Larissa Cristina Margarido
Contextualizing the Problem:
Care Work during the Covid-19 Pandemic
One of the main effects of the pandemic caused by the New Coronavirus (Covid-19) – or, more specifically, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) – worldwide was the disclosure and worsening of multiple dimensions of pre-existing inequalities. In Brazil, asymmetries of race, gender, and class – among many others – have been reinforced by old and new forms of social production and reproduction, affecting mainly Black women. In addition to social markers of difference affecting the position of these female professionals in the capitalist market, they also influence vulnerability factors for the infection and coping with Covid-19.
The Brazilian sociologists Márcia Lima, Ian Prates, and Caio Jardim Sousa explained that the pandemic not only generated a crisis that reproduces and intensifies the patterns of inequalities in Brazil but also created mechanisms that demand a closer look at “how” inequalities deepen at this moment. The intersectionality of a series of marginalisations, which, in the Brazilian case, focus mainly around social markers of gender, race, class, and territoriality – with the concentration of Black, indigenous and, immigrant female populations, mostly poor, in peripheral regions, without access to public health, security, education, transportation, or basic sanitation services – affects not only the position of these women in the labor market but also their ability to cope with the consequences of Covid-19.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an evident intensification of the perverse consequences of the sexual division of labor for women in three simultaneous ways: in the private realm, (i) the increase of the overload of care and domestic unpaid work; in the public realm, (ii) the unstable balance between the promotion of care and domestic paid work as essential in some states and households, and (iii) the escalation of professional fragility and unemployment resulting of the disproportionate insertion of women, and particularly Black women, in such labor markets, which are particularly affected by the contraction in economic activity and the policies of social distancing. As explained by the economist Amaia Pérez Orozo, care work refers to:
activities that regenerate the physical and emotional well-being of people on a daily and generational basis. They can be carried out in the sphere of the State, the market, the home, the community… They cover the tasks of direct care (interaction between people), of the establishment of the preconditions of care (tasks of a more material nature associated with the idea of domestic work), of mental management (organization, supervision, and planning) and of presence (time of availability).
Care work is the basis of the capitalist economy we live in, as it permits that we provide the labor market with a workforce below its real cost since the energy and time spent by women in the social reproduction of this workforce are not only disregarded, but also belittled by capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation.
According to Nancy Fraser, the present regime of social reproduction and economic production in capitalism’s history is responsible for the emergence of a dualized organization of care work in Global North countries: “commodified for those who can pay for it and privatized for those who cannot”. However, in Global South countries, and, specifically, in Brazil, this division has been present for centuries.
Where Black Women Belong?
As the American historian Gerda Lerner points out, the oppression of women precedes and enables slavery, which is a fundamental part of colonialism, legitimized by the creation of the notion of “race”, that gave rise to the current capitalist system. In Brazil, this phenomenon was of unprecedented dimension: between 1500 and 1850, the country was the largest importer of enslaved people in the Americas, introducing 4.9 million Africans to Brazilian territory, being the last country in the Western world to abolish the enslavement.
Despite being a minority in the slave trade – representing only ⅓ of the enslaved people –, African women had double or triple workload: they were the majority in carrying out domestic work inside the casas-grandes; they worked on the plantations and performed manual labor like their brothers and partners; and, after hours of strenuous physical work, they also took care of their own children, in addition to assisting comrades from the plantations and mills.
The abolition of slavery in Brazil, signed in 1888, was not accompanied by the development of any assistance to former slaves to access educational opportunities or the free labor market, leading many of them to continue working for their former owners, either in agriculture or as domestic workers. As Brazilian anthropologist Lélia Gonzalez explained, the discrepancy in living conditions among white and Black Brazilian women can be understood by reconstructing how colonial structures were maintained in the post-abolition period for the latter through three central figures: the Mãe Preta, the Doméstica and the Mulata – two of which reinforce the position of such women in the care labor market.
