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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Mon Feb 28 07:24:27 2000
Date: Fri, 25 Feb 2000 08:45:53 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: LABOUR-BRAZIL: Overdue, Incomplete Rights for Domestics
Article: 89790
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Overdue, Incomplete Rights for Domestics

By Mario Osava, IPS, 21 February 2000

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 21 (IPS) - Domestic workers deprived of their labour rights are an institution in Brazil, a holdover from the days of slavery, abolished in 1888.

But an attempt to transfer that relationship between families and their household staff, all too common in Brazil, to the United States got Brazilian engineer René Bonnetti into trouble when he was arrested in Gaithersburg on the outskirts of Washington DC, on charges of holding Hilda dos Santos as a slave.

The 65-year-old Black woman, who did not speak English and was in the United States as an illegal alien, worked for the Bonnetti family for 20 years with no pay. But she filed charges in a US court three weeks ago, demanding one million dollars in compensation.

Margarida Bonnetti escaped arrest because she had flown to Brazil. She is also charged with beating Dos Santos. Incidents of physical abuse led neighbours to get involved and to the filing of charges by Dos Santos.

Returning to the United States could cost Margarida five to eight years in prison, the same sentence her husband is facing, scheduled to be handed down in May.

But in Brazil, there are many Hildas submitted to violence, abuse and racism, working in captivity, as semi-slaves, said Ana Simeao, president of the Federation of Domestic Workers, founded three years ago in Campinas, near Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city.

Many domestics are women who have left their poor home regions, such as the impoverished north and northeast, drawn by the possibility of higher wages in the large cities in southern Brazil, Simeao pointed out.

Most live in conditions similar to those of Hilda dos Santos, sleeping in tiny airless rooms - in the stifling heat of Brazil - and working seven days a week.

The local architecture keeps the old traditions alive. In fact, smaller and smaller quarters are designed for the household staff, with rooms averaging less than four square metres and having tiny or no windows at all, even in the most upscale houses and apartments.

According to government statistics, there are around five million domestic workers in Brazil - a country of over 161 million - around six percent of whom are men. But just 1.2 million have labour contracts ensuring limited rights.

One recent gain by domestics involves a right enjoyed by wage- earners in the formal economy for the past 35 years.

As of Mar 1, a Guarantee Fund for Time of Service will entitle domestics to an additional eight percent on top of the wages paid by their employers, to be made available if they are fired or want to retire, purchase a home or get married.

However, the recently enacted legislation entitling domestics to that benefit did not make it mandatory, but optional, which means servants will continue depending on the goodwill of their employers.

It resolves nothing. We will have to keep fighting for approval of a bill introduced in Congress 11 years ago, said Simeao.

It is a pity it is not obligatory, agreed Benedita da Silva, Deputy Governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro and the sponsor of that bill, shelved since she submitted it in 1989, when she was one of Brazil's few Black female parliamentarians.

But in the view of Hildete Pereira de Melo with the Institute of Applied Economic Research, a government planning agency, even though it is optional, it represents a step forward.

The advances made by domestic workers have been tardy in arriving, which reflects a societal vision that does not recognise the importance of domestic labour, said the economist, the author of several studies on the question.

Although only a small minority of domestic workers will initially benefit from the Guarantee Fund, it represents a step towards social recognition of domestic labour, according to Melo.

Domestic workers began organising in trade unions 40 years ago. Their first triumph, a working contract providing labour benefits for servants, dates back to 1974. But so far only one quarter of domestics have such a contract, although the percentage is growing slowly but steadily, said Melo.

Another indicator of the advances made by the movement was a collective labour contract recently signed by a union of domestic workers forcing employers to respect the rights of domestics in Maca and nearby municipalities, 190 kms from Rio de Janeiro - something that many better organised workers have not achieved.

But it is difficult to organise domestic workers, said Simeao, who pointed out that in Campinas only 800 of a total of more than 30,000 are affiliated with the trade union. And in nearby Sao Paulo, where the number of domestics is estimated at around 400,000, the union has just over 1,000 members.

Heavy social discrimination compounds the difficulties. In Campinas only two men joined the union, but not as active members, while chauffeurs - generally men - refuse to consider themselves domestic workers, she said.