Maids and Masters
Margolis, Mac, Newsweek
Byline: Mac Margolis
No one has more domestic servants than the Brazilians. But a new law is designed to move those downstairs upward.
Complaining about the hired help in Brazil is as old as the New World. And yet like the nightly telenovela, where the storyline often turns on maids and masters, the comfortable classes can't seem to do without their household staff. No country has more domestic servants than Brazil: some 7.2 million, according to a recent report by the World Labor Organization (or 6.6 million, according to Brazilian government figures). By contrast, India, with five times the population, has 4.2 million paid servants, while the mighty United States employs just 667,000. So it was no surprise that when the legislature recently passed a constitutional amendment granting new rights for millions of domestics, the national chatter in Brazil grew shrill--upstairs and down.
The new law and the tumult it has created say a great deal about the impressive transformations, and growing pains, sweeping Latin America's emerging giant. The law, modestly enough, puts maids, nannies, governesses, gardeners, and drivers on equal footing with wage earners in the general workforce. And yet Brazilian hearth and home may never be the same. While domestics once worked unlimited hours, drew paltry benefits, and could be fired for a trifling, now they are entitled to a maximum eight-hour workday, a month's paid vacation, and a 50 percent bonus for overtime. In addition, employers are hit with a fat fine when they dismiss their workers without cause. Labor leaders, scholars, and politicians hailed the law, which passed without a single dissenting vote, as a second emancipation. …