Though not the the first article to touch on this subject in recent months, and despite the title being slightly misleading in that the overall number of domestic workers hasnt in real numbers decreased, the feature article in this week’s Epoca is one of the better written pieces exploring this social and cultural phenomenon here in Brazil. A series of changes in the national economy and in the values associated with education and different professions now means that more young women from less privileged backgrounds are seeking professions and careers with better prospects than those of their mother’s generation. This also reflect changes in the social classes which traditionally employed domestics – as they are questioning the values behind employing domestics as well as the increasing costs of such employees.
Despite the obvious economic issue underpinning this debate, the question of a shift in societal values is perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion. This must inherently include a consideration of how gender roles are changing in Brazilian society and how relationships to the ‘domestic’ are also changing rapidly. Brazilian men especially of the traditional middle class are not so unlike their European or North American ocunterparts in that they would appear to be suffering from something of an identity crisis at present. Though not directly questioned in the article, i always wonder how Brazilian men (especially those who have partners or wives who work outside of te home) feel about having female domestic workers in their living spaces. As it is often an area of the economy where women employ other women, the role and attitudes of men to the decision-making around domestic work is something which is perhaps not understood or questioned enough. Other studies and newspaper srticles have shown that Brazilian men are increasingly likely to share domestic tasks – but to how this might be changing broader societal attitudes to equality of employment opportunities is perhaps less evident. It was disappointing to see that in a recent UN Human Development Report that Brazil has a level of gender inequality mush worse than most of its South American neighbours and the number of elected female politicians in Brazil is one of the worst in the world.
Although and as the article highlights the real problem is that most domestics were far closer to the slave relationship than real employees – and the ‘them and us’ relationship was paternalistic at best, cruel at worst and in general inefficient and unproductive for the economy. However in a twist which again turns the whole ‘new middle class’ debate on its head, many of the economicall emerging classes now employ domestics themselves and this is what is really causing the squeeze in the labour market. The other interesting factor and one which is close to our hearts because of our ongoing ‘Brasil@Home’ project is the fact that the new dynamics mean that the old model of apartments with a separate space for the domestics – out the back as opposed to the upstairs / downstairs model of Victorian England – is now redundant and most people are reshaping the use of their apartments turning the ‘quarters’ of the maid into a spare storage room.