Valdecir Pedreira do Nascimento is giving young domestic workers in Brazil the confidence and skills to stand up for their rights. Her comprehensive program integrates education, media, and the law in an effort to professionalize domestic work and open up opportunities for Brazilian youth.
The New Idea
As part of her long fight for racial and gender equity in Brazil, Valdecir has created an educational and citizenship-building program to combat the exploitation of young black domestic workers. Her program provides training and educational opportunities for young girls, works with employers to professionalize working environments, and mobilizes the media to recognize the problem of domestic workers' exploitation, particularly child labor.
Valdecir empowers young domestic workers to exercise their rights and become articulators of a new form of domestic work that is respected and valued economically and socially. The girls themselves become protagonists in educating other domestic workers about their rights. They also become key players in a campaign directed at employers and society in general to humanize domestic workers, guarantee their rights, and valorize the profession. At the same time, the program provides other opportunities for the girls to open their horizons and gives them tools to improve their quality of life and achieve their own goals and dreams.
According to a recent study and publication by UNIFEM, five million women in Brazil make a living as domestic workers. Most receive less than minimum wage (R$180) or less than US$50 per month. Only 24 percent have working papers and receive any form of benefits. These factors indicate that domestic workers, nearly exclusively women, are among the lowest economically valued workers in the economy and face exploitation and job insecurity. The deeper problem that reinforces the economic vulnerability of domestic workers is the overall denigration of domestic work as a profession throughout Brazilian society. Many factors contribute to this, including domestic work's relation to unremunerated "woman's work" in the home, an over-personalized employer-employee relationship, isolation of workers within separate homes, and lack of professional qualifications for domestic workers. Overall, the lack of value placed on the millions of women who make a living through domestic work leads to more profound problems: social invisibility, exclusion from spheres of power, and lack of privacy and dignity. In spite of this grim reality, domestic work is the largest profession among women in Brazil.
The profile of domestic workers, particularly in the north and northeast regions of Brazil, is one of young and predominantly black women. Coming from poor neighborhoods in the periphery of large cities, many girls start young as au pairs and maids to help sustain their families. Many come with illusions of finding better educational and professional opportunities but soon get absorbed into their "new family" where long hours and low pay impede their chances for completing even a basic education. Some are taken into families as an act of "charity"; girls are often treated as servants, their psychological and educational needs neglected. The attack on their self-esteem is more insidious in that they often live under the illusion that they are part of the family but in fact are never treated as an equal member. Their position in society is vulnerable both economically and socially because of compounded prejudices based on their gender, age, class, and color.
Until recently, the problem of child labor among domestic work has gone unnoticed. Studies in the last few years conducted by UNICEF and the International Labor Organization estimate that there are approximately 500,000 children and adolescent domestic workers in Brazil. Furthermore, there is a higher concentration of black children and adolescents among domestic workers than any other activity using child labor in the country. In the Northeast region, this figure is particularly high. Seventy-three percent of young domestic workers are black.
In the metropolitan region of Salvador, there are at least 5,000 domestic workers below the age of 14, and over 12,000 between the ages of 14 and 17. Domestic work is the principal occupation (27 percent) for working children and adolescents. This group of workers maintains the lowest percentage of school attendance at 52 percent, an especially disturbing figure compared to other occupations among children and compared with the total average of school attendance in the metropolitan region of 92 percent. Domestic work among children and adolescents also correlates to grade repetition with 22 percent of young workers in school having repeated at least one grade. Furthermore, this group of young domestic workers is almost exclusively girls, receiving the lowest pay at an average of R$82.00/month compared to R$90.00 for other workers in their age group.
In the last 20 years, domestic workers' associations and unions have been formed in cities and states across Brazil to help enforce minimum wage laws and denounce labor violations for domestic workers. But the organizations fail to address the fundamental problem: inhumanization and undervaluing of domestic workers in society. Their approach has neither improved the working relationship between domestic worker and employer nor managed to effectively promote education and qualification in order to create a more dignified and professional way of life for domestic workers.
To promote the education, employment, and overall quality of life for domestic workers, Valdecir is building on a progression of initiatives she developed as part of the program CEAFRO, an organization linked to the Center for Asian and African Studies of the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador. Valdecir began her work by addressing the low educational levels of black youth and developing educational and professional training activities to serve them. With a team of volunteer professionals, Valdecir created programs to improve the quality of education for black youth. The first program, started in 1997, provides young people between 16 and 21 who are behind in school or have not completed their basic schooling with tools to accelerate and graduate. The methodology involves accelerated learning and practical application of the fundamental subjects within a framework that promotes black culture and identity. The goal is to build the students' self-esteem and increase their school success rates. A second program focusing on professional training for youth 16 to 22 provides qualification and re-qualification in various occupations so students can enter the job market at respectable and fair salaries. This program also attempts to engage employers in combating racial discrimination in the workplace.
