“My idiot maid waits till I have dirtied five blouses, then washes them all at once. She’s an imbecile.”
“I asked the maid where my tablet was and she pointed to the Kindle, the ignorant creature.”
“I hate it when my maid cleans the living room. She always unplugs the wi-fi, the whore.”
Delving into the timeline of Brazilian Twitter account @aminhaempregada is a sobering experience, like eavesdropping on hundreds of conversations taking place in every far-flung corner of the country.
The account was created in May to aggregate and retweet posts using the term a minha empregada (my maid) or the word empregada (maid). “That idiot”, “that slut”, “the lazy whore” are some of the choice phrases that show up alongside the words minha empregada. Another favourite is filha da puta (daughter of a whore) or – because on Twitter, every character counts – more often just “fdp”.
“I think the most offensive tweets are the racist ones,” says the account’s creator and curator, a young marketing professional who prefers to remain anonymous. “I remember one that said something like: ‘My maid was supposed to wash my trainers and she hasn’t done it, the dirty macaca [monkey]’. Some people feel at extraordinary liberty to speak freely on the internet.”
On Twitter, with its relatively elite group of users, there’s no a minha patroa (my boss) equivalent so the other side of the story can be heard, and very few posts by domestic workers themselves in response to @aminhaempregada.
Some children of maids reply. “My mother is a maid, but they treat her so well I never imagined there were people who disrespected maids like this,” wrote one of @aminhaempregada’s thousands of followers. A male domestic worker wrote: “I’m north-eastern, black, a domestic worker and poor. No one knows how we suffer.” His voice is the exception.
Lack of public voice
Type empregada doméstica into a search engine and the results are mainly agencies or information on employers’ responsibilities. That lack of a public voice mirrors the social isolation of maids in the workplace, especially for live-in employees.
There are thought to be some nine million domestic employees working in the country, and the man behind @aminhaempregada, like millions of Brazilians of even slightly affluent means, was raised by a succession of maids himself. “I loved our maids,” he said. “I still have the vinyl record one of them gave me for my birthday when I was a child. It’s one of my treasured possessions.” Still shocked daily by the tweets that show up in his search feeds, he explains how in Brazil even the term “my maid” is loaded and that was what gave him the idea of searching Twitter for it.
“The term is not technically wrong – of course people say ‘my doctor’, ‘my dentist’, but the phrase ‘my maid’ had always made me feel uncomfortable when I hear it.” The term has a proprietorial ring to it: domestic service is a sensitive subject in Brazil, where the scars of slavery still run deep. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 4.86-million African slaves were shipped to Brazil from the mid-1500s until the late 1800s, compared to 388 000 shipped directly to North America.
Tightening up the law
A constitutional amendment was passed in March last year to establish a range of rights for domestic employees, including the right to an eight-hour day, extra pay for working overtime and at night, and basic health and safety guarantees. The amendment, presented by Benedita da Silva, a member of Congress and a former domestic servant herself, is expected to be consolidated this year with a second raft of legislation dealing with some of the thornier issues needed to bring the rights of domestic employees into line with those of the rest of Brazilian workers.
There is a debate in Congress over whether the employers of domestic workers will have to shoulder the same financial responsibilities, when firing their employees, as companies.
Carlos Alberto Pinto de Carvalho is an employment lawyer and a partner in the start-up Webhome, a website providing legal advice for domestic employers. He supports the legislation and its effect of formalising the relationship between maids and their employers.
“It mainly serves to guarantee payment for overtime and nights,” he says. “But it also sends a message to employers that they run the risk of being fined and empowers employees to speak up for themselves.”
A lack of reliable information, however, means that the ability to speak up is complicated for domestic employees, many of whom have limited education and lack the resources to find out about new rights and legislation.
“A friend of mine told me about the new law for domestic workers,” says Valdenes Lopes de Oliveira (43), who has worked as a maid since she was 17. “She saw something about it on the daytime news.”
Does she think the government has a duty to find ways to divulge the information about domestic employees’ new rights?
“I think the press does,” she says. “I am only able to watch the news in the evening, and I’ve never seen it reported there at all. They should report it more, so everyone can see it.”
As a result of her friend’s information, Lopes informed her employer that she was now legally entitled to a lunch break.
“She said I could have 15 minutes for a sandwich, but I told her I need at least 30 minutes. I need a proper meal at lunchtime,” says Lopes. A cooked lunch underpinned by rice and beans is a non-negotiable part of the day for most Brazilian workers. “I don’t know how long we’re allowed by law,” Lopes continues. “Could you find out and let me know?”
The law, says Pinto de Carvalho, allows for an hour’s break for lunch in an eight-hour working day.
“My sister says: ‘Why don’t you train to be a hairdresser?'” says Lopes. “But I like the job – I like the people I work for.” For a younger generation of women who might previously have become maids, rising affluence and initiatives like the government’s Bolsa Familia programme, which distributes cash benefits to millions of families on low incomes, has created new opportunities.
“Nobody wants to be a maid anymore,” says Lopes. One friend of hers has left domestic service to study to become a teacher, and many of the other younger women she knows are busy pursuing careers and studies in areas like IT, hairdressing and nursing.
Meanwhile, for thousands of families accustomed to having their every need met by a servant, the prospect of having to do their own housework looms. A headline in a recent feature in Bonde, a Brazilian news and entertainment website, is a harbinger of the changes afoot: “No maid? Read on to find out how to keep your home clean and tidy yourself.”
This article was first published in the quarterly Index on Censorship magazine. Claire Rigby is a freelance journalist based in Brazil. She is a co-founder of Fluxo, an experimental journalism studio in downtown São Paulo.