One of the benefits in moving to a “developing” country is that you can hire household help at a reasonable rate. A few years ago, this was the case in São Paulo. But times are a-chang’in.
Recently there has been a trend in staff demanding large increases in their salaries. Sometimes double. Apparently, the demands are based on what is heard on the street that others are making. This may have to do with the wealthy Brazilians simply being unable to function without a full staff for even one hour of their day, therefore in a position to be blackmailed. In part, it has to do with the very low unemployment in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo. In November, unemployment in Brazil was at 4.9%. Bloomberg even put out an article about how the unemployment rates were resulting in a scarcity of maids. And God love these ladies who demand more, isn’t empowerment and self-promotion the American way? But double? Does the market really dictate that the value of household help has almost doubled?
Like the U.S., Brazil has a minimum wage, but in the form of a monthly salary floor. Historically in the States, those who are not educated are often forced to work for minimum wage. These days, college graduates in the U.S. are being forced to work for minimum wage. I recently came upon an episode of the show “30 Days” in which a man and his girlfriend tried to live on the Federal minimum wage for 30 days, which is currently US$7.25. It was enlightening and depressing at the same time to see how much they struggled. Here in Brazil, the minimum wage is R$622 per month. No, that is not a lot. Not at all. Assuming someone works 40 hour weeks, it corresponds to about US $1.95 per hour. Many in households, especially Brazilian households, work far more than the 40.
However, I have yet to meet a maid or nanny that didn’t make near double that or more. Yes, that is still low. But you cannot make direct comparisons to the wages between the U.S. and Brazil. Cost of living and standards are extremely different. The women who collect these wages are uneducated. In the U.S., uneducated means you don’t have a college degree. In Brazil, uneducated means that you might not be able to read. Though many, like our employee, have a high school degree from a public institution, for what that is worth in this country (not much).
I know, and know of, a number of women who work in households and are looking for work or more work. Yet, people with no education and sometimes very little experience are demanding to double what is already double of the federal minimums. Important to note, when you hire a full-time employee for your household, you are not just paying a salary. You are also required to pay 12% of a 20% INSS (retirement insurance), plus a 13th months salary in December, plus give one month’s vacation. All fair. But now the government is adding extra pressure on employers with a couple proposals on the table -one that dictates we should also pay an addition 8% FGTS to create a severance pay fund and a second that will require we pay overtime. For a corporation, this is all reasonable. For a household, it starts to become just too expensive.
Sure, it is a bit of a luxury to have someone around to help out with the cleaning and kids. But as one friend put it, it’s not like we are sitting around getting our nails done all day long. It is more difficult here to be a mom. The city just hasn’t caught up to many of the modern technologies and conveniences that we are accustomed to in the U.S. Plus, São Paulo is a polluted and often moist place, so bathrooms and kitchens and clothing need to be tended to on a much more regular basis.
However, things are also changing in the country in terms of modern day conveniences. Sure, appliances like dishwashers and clothes dryers are still expensive to buy here and of low quality, but as the cost of employing someone to help with these chores increases, and the prices of appliances decrease, the solution becomes obvious. Today, most apartment buildings being constructed don’t even include the maid quarters that the older apartments have.
For us, I can definitely get by not having someone helping me full-time. In fact, all last year I had one woman come in a couple times a week, and then when I had to work, we had another stay at night. The only reason we have someone full-time now is because she is the daughter of a women who worked for us and she needed a job – and she is willing to work for what we can pay. The minute she comes to us and requests an increase in her salary (which we recently increased on our own), we will simply let her know that we won’t do it, but will give her a stellar recommendation. And good luck to the girl who goes from working in an expat home to a Brazilian house. I’ve seen the way some are treated and it’s not pretty. Our employee worked in a Brazilian household for only a few weeks before she came to us and they had her working from 6am to midnight each day.
Household employees may be at risk of pricing themselves out of the market. My friends and I are already discussing some creative alternatives if we in fact lose our help to the allure of more money. Some friends have even implemented a more variable cost program, covering their needs with diaristas who charge only a daily rate and do not come attached with the commitments of a full-time empregada or babá.
However, when standing in line at the Federal Police for my permanent visa, I did see quite a pile of Andean Peruvians also in line for theirs, and who may in fact be looking for work in the near future. So perhaps… we just need to brush up on our Spanish.
(See A Vida Muito Boa for a Brazilian perspective on household help and a history of help in Sao Paulo.)
What is your outlook or experience?