Due to their role as wet and dry nurses, the enslaved women gave rise to the figure of the Mãe Preta, who is responsible for breastfeeding, caring for, and educating the children of their owners – or, nowadays, their employers. Simultaneously, the Doméstica seeks to support her family by providing services – undervalued and, in most cases, informal – to families of the middle and upper classes. While the Mães Pretas e Domésticas undergo a process of reinforcing the internalization of their difference, subordination, and inferiority, they also face a double or triple workload.
Thus, even 133 years after the abolition, Black women continue to occupy an extremely specific – and restricted – place in the labor market, resulting from direct racial, gender, and class discrimination, and inequalities in terms of educational and cultural access. While middle-class white women, due to their higher educational level, are the majority in the provision of collective services, such as health and education; women from low-income groups tend to manual occupations, such as factory and domestic work, the latter’s importance for the female labor force being remarkable.
Brazil is the nation with the highest absolute number of domestic workers in the world (about 6,356,000 individuals), of whom 92% are women, mostly black (63%), poor, with low education, mothers, and their families’ primary provider. In Brazil, domestic employment is characterized by high levels of informality, low wages, low levels of protection, and abusive and stratified relationships with employers.
It is important to highlight that, in Brazil, there is not a clear differentiation between the professionals that work within the care labor and the domestic work market. The latter includes thus cooks, housekeepers, butlers, laundresses, babysitters, cleaning ladies, janitors, clothing pressers, watchmen, private drivers, gardeners, elderly companions, among others, which are interchangeably referred to as “paid domestic workers” (PDW). In both labor markets, there is an impressive picture of inequality and subordination and considerable stability in the patterns of social divisions of gender, race, and class.
In middle and upper-class families, care and domestic tasks are almost always passed on to PDW; as the income level increases, the number of female workers also increases, as does the working time and the stratification (and the abusiveness) of their relationships with employers. Almost 70% of the families belonging to the richest tenth of the population hires PDW, which means that about 58% of all such workers in the country are employed by families that are among the wealthiest 10% of the population.
One Side of the Covid-19 Scale: The Essentialization of Paid Care Work
Amid enormous sanitary, political, and economic insecurity, care and domestic paid work were elevated to “essential” in some Brazilian states for the maintenance of families of the middle and upper classes, so that, even though the PDW are heads of their own households and dependent on the public health system, thousands of women across the country were forced to continue working.
The first death recorded in the state of Rio de Janeiro due to the New Coronavirus was Cleonice Gonçalves, a 63-year-old woman who was a PDW whose employer had tested positive for Covid-19 after taking a trip to Italy but insisted that Cleonice continue to work normally at her home. Two days after her death, the Public Ministry of Labor issued Technical Note No. 04/2020, which makes a series of recommendations to domestic employers, such as waiving PDW of the workplace, with guaranteed remuneration, in the period in which the measures to contain the New Coronavirus pandemic are in force.
Unsurprisingly, the guidelines were not followed by most employers and not even by some states. A survey carried out between April 14 and 15, 2020, by the Locomotiva Institute revealed that 23% of daily PDW and 39% of monthly PDW continued to work normally. In the following month, the states of Pará, Pernambuco, Ceará, Maranhão, and Rio Grande do Sul determined the continuity of the provision of paid care work – by domestic workers, babysitters, and caregivers of the elderly and people with disabilities – even during quarantine.
As Luiza Batista, President of the National Federation of Domestic Workers and the Union of Domestic Workers of Pernambuco, denounced, instead of releasing the PDW, many employers demanded that they remain in the workplace. Many of these women are heads of households, and despite knowing that their employers are abusing them, they feel pressured to comply with this requirement because they depend on this income to feed their children and to maintain their homes.
In an attempt to prtect their mothers, children of PDW organized the movement “Pela Vida de Nossas Mães”, through which they demand: (i) the immediate paid layoff of monthly and daily, formal or informal, PDW; (ii) advancing their vacation in whole or in part; and, (iii) in the case of PDW who live in their workplace and are part of a risk group, that they are not placed in situations of risk of contagion.
