“5 and 17 years of age – working without compensation…”
The voice of Creuza Oliveira tells the story of more than nine million Brazilian domestic workers, mostly women, mostly black, for whom slavery is not relegated to the dust piles of history. It is also the story of the revolutionary impact unions and social movements can have on entrenched and systemic injustices.
Born in a family of poor rural workers with no schooling, Oliveira began life as a domestic worker in Bahia when she was a mere 10 years old. Unable to balance work and school, she had to pick work and dropped out of school numerous times.
At work, Oliveira would be beaten and taunted whenever she broke something, often called lazy, monkey, even “nigger”. The physical and psychological abuse was compounded by sexual abuse from the young men in the household where she worked. To top it all off, Oliveira was not paid.
“I only started to receive a salary as a domestic worker when I was 21,” she told a gathering on the sidelines of the Durban Review Conference at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. “Until that age, my payment was in used clothes and food. I did not have a right to vacations or any basic workers rights.”
At age 14, her employers took her to Sao Paulo to work, without any authorisation from her relatives in Bahia.
Such was Oliveira’s life until she heard on the radio about meetings of domestic workers fighting for their rights. She attended one meeting and thus began her evolution from a suffering young woman with low confidence into a leader in the fight for the rights of blacks, for women and for domestic workers.
“Almost half a million domestic workers in Brazil are children and teenagers between 5 and 17 years of age – working without compensation, as slaves,” she said.
“Domestic work in my country still carries the legacy of slavery: lack of application of relevant laws, physical and moral violence, lack of recognised rights vis-à-vis other professions, lack of union rights, and so on.”
Oliveira is now President of the National Federation of Domestic Workers in Brazil and active in the Unified Black Movement and the Women’s Movement. She told of numerous changes in her country’s policies since she attended the 2001 World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Federal departments have been established to promote racial and gender equality, the organisation of domestic workers has gained visibility and there have been important victories in the recognition of property rights and on issues including domestic violence.
Domestic workers are now guaranteed, by law, rest days and vacation days as well as job security for pregnant women. Employers are prohibited from deducting housing and food expenses from their salaries and there is construction of public housing for domestic workers. Legislation prohibiting domestic work for children and teenagers under 18 years of age has also been recently signed into law by the President.
Oliveira says the situation for domestic workers has certainly improved with such laws and more access to redress, but the problem lies in implementing these laws, as domestic work is carried out in private households. Article 7 of the Constitution also still explicitly excludes domestic workers from various labour standards.
She is well aware of the fact that racism is about power relations and that domestic workers for the most part have low self-esteem. Independent expert for minority issues, Gay McDougall, who moderated the discussion, noted that it was very difficult to secure the labour rights of domestic workers and that this was not a problem unique to Brazil.
Oliveira also referred to broader issues causing the perpetuation of racism in her country, including the media, songs that diminish women and encourage violence, TV shows that trivialise sexual abuse and depict black women as being ignorant, and the use of sexualised images of black women in the tourism industry.