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Like the United States?

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
May 8, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

When Brazilians remark that their new domestic workers law will eventually make Brazil more like the United States, they mean employing often several nannies, laundresses, and housekeepers at once will soon be a luxury accessible only to the super-rich. In the United States, upper middle class and professional families can generally afford someone to clean their house once or twice a week, perhaps doing some laundry, too. Nannies in the United States also cook and clean, but affording a full-time nanny, at a cost of three to four thousand dollars a month or more, requires either two salaried professionals or one very high income. For the American middle class, nannies and housekeepers are generally out of reach: for these families, parents and kids do all of this work. The lucky ones have grandparents to help with small children, and day care centers, often of questionable quality, for the babies and infants—since maternity leave in the United States at best can be stretched to four months for a federal worker, and as little as three unpaid weeks for a private sector employee.

Brazil ranks number one in the world for domestic workers and the United States ranks tenth. The official numbers, 7.2 million for Brazil and 726,000 for the United States, likely underrepresent the real numbers. But even as Brazil's domestic workers join the formal economy and acquire new skills and jobs, Brazil has a long way to go before the number drops to American levels.

But Brazil has already surpassed the United States by another very important measure. According to the International Labor Organization, next to South Africa's, born out of the wreckage of apartheid, Brazil's new domestic workers law is the most comprehensive and progressive in the world. Most workers in the United States, domestic, professional, service, even the fast-disappearing unionized worker, have nothing like the rights the law guarantees, at least on paper. Only the states of New York and Hawaii have passed legal protections for domestic workers, but not as far-reaching as Brazil's. The state legislatures in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts are considering similar bills, but no federal legislation touches the scope of Brazil's.

The economic and social impact of the law will take time to manifest. The deeper significance, of course, goes back to 1888 and the legacy of slavery in Brazil. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. A civil war and a century later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Over the last half-century, African-Americans have largely left domestic work: Latinas, Filipinas, Africans, and yes, Brazilians, although a small percentage, now fill the ranks. Yet, while Barack and Michelle Obama now live in the house Michelle's ancestors built, the legacy of slavery in the United States is palpable today in disproportionate rates of incarceration, unemployment, child and adult poverty, adult illiteracy, homelessness, and certain diseases. Let's hope Brazilians choose a different path.


This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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