(Household) Help!

household help

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?

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19 Responses to (Household) Help!

  1. I agree that is it much less convenient to live in Brazil than in the US. That said, for me, having a daily helper was much more of a pain than it was worth. I didn’t have a maid, but did use a ‘full-time’ baba (she worked about 4 hours a day). Looking back on this, I relied on her because I was depressed about being in Brazil. The full time maid thing never seemed like a good idea and we just used a weekly cleaning person. Once we got rid of the baba, I was much happier – we had our space back and I connected better with my daughter. We did have someone come every now and then to watch our daughter when we went out, but that was a bit more like American babysitting, which can be difficult to come by in SP.

    • Yes, those that have the option to just have someone babysit are lucky. It is very rare. You didn’t hire a baba, you adopted a teenager – I remember.

    • Neighbor Melissa says:

      Suzann…ditto! We’ve been back in the US for 11 months and only in the last few months have I realized 1. how depressed I was and 2. how much I missed out on my daughter’s life and learning to parent her the way I want to. That said, our empregada was like a 2nd mom to me and a grandma to my kids. We miss her terribly, but I don’t miss her being in my house everyday! I love your blog, BAB! I just found your site and so wish we could have hung out! We were in Campinas for 3 years and I always wonder how different (and perhaps happier!) life would have been in SP. Congrats on the book and you have a new follower!

  2. anna says:

    I heard there are many bolivian nannies now in SP and they are cheaper than locals.

  3. I appreciated the help when we had someone 5 days a week which totaled about 20-25 hours a week, but she recently quit for a FT job which, since it was FT, also doubled her pay. I was relieved, actually. I’m not into to having someone in my space all the time, and even though I was working most of those hours, it was still annoying.

    But at the same time I seriously appreciated lunch being ready every day, laundry done, and the house clean.

    But ya know what? I think we all got a little lazy. My husband started doing almost nothing, I did very little, and Gusthavo was doing next to nothing.

    3 days after quitting, she stopped by to let us know she hated her new job and had quit. I think it was a fishing expedition to see if I wanted to re-hire her, but I think we are good with someone once a week just to clean. My husband doesn’t agree, but I’m hoping he’ll come around.

  4. Alex says:

    I don’t have much to say about this ( cause I don’t have an empregada/ babá or family to take care of) but in my opinion this shows Brazil is full of better opportunities for these women.

    No developed country still has live in maids or maids in general… Brazil will probably still have babás and faixeneiras in the future but I see the empregada position dead within a decade.

    I see this as a good thing.

  5. Welcome to living in a “developing” nation rather than just an impoverished one. The opportunities here are better for you and your husband and thankfully some of that wealth is trickling down to all the classes. First. I love your blog and I hope you are open to some criticism because normally I love what you write and the quirky articles you find about Brazil and want to be able to keep reading your blog (please don’t ban me!). Second. I am not sure if you had a child in NYC or not.. but I can tell you- this city is much easier to live in with children. Ok, my dryer cost double what it would in the States, but people don’t yell at me in restaurants or grocery stores because I use a double stroller (with caution). Have you ever carried a stroller down subway steps in a snowstorm with a baby in a baby bjorn? Yeah, that alone makes me love Sampa. Third. You seem to be comparing all of the United States with Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo would be a much better comparison to New York City alone not the rest of the US. You may be able to find an educated nanny to work full time in the Midwest for minimum wage but not in NYC just as you will not be able to find a nanny to work for $622 reis a month here. Not to mention asking her to wear all white, stay overnight, work late without compensation or advanced notice, clean, laundry, or put up with a stay at home mom. Fourth. Prices are set by supply and demand. Prices can double, triple, quadruple, whatever. If you want someone to clean your dirty sheets (and even iron them!) than you need to pay at least what they could be making doing something better. I praise Brazilian women- Class C and D for demanding better working conditions and pay. And classes A & B for going through that painful process of living without the “help”.
    Thank you and please dont ban me from your blog.

    • No way I’m banning you from my blog. Love your comments. Yes, I’ve carried a stroller down subway steps in the dead of a NYC winter. And yes, I hope that what is actually the E class gets better working conditions. But I fear it might all be about getting what you hear someone else has and not what is actually out there. Not sure if you saw my earlier comment, but our first housekeeper from 2010/2011 coincidentally called tonight. She left us in June of 2011 thinking she could get better money and maybe a better situation? (FYI – I’ve never treated anyone whose been in my employment with nothing less than total respect.) Yet periodically she calls fishing for another chance at working for us. I don’t want to see these women who have decent employers jumping ship for the story that they hear from their cousin who heard it from her sister about how someone has all that. My fear is that their position will be replaced with alternatives (appliances) and that sweet 4.9% unemployment will slowly creep up. Prices are set by supply and demand in a transparent market. But I don’t think that is what is happening here. Thanks for reading and commenting!!!

  6. Ray says:


    I hope the improvement of the situation for the maids is solid and real, it will only show Brazil is actually moving up to another level, a better one. We (the middle class) will adapt and survive.
    When maids vanish (according to Alex forecasting) I bet appliances will improve and appliance prices will go down as well, people will invest more in their household cleaning tools once they are the ones actually doing the cleaning, aww, we will live.
    Talking about appliances! I did visit a few appliances stores on my last visit to Brazil, and prices seemed higher than the US, but not absurd (in my opinion). I saw stove, washer and refrigerators at SAM’s Club in Sao Bernardo do Campo where my parents live and price in quality looked similar to the US. Now, I didn’t have a chance to try any appliances to actually test their quality.
    Could you give me your opinion on bringing a Dryer and a Dishwasher from the US versus buying one in Brazil, considering the expensive moving costs…? Have you bought any of these appliances in Sao Paulo or did you bring your own from the US?




    • The prevalence of maids will diminish, it is just a matter of how long it takes. And I don’t know about their situation. Unless a different type of job opens up, someone who had been cleaning or taking care of babies for years might only have a few options.

      Glad the cost of appliances is going down! We haven’t bought anything since we first got here – and we didn’t go to Sam’s Club (though we used to have a membership) so I’ll have to check it out. Before we moved, we did some serious appliance shopping. We decided to only buy a big refrigerator to bring with us and the rest in Brazil. So I had all the prices in my head and when we got here to shop – I was shocked! We bought an oven/stove and a washing machine. The oven/stove has never fully worked, despite having a service guy come four times to try and fix it, and the washing machine eats all my clothes (only mine, not my daughter’s or husband’s). But a lot has changed since we’ve been here, maybe that is one category that is getting better! Although I still hear a lot of complaints from the expat crowd.

      I don’t know the cost of moving stuff here as the company managed all that for us. But it sounds like you might be better off buying here unless you get relocated.


  7. Heh, I just clean it all myself and if I really need help one day then I will call a woman my sister in law uses.. you can call her whenever and she charges 60 reais for the day’s work. That way she can do all the dirty work I don’t like to do and I just keep it up afterwards:)

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