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Class divides

Wealthy maids

by Wanda Steindorf
Brazil’s upper class families pay well for domestic help. They want their villas to be cleaned, their gardens tended and their children well taken care of, so opportunities arise for poor women. As Wanda Steindorf from Rio de Janeiro reports, some of them earn more money serving rich households than people who have university degrees do in their jobs. Recent legislation protects the rights of domestic servants. Interview with Wanda Steindorf

You give cooking lessons to employees of private households in Brazil. What exactly are you doing?
I am a qualified chef and have been training private cooks for eight years. In my classes, they learn how to cook healthy food which is low in fat and sugar. The participants mostly work for very wealthy families who want to eat better and are prepared to pay for their cooks’ advanced training. This concept has been very successful. Most participants are happy to take the courses. I have already appeared on TV, explaining healthy diets and exercise. I have also published a cook book.

The women who attend your courses work in private households. What is their background?
Many of them are from the North of Brazil – from Recife, Paraiba or Bahia –, where there is very little work, and if there are jobs, they are very poorly paid. The others come from the favelas, Brazil’s marginalised urban areas. Rio de Janeiro is full of favelas; a vast area begins right behind my office, for example. They are women with little education and have to work for their livelihoods.

Is it normal for these women to go to work?
In their social environment, it goes without saying that they have to earn money just like men do. The men work mostly in low-qualified jobs, for example as drivers, which provides an income of € 600 at best. Furthermore, children from the age of 15 or 16 on have to contribute to their families’ income too. However, many women are single mothers. They have to provide for themselves and their children.

In many regions of Latin America, the working conditions are appalling for domestic ser­vants. In what conditions do the participants in your courses work?
These women work for very wealthy families. These families usually have a cook, a cleaner and washer as well as one nanny per child. In these homes, the domestic helpers earn well. They generally work five days a week in the household and go home at the weekend. During the week, however, they have to leave their children with their grandparents or mother-in-law.

So the women can only go home on the weekend – that’s tough.
All the same, they often have a better life at their place of work. The women work around 12 hours a day during the week. That may sound a lot, but they would typically have to work much longer hours at home. At home, moreover, they usually have poor-quality beds and share small apartments with entire extended families. In the rich households, by contrast, there are always one or two rooms for the maids, which are furnished with large beds and good television sets, and there is often a TV set and radio in the kitchen too. This means they can watch the popular novelas, the Brazilian soap operas, in the evening, which they wouldn’t have the time to do at home. Sometimes the family they work for even takes them along on vacation trips – to Disneyland, to their holiday home in Miami or to Europe. Of course this only applies to the upper class. The middle class houses are more sparsely furnished and they do not go on luxurious holidays.

By contrast, what kind of work do the home owners do?
They are educated women who make a good living. One of my clients is an architect, another a dentist and another a company manager. One even owns a children’s toys business. Sometimes men who are single or divorced and depend on paid domestic help turn to me too.

It seems to be a matter of course that the women of the upper class go to work and leave their house in the care of strangers.
Yes, absolutely. After all, they are well educated and often work even better than men. They normally graduate from college at the age of 23, then they go on to do a Masters degree and start professional work at the age of 26 or 27. In earlier times, women sometimes had to struggle when they wanted to do paid work. But today, they enjoy equal rights, at least in principle.

The women who meet in the households, the employer and the employee, have very different backgrounds. Do they understand how the other one lives?
The maids do not always know exactly what their employer’s job entails. But they know it is important work. Of course, the home owner has a rough idea of what their servants do. Privately, some are very close, while others have very little to do with one another. Most maintain a kind and friendly relationship, but they are not friends.

The living arrangements of the maids seem to be relatively comfortable. Are they also paid appropriately?
A cook in a wealthy household receives about € 600 per month and if she is good she can even earn up to € 1,000. This is a very good wage for the women who mostly have no education whatsoever and are often even illiterate. Nannies are not only well paid but also have an enjoyable job because there are often several in one household and they can look after the children together. This is different in the middle class. Here the maids have to do all the duties that may crop up in the household and they only earn € 300 to € 400 per month.

Is this a high or low income for Brazil?
Take my daughter as a comparison: She is a designer with a university degree and speaks four languages. She works eight to nine hours per day, six days a week, and she earns € 250 a month. The minimum wage for domestic servants is currently € 200, in other words, only slightly less. Being a domestic servant is really not a bad job!

Is the minimum wage always paid?
Working conditions for maids used to be very poor, but a law concerning domestic servants has been in force for a number of years in Brazil. They are now entitled to an extra month’s salary, one month of paid leave and health insurance. They record their salary and insurance in an employment record book. If they are not paid correctly, the employee can go to court with the book and sue their employer. For that reason, almost all employers do in fact make the required payments.

Many maids are illiterate, yet they earn relatively good money. Does their children’s education matter to them?
Yes, certainly. They set great store by their children attending school, even though the quality of teaching at public schools is very poor and does not necessarily enable the students to get a good job. My own domestic servant, for example, only attended school for two years and can hardly read or write. Her son has a much better education: He is now 15 years old and still goes to school. All the same, he will probably earn less than she does.

Is education of such little value?
No, there are some positive examples: One of the women who attended my course recently passed the entrance examination to study law and now attends university alongside her work. She wants to become a lawyer and would certainly earn more in that profession. Her employer is supporting her.

Questions by Eva-Maria Verfürth.