RIO DE JANEIRO – Nivea dos Santos got her first job as a live-in maid at age 12, dusting, vacuuming, ironing and polishing the silver of a wealthy Rio de Janeiro family from dawn until she'd fall, exhausted, into bed. More than two decades later, Brazil has passed legislation aimed at preventing such abuses.
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The landmark domestic workers law, passed as a constitutional amendment last year and strengthened this month, aims to extend some of Brazil's generous labor protections to the more than 6 million maids, nannies, eldercare givers, gardeners and caretakers who work in privates homes — many toiling long hours for little or, in some cases, no pay.
For some, it's been a boon. Live-in nanny Eliane Soares Lemes said she would have left domestic work if it weren't for the legislation. After decades of working off the books, the 34-year-old was legally registered for the first time — meaning she now enjoys benefits such as paid transportation to and from work, paid vacation days and an annual "13th month" pay bonus that have long been sacrosanct for other Brazilian workers.
"It's given me a feeling of security," Lemes said at the park in Rio's upper middle class Flamengo neighborhood where she often takes her 4-year-old charge. "I feel respected."
For others, such as dos Santos, it has meant the loss of a job, because her employer balked at having to limit work days to eight hours or shell out overtime pay.
"After seven years working in his home, my boss at the time told me he wasn't going to comply with the new law and he let me go me, just like that," said the 35-year-old mother of three.
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Even so, it has ended up working out in her case. She got a job with a commercial cleaning company, servicing offices. "Now that I know my rights and I work according to the law, I pray to god I will never have to work in another home again," she said.
The full impact of the law is hard to measure because informal work is not reported to the government, but experts estimate 300,000 domestic workers have lost their jobs as a result of the legislation, said Mario Avelino, who heads the Rio-based Instituto Domestica Legal, a nonprofit that lobbies for increased legal protection for maids.
Nevertheless, Avelino hails the law as a great advance.
"It challenged the culture of slavery that persists here in Brazil, inside people's homes," he said. "There's always been this acceptance that if a person works in your home, they somehow don't deserve the same rights that all other workers in Brazil have."
Legislation passed this month put teeth in the constitutional amendment by allowing fines of several hundred dollars against employers who fail to register domestic workers, though Avelino said the effect is blunted by another part of Brazil's constitution that bars authorities from inspecting private homes without the owners' permission.
He said it appears most employers aren't obeying the new laws, which cover only people who work more than three days a week in the same home.
Live-in domestic laborers were long a fixture of all but the poorest households in Brazil, where it's rare to find even small, modest apartments without a designated "service area" for domestic workers to sleep and bathe.
That's changing. With the increasing formalization of domestic work and the improving fortunes of the desperately poor who traditionally filled such jobs, it's getting harder for families to find and afford live-in help. Pay for live-in domestic workers ranges roughly from $320 to around $700 a month in Rio, although Avelino estimates that nationwide some 35,000 domestic workers are still in conditions of semi-slavery, laboring for room and board but little or no pay.
Tens of millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty over the past decade by government aid programs and economic growth, and census figures show the number of domestic workers was slipping sharply even before the legislation went into effect. Women who in the past would have had little choice but to become maids are now finding jobs as cashiers, manicurists or sales clerks.
Still, many people have no alternative to domestic work, and remain off the books. Lemes, the live-in nanny, estimated that only about 20 percent of her fellow childcare providers have been registered as a result of the law.
"I know a lot of women who still are irregular, who are still exploited by their bosses. It's not a problem of ignorance. By now they know they have the right to be registered. But they're afraid that if they stick up for their rights, the boss will just find someone else. And they figure it's better to have irregular work than no work at all."