by up to 21 percent, according to research by Brazil Confidential, a research publication of the Financial Times.

The price rises are partly blamed on an overheated labor market, in which unemployment is at record lows. Indeed, by pushing up the cost of domestic workers, the Senate may be inadvertently helping to speed up the eventual decline of the profession.

In big cities such as Sao Paulo, full-time maids are already becoming too expensive for many families and hard to find for those who can afford them, as the strong labor market allows them to migrate to better jobs.

“I think this will be a disappearing trade over the next few years,” said Ilan Goldfajn, chief economist at Itau-Unibanco.

Josimayra Ayres is a case in point. With her secondary school education, it is easy to see her switching to other work, especially if the market for domestic jobs dries up.

“This new law will make it more expensive for bosses,” she says. “I think it’s good for maids but it will become more and more difficult to find work, too.”

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