In the same period, federal deputies from the Socialism and Freedom Party introduced bill No. 2,477, seeking to exclude paid domestic work from the list of essential activities throughout Brazil during the pandemic – ten months have passed, and the project has not yet been analyzed by members of the Chamber of Deputies.
The scenario of total disregard for the life, health, and family of PDW was clearly exemplified by the case of Miguel Otávio de Santana. Having no one to leave her son with and fearing being fired, Mirtes Renata de Souza took him to her workplace, the residence of the mayor of Tamandaré, Sérgio Hacker, and his wife, Sarí Gaspar Côrte Real. While the PDW walked with the couple’s dog, Sarí abandoned the 5-year-old boy in the elevator, which led to his death a few minutes later, after falling from the 9th floor of the luxury residential building.
Other Side of the Covid-19 Scale: Unemployment & Re-Fragilization
If part of the PDW were forced to keep on working without any protection, many other women were fired all over the country. The convergence between the economic, sanitary, and care crises has exacerbated gender, race, and class inequalities, and pushed thousands of women out of the – formal and informal – labor market.
The previously cited survey by the Locomotiva Institute revealed that 39% of daily PDW and 13% of monthly PDW had been fired until mid-April, 2020. Between March and June, the sector recorded a loss of 1,257,000 jobs, which represent 21% of its total employees and more than double the job loss percentage in the economy as a whole. At the end of 2020, the number of PDW who were laid off reached 1.5 million, equivalent to 24.2% of the sector .
Since no gender-sensitive labor market measures were implemented in the country, the only financial support that such workers received was the Federal Government’s Emergency Assistance program (Auxílio Emergencial), from April to December 2020, a temporary expansion of the Family Financial Assistance program (Bolsa Família), which has an almost exclusive female coverage since it is based on the conception that mothers are the only – or, at least, the main – person responsible for administering the income for the benefit of their children. PDW were the second class of workers most benefited by the program in the country, with an income gain of 61% in the first month of implementation of the benefit.
With the end of the Auxílio Emergencial and the lack of government support campaigns for female workers, popular initiatives have emerged to help these women support their families and plan their return to the job market. This is the case of the “Pela Vida de Nossas Mães” movement, which evolved from a letter-manifesto to a campaign that organized donations and transfers in cash to around 300 women all over the country. Still, millions of PDW live in fear that they will not be able to feed and provide their children a roof for much longer.
Vulnerabilities in Movement
Paid care employment not only puts female workers at great risk of exploitation but also in a highly restricted life cycle, given the extreme isolation and limited opportunities of the profession. Such workers are part of one of the most disadvantaged and neglected sections of the workforce in the capitalist world, in addition to being expressly excluded by traditional unions and unable to benefit from the legal protection designed for the working class.
The relationship of voluntary dependence of many families of middle and upper classes in relation to paid care work – resulting from their repudiation regarding the performance of these “dirty” services, which are entrusted to Black and poor women, seen as the “most appropriate” to provide them since they are “hyper-resistant and infra-human” – demonstrates the preservation of the processes of internal colonialism that support the historical relations of patriarchal, racial and colonial domination that permeate this category and serve as a justification so that the lives of such workers – seen as household items and, consequently, replaceable – and that of their families are understood as disposable.
If such behavior was not evident for a big part of the Brazilian society before the pandemic, now the vulnerabilities to which Black female care workers are exposed every day are undeniable.
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Larissa Cristina Margarido é doutoranda no programa de Doutorado Acadêmico da FGV Direito SP, mestra pela mesma instituição (2020) e graduada pela Faculdade de Direito de Ribeirão Preto da USP (2018). Atualmente, é pesquisadora da Coordenadoria de Pós-Graduação Acadêmica e Pesquisa, e do Núcleo de Justiça Racial e Direito, ambos da FGV Direito SP.
Atenção: em caso de citação, utilizar a seguinte referência "MARGARIDO, Larissa. Black Brazilian Women, Care Work and Covid-19. GenderTalks, Berlin, 16 Apr. 2021. Disponível em: https://www.gendertalks.com/blackbrwomen-carework-cov19/."