The Brazilian Caregivers Facing Longer Hours, Lower Pay and Compulsory Quarantine

How the pandemic is worsening conditions for the workers who care for Brazil’s elderly.

Isabela Dias and Barbara Barcia

A woman holds a sign reading "Domestic workers deserve respect" during a demonstration in Campinas, Brazil in 2013. Robson B. Sampaio, Flickr

This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on NACLA.

In March, Ros­alia Alves’s work­place became her de fac­to home. The son and daugh­ter of a cou­ple in their late 80s and ear­ly 90s liv­ing in the north­ern Brazil­ian state of Tocan­tins need­ed a care­giv­er and Alves was look­ing for clients.

With the surge in coro­n­avirus cas­es, they pro­posed to Alves that she stayed in their par­ents’ home with lit­tle to no con­nec­tion with the out­side to reduce the risk of infec­tion. Out of sheer neces­si­ty and a sense of duty, Alves took the deal. These days, every­thing that comes our way is a good thing,” she says.

Alves, 56, has been a care­giv­er since her ear­ly twen­ties and is used to the long shifts and ardu­ous work that come with tend­ing to seniors, a call­ing” she’s deeply pas­sion­ate about. But in all those years she had nev­er had to remain in a res­i­den­cy for more than a week at a time with­out a break — until Covid-19 came along. For 90 days straight, Alves did the work once per­formed by three dif­fer­ent employ­ees. The fam­i­ly dis­missed two oth­er employ­ees when the coro­n­avirus out­break hit.

Accounts by domes­tic work­ers of pre­car­i­ous work­ing con­di­tions, arbi­trary pay cuts, lay­offs, and even com­pul­so­ry quar­an­tine have become wide­spread across the coun­try in the past eight months. Although it can be hard to quan­ti­fy it, union lead­ers and labor lawyers defend­ing work­ers’ rights are anec­do­tal­ly report­ing an increase in com­plaints about longer hours and sit­u­a­tions anal­o­gous to false impris­on­ment. Care­givers like Alves, most­ly women of col­or, are employed in upper mid­dle class fam­i­ly homes, and usu­al­ly live in the out­skirts of cities and in fave­las. They have long been among the most vul­ner­a­ble but now are fac­ing an impos­si­ble choice between exploita­tive arrange­ments and risk­ing their liveli­hoods by becom­ing unemployed.

The con­di­tion is take it or leave it,” Luiza Batista, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Domes­tic Work­ers (Fena­trad), says. Those who think twice usu­al­ly submit.”

The man Alves cared for in Tocan­tins demand­ed more atten­tion: She had to get him out of bed, put him in a wheel­chair, bathe him, change his dia­pers and clothes, trans­fer him back to the wheel­chair, feed him break­fast, and move him close to the win­dows for a sun­bath. By the time she was done, it was only lunchtime. On top of the usu­al tasks of a care­giv­er, Alves also cooked and cleaned the house. She was paid a lit­tle under $400 a month, a frac­tion of what her employ­ers put towards the same ser­vices before the pandemic.

Alves says she did­n’t get any days off work, nor was she com­pen­sat­ed for the 12 week­ends she labored away. Her attempts to nego­ti­ate a high­er rate fell on deaf ears. Dur­ing three months, Alves’ inter­ac­tions were lim­it­ed to the cou­ple and the fam­i­ly’s dri­ver, who would take her to check on her own home every eight days for about two hours, after which she went back to look­ing after some­one else’s loved ones full-time.

I treat­ed them as if they were my own par­ents,” Alves says. But when the fam­i­ly asked me to stay for anoth­er month, I said I could­n’t do it any­more. It was just too much.”

Care­givers are part of a fast-grow­ing work­force in Brazil’s pre­dom­i­nant­ly infor­mal care econ­o­my. As the coun­try’s elder­ly pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues on an upward tra­jec­to­ry to sur­pass the num­ber of chil­dren and teens in the next decade, more senior cit­i­zens are like­ly to require assis­tance for every­day neces­si­ties. The pan­dem­ic has only under­scored this demand.

Still, their labor is often made invis­i­ble. Care­givers for the elder­ly and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties weren’t offi­cial­ly deemed essen­tial dur­ing the pub­lic health emer­gency peri­od before July. With lock­down mea­sures restrict­ing tran­sit, many care­givers with­out a for­mal con­tract to prove their employ­ment as essen­tial work­ers strug­gled to access pub­lic trans­porta­tion and need­ed a spe­cial dec­la­ra­tion to get to work in cities like Rio de Janeiro. They also faced addi­tion­al chal­lenges to be made a pri­or­i­ty for Covid-19 test­ing. Oth­ers were fired with­out access to pay or ben­e­fits due to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of falling sick and expos­ing their employ­ers to the coronavirus.

That was the case of Mar­i­ana de Oliveira Alvar­ince who was let go by her employ­er for 20 days after sneez­ing as a result of an aller­gy. With an income based on hours worked, she spent all of her sav­ings to make ends meet.

It’s like a snow­ball: If you work, you earn. If you get sick and can’t show up, you don’t,” she says.

Anoth­er care­giv­er, Van­da Matos Cos­ta lost a recur­ring job she had for three years after refus­ing to take on shifts for two months with no time off. I count­ed on that mon­ey every week and sud­den­ly they called me say­ing I did­n’t have to show up any­more,” Cos­ta says. She has since had to rely on the rough­ly $110 install­ments of the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s emer­gency finan­cial aid for infor­mal work­ers. It’s my only source of income right now.”

