In Brazil, domestic workers’ children demand dignity for domestic workers!

“Domestic workers replaced black house slaves as markers of class differences and power in Brazilian society.”   Maurício Sellmann Oliveira

As of May 5, Brazil leads Latin America in both reported cases of Covid-19 – 110, 156 cases – and reported deaths, 7,458Brazil has almost as many cases of Covid-19 as Peru, Ecuador and Mexico combined. Domestic workers form the center and fiber of this necro-narrative. Brazil has more domestic workers than any other country in the world, seven million and counting. Almost all are women, and the overwhelming majority are women of African descent. In January 2018, Brazil officially ratified the ILO’s Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers, according some protections to those with more or less permanent appointments. That accord left out the millions of women of color who work by the day. That was before Jair Bolsonaro became President, before the coronavirus pandemic, before the attempt to shred all protections for workers, women, women workers. On March 17, 63-year old Cleonice Gonçalves, a domestic worker in the wealthy Rio neighborhood of Leblon, died of Covid-19. Cleonice Gonçalves was the first Covid-19 fatality in Rio da Janeiro and the fifth in Brazil. Around the same time, Cleonice Gonçalves died, Juliana França – daughter of a domestic worker and goddaughter of a domestic worker, teacher and actress, resident of Rio da Janeiro – began an online petition, “Manifesto by the daughters and sons of domestic workers”, demanding health and labor protections for all domestic workers, demanding concrete and material dignity and respect for all domestic workers. Juliana França started the campaign in the name of her mother, Catarina dos Santos. The Brazilian chapter of the Coronavirus epic is a giant triangle, and at the respective apexes are Cleonice Gonçalves, Juliana França, and Catarina dos Santos.

Cleonice Gonçalves’s story is all too familiar. She worked as a live-in maid four days a week, in the Leblon neighborhood of Rio da Janeiro, a neighborhood reputed to be the most expensive real estate in the country. She’d travel two hours to the working-class suburb of Miguel Pereira. She worked for the same family for decades. Her employers went on a trip to Italy and came back suspecting they had contracted Covid-19. They were tested immediately. They never informed Cleonice Gonçalves. Why would they? On March 13, Cleonice Gonçalves complained of pain while urinating, and went to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and sent her back to work. Cleonice Gonçalves was diabetic and lived with high blood pressure. On March 15, Cleonice Gonçalves began having trouble breathing. She went to the hospital and, again, was sent back to work. Her employers continued to remain silent about their own suspicions concerning their health. Her condition continued to deteriorate, her employers continued to tell her nothing. On March 16, hearing of Cleonice Gonçalves’s situation, her family sent a taxi and brought her home. On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves died. On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves’s employers’ test result came back: positive. The employers are now thriving. End of story.

Juliana França decided another story is possible. Juliana França’s 57-year-old mother and 75-year-old godmother have work histories similar to that of Cleonice Gonçalves. Working class live-in maids who travel long distances from working class suburbs to upscale neighborhoods, both have worked decades for their current employers. When the pandemic struck, both women’s respective employers insisted that they should continue working. The pandemic? Nothing serious, overblown, listen to the President. Juliana França understood the pressures on her mother and godmother and all the women like them, and so she created the manifesto, “For the lives of our mothers”, demanding paid quarantine leave, health benefit protections, worker protections. Juliana França has also created a network that is linking domestic workers to donors. When Juliana França’s mother, Catarina dos Santos, showed the petition to her employers, they gave her paid leave.

As elsewhere, the story of Covid-19 in Brazil is a story of violent inequality, inequality that structured national and community lives prior to the pandemic and has intensified within the pathological onslaught. At the same time, it is the story of women, overwhelmingly women of color, refusing to accept abuse, for themselves and for their loved ones, refusing to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Remember the martyrdom of Cleonice Gonçalves and remember the Great Refusal of Juliana França and Catarina dos Santos. After too many martyrs, it’s time, it’s way past time, for enforced decent work for domestic workers now! Please consider signing the petition, here.

(Image Credit: Change)