After realizing that young domestic workers have a special set of needs, Valdecir developed a new program at CEAFRO for this population, using her previous programs' focus of education, self-esteem building, and professional development. In collaboration with the Domestic Worker's Union and with support from UNICEF, the program–"Expanding Rights and Horizons"–is aimed at guaranteeing the rights of young domestic workers, professionalizing the working relationship, and opening up new educational and professional opportunities for the students.
Valdecir and her team visit schools, night courses, community centers, and churches to spread information about the project and attract young black domestic workers. At the start of the program, students begin an awareness-raising process and self-reflection about what it means to be a young, black, female domestic worker. This phase aims to recover and strengthen each girl's identity and self-esteem. The second phase involves understanding domestic work as a profession, recognizing its economic importance but relative invisibility and lack of qualification. Students receive training to improve and professionalize their work. At this stage, students are taught about the labor laws that employees must comply with under penalty of law and are introduced to organizations that fight for the rights of workers, including domestic workers unions and associations that provide legal assistance and support to domestic workers. They learn how to voice their rights and how to share this information with others.
Valdecir has also introduced mechanisms to involve the employers directly in the process of improving the working conditions and respect for domestic workers. CEAFRO holds meetings involving both the patroas, or employers, and the adolescents' mothers, to begin to sensitize employers of their employees' human condition and the need to respect their humanity as well as their rights. The aim is to create a more professional relationship between worker and employer, reducing the number of girls living at their employer's home, a factor that makes them more isolated, invisible, and vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse.
As its name suggests, the program begins by expanding the girls' rights and continues by expanding their horizons. In the third stage, new professional opportunities are offered through training courses in computer science, telemarketing, and college entrance exams preparation. These courses create study incentives and expand the girls' employment possibilities to give them the tools to choose their own future, whether it be a more qualified, professional domestic worker, another profession, or university graduate. In a fourth stage, the girls use their collective voice to denounce and protest the exploration of domestic workers, bringing the human side of this invisible profession to the public eye. The girls become the program's multipliers and educators, creating materials, including a 47-page teaching guide on the rights and responsibilities of domestic workers. The guide, made by and for domestic workers, deals with labor rights, children and adolescent rights, education laws, and forms of sexual violence in the workplace. Throughout all of the program's stages, the students gain new tools to help them reorder and recreate their personal and professional life plans with the understanding that they have a right to a dignified life.
Since 1999, the project has attended to 200 adolescent domestic workers between the ages of 16 and 18 with increasing number of students per year. To coordinate and sustain the program, Valdecir works in collaboration with the Domestic Workers Union of Bahia that created a workgroup to deal specifically with this project. With the enthusiasm of UNICEF and the support of the National Federation of Domestic Workers, Valdecir plans to replicate the program in other capital cities of the North and Northeast. Her idea is to offer the program as an opportunity for domestic workers associations and unions to enrich their work and address the fundamental lack of respect and visibility of the profession.
Now that she has developed the methodology of what needs to be done, Valdecir is moving into a second strategy that will engage the media in this effort. She has begun to increase the visibility of the girls through a media campaign. The campaign is based on documentation and research conducted by the program to register statistics, indicators, and stories of domestic workers. Valdecir is engaging other citizen sector organizations including women's groups and member organizations of the black movement to collaborate in a network to combat the exploitation of young domestic workers and spread her idea throughout the region and throughout Brazil.
Her third strategy is to tackle the issue from a legal angle. Proving that child labor exists in these cases is the first step in this strategy; showing what can be done about it comes next. Valdecir will continue with her strategy to change the public's mind and pressure politicians to act until the problem is resolved.
Valdecir grew up in the poor neighborhood of Uruguai on the periphery of Salvador. She was inspired by strong women in her family and became involved early on in the struggle for human rights and equality. She was active in ecumenical youth church groups and developed initiatives to promote education and social inclusion of black youth. She excelled as a mobilizer and educator, working as a teacher of literacy and history while leading in citizenship-building projects.
Her years of experience in the black rights movement and women's rights organizations exposed her to the situation of exploitation and violence that characterizes domestic work. She began to collaborate with the Domestic Worker's Union to create solutions to this problem.
Valdecir has acted as coordinator of citizenship programs and is currently the general coordinator in a program focused on education for black youth. Through this work, she has created a series of innovative programs to address the educational and professional development of black youth with the aim of promoting racial and gender equality. Building on this long trajectory marked by sacrifice, Valdecir has now expanded her own horizons to address the rights and much-needed respect of domestic workers in Brazil.