Brazil has one of the world’s largest con­tin­gents of domes­tic work­ers with more than six mil­lion peo­ple. Between 2013 and 2015, after years of labor orga­niz­ing, they secured the same rights enjoyed by oth­er work­ers, such as a max­i­mum work­day of eight hours and a 44-hour week, min­i­mum wage, lunch break, and access to social secu­ri­ty. The exist­ing leg­is­la­tion, how­ev­er, has­n’t trans­lat­ed into the reg­u­lar­iza­tion of most domes­tic work­ers and, as of 2018, less than 30 per­cent had estab­lished for­mal employ­ment rela­tion­ships. To make mat­ters worse, that work­force has lost more than 1.2 mil­lion jobs since the begin­ning of the pandemic.

Because employ­ers often do not reg­is­ter these pro­fes­sion­als, they end up hav­ing their rights usurped,” labor lawyer Jales Soares da Sil­va says. This pseu­do-cul­ture that domes­tic work­ers should not have for­mal con­tracts con­tin­ues to prevail.”

That per­sist­ing infor­mal­i­ty con­tributes to dis­cour­ag­ing domes­tic work­ers from report­ing already dif­fi­cult to inves­ti­gate vio­la­tions com­mit­ted by employ­ers as pri­vate actors inside their homes. For care­givers, a hybrid cat­e­go­ry that often ranges from nurs­es pro­tect­ed by a fed­er­al coun­cil to those who only fall under the umbrel­la of domes­tic work, it can be even hard­er to draw the line between accept­able and exploita­tive agreements.

That per­son becomes absolute­ly vul­ner­a­ble,” says Már­cia Soares, lawyer and exec­u­tive direc­tor of Themis, an orga­ni­za­tion address­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against women in the jus­tice sys­tem that recent­ly launched a cam­paign for the rights of domes­tic work­ers dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. It’s an anom­aly because they do a par­tic­u­lar job and often under­go spe­cif­ic train­ing and their work should be rec­og­nized as that of caregivers.”

In 2019, Pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro vetoed a pro­posed bill aimed at for­mal­iz­ing the occu­pa­tion of care­givers and set­ting forth attri­bu­tions and require­ments, includ­ing that they fin­ish ele­men­tary school and take a qual­i­fi­ca­tion course. Bol­sonaro, who as a con­gress­man vot­ed against the con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment on domes­tic work, argued that the leg­is­la­tion would restrict the free­dom of pro­fes­sion­al prac­tice. Even though that bill did­n’t draw unan­i­mous sup­port, most Brazil­ians appear to approve a law to reg­u­lar­ize care­givers, which pro­po­nents argue could also help strength­en their abil­i­ty to orga­nize as workers.

Because of social dis­tanc­ing, many trade union lead­ers and pres­i­dents of local asso­ci­a­tions had to close their offices and move their meet­ings, train­ings, and infor­ma­tion ses­sions about social secu­ri­ty, labor rights, and safe­ty in the work­place online. Thou­sands of care­givers are shar­ing best prac­tices and pass­ing along rec­om­men­da­tions for poten­tial clients on What­sApp and Face­book groups. These sol­i­dar­i­ty net­works also serve as a life­line for work­ers deal­ing with the emo­tion­al toll of hav­ing to rent a hotel room for weeks to avoid infect­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers or being so over­worked and stressed to the point of expe­ri­enc­ing hair loss.

The impacts of the pan­dem­ic on the phys­i­cal and men­tal health of paid care­givers should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed,” says Daniel Gro­is­man, a pro­fes­sor and researcher at the Oswal­do Cruz Foun­da­tion’s Joaquim Venân­cio Poly­tech­nic School of Health. He is cur­rent­ly coor­di­nat­ing the first nation­wide sur­vey on the health and work­ing con­di­tions of both fam­i­ly and paid care­givers dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Ini­tial find­ings from the first month of research based on infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed by almost 3,000 care­givers show that 41 per­cent of paid work­ers saw their income go down and at least a third of them report­ed feel­ing sad or depressed many times.

It’s not pos­si­ble to pro­mote good care with­out also look­ing after those who pro­vide care“It’s not pos­si­ble to pro­mote good care with­out also look­ing after those who pro­vide care,” Gro­is­man said. Brazil has a marked­ly famil­iar régime of care,” he says, in which the state takes lim­it­ed respon­si­bil­i­ty and over­bur­dens indi­vid­u­als. This draws from the notion that care­giv­ing is an expres­sion of female nature, rein­forc­ing gen­der role stereo­types that exploit the unpaid labor of women.

Among Latin Amer­i­can nations, Uruguay stands out for imple­ment­ing nation­al pub­lic poli­cies aimed at fos­ter­ing the right to care for the most vul­ner­a­ble, while also acknowl­edg­ing and chal­leng­ing the ways in which gen­der bias has per­pet­u­at­ed inequal­i­ty in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of that labor. So far in Brazil, bills pro­mot­ing poli­cies for care have by and large failed to gain trac­tion, despite an ever-increas­ing need for them. The last­ing effects of an unchecked pan­dem­ic and eco­nom­ic reces­sion are like­ly to exac­er­bate the care econ­o­my cri­sis, plung­ing domes­tic work­ers like Alves into deep­er infor­mal­i­ty and unemployment.

Alves is always look­ing for work. When­ev­er they call me, I’m ready,” she says. I’m 56 but I can han­dle work. Car­ing for the elder­ly is a del­i­cate thing, you need to have love, patience, humil­i­ty, and health. But it’s also heavy so you have to ded­i­cate your­self to it.” Alves has again received propo­si­tions to care for seniors for long stretch­es of time, but she is now deter­mined to nego­ti­ate bet­ter deals for her­self, whether that looks like high­er com­pen­sa­tion or a for­mal contract.

Even with­out greater knowl­edge, we’re aware of what is hap­pen­ing, of what we’re los­ing,” she says.

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