RIO DE JANEIRO — During the seven years that Nadir Soares worked as a maid in the home of a large family, she started every day before dawn and often ended after 9 p.m. "The next day, get up again, the same thing," Soares, 42, recalled recently.
She made about $45 a month, less than Brazil's minimum monthly wage of $57. One Saturday each month was her only day off. At the end of March, Soares fell ill with high blood pressure and anemia and, after missing several weeks of work, she was fired.
Soares, a thin woman with an air of patient resignation, told her story as she waited to talk with a lawyer about what she could claim as compensation from her former employer. Other women, all maids, also waited.
No Vacation Time
Zilda da Silva, 36, wanted to ask the lawyer if she could demand pay for vacation time she never received during the six years she worked for a family. Maria Cecilia Teixeira, 37, wanted the extra pay she said she was promised for working from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. without a day off for three months.
The lawyer, Rosane Lima Franco, said about 60 maids come to her each week with questions about their legal rights. She said she helps file an average of 40 official demands a week.
"Domestic employees are unprotected, unfairly treated and alienated by the whole society," Franco said.
That is true not only in Brazil but also in most other Latin American countries, where "domestic employees," or maids, are a huge female underclass, numbering in the tens of millions. In some countries, most are Indians or blacks--victims of discrimination not only because of their social class and sex but also because of their race.
But Latin American domestics are increasingly less willing to accept exploitation and miserable wages with docile resignation. Around the region, there are stirrings of discontent in the quarters behind the kitchen as more domestic employees organize to defend their rights and demand their due.
More than just a campaign for labor rights, this growing movement also tackles the injustices of a class structure that has been part of Latin American social fabric for centuries.
Lawyer Franco works with Rio's Professional Assn. of Domestic Workers, an organization that has been struggling since 1960 to improve conditions for maids and other household employees. By most accounts, the struggle made little headway until the national Congress began drafting a new Brazilian constitution in 1987.
The Rio association and similar groups from other cities began a lobbying effort that captured congressional attention. Five times between March, 1987, and September, 1988, maids gathered at the modernistic congressional building in Brasilia to demand that the constitution include basic labor rights for domestic employees.
When the new constitution was promulgated in October, it included such guarantees for maids as monthly pay of at least the legal minimum salary, 30 days' paid vacation a year, a full day off each week, at least 30 days' notice before dismissal, four months' paid maternity leave and the right to organize unions.
The success has put wind in the sails of a maids' movement that, for the first time in Brazil, is organizing on a national level. In January, a convention of nearly 40 local organizations formed a National Council of Domestic Workers.
One of the main goals of the council is to help organize unions that will defend maids' rights and become active in the national labor movement. So far, a dozen domestic workers' unions have been formed.
The maids' movement continues to lobby the Congress for other laws that will give domestic employees such gains as an eight-hour workday and premium pay for overtime. The movement's main ally in Congress is Benedita da Silva, a member of the Chamber of Deputies who once was a maid herself.
Da Silva gives the Brazilian maids' movement full credit for its "conquests" in the new constitution.
"They fought, they struggled for that," she said. "They conquered those rights because they are women who are organizing and are working."
As a result of their unprecedented momentum, maids have become news. At the headquarters of the Rio association, a large bulletin board is filled with clippings of newspaper articles about the movement.
"When was the press ever interested in domestic employees? That is new," said Odette Azevedo Soares, a social worker and long-time adviser to the association. She said publicity has helped raise awareness among the workers themselves.
"They are starting to become aware that they have rights," she declared. "It is an arousing, an awakening to a new reality."
In less than a year, the number of domestics who come to the Rio association for legal advice has increased from 10 or 12 a week to an average of 60. Associations in other Brazilian cities have experienced similar surges. The maids' association in Recife, in Brazil's impoverished northeast, has increased the office hours of its legal adviser from four to 15 a week since October.