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Intersectionality and Female Domestic Workers Unions in Brazil

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  Intersectionality and female domestic workers' unions in Brazil  Joaze Bernardino-Costa Department of Sociology, University of Brasília, Campus Universitário Darcy Ribeiro, ICC Centro, Asa Norte, CEP. 70.910-900 Brasília/DF, Brazil a r t i c l e i n f o s y n o p s i s Available online 29 January 2014  Thepaperusestheconceptofintersectionalitytoexplorethecentralroleplayedbythecategoriesof race, class and gender in the biographies of female domestic workers in Brazil. While showing howthese categories are implicated in the inequalities and subalternization experienced by theseactors, the paper also reveals how female domestic workers have appropriated them to promotethemselvespoliticallyasaprofessionalclass. Adoptingahistorical viewpoint, thesecondpart ofthepaper shows the formation of a public agenda for female domestic workers' unions and theirnegotiation with class-based, feminist and black movements in Brazil. It concludes by showing thatunionized domestic workers have developed an srcinal form of feminism that combines aspectstaken from all these movements.© 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Introduction Domestic labor in Brazil is a symbol of gender, class andrace inequalities, as the majority of the domestic workers inBrazil are black lower-class women. According to a recentcensus, 7.2 million people are professional domestic workers,93% of whom are female; 61.6% of those females are blackand 38.4% are white. The over-representation of black femaledomestic workers can get even more evident: 12% of whitewomenwitha job aredomesticworkers;theratesincreaseto21% for black women (IPEA, 2011).Theexistenceofadomesticlaborforcemeansthattherearehigh-income families with the means to pay another person'swages. On the other hand, it means a service that compensatesthelackofbasicpublicservice(daycare,forinstance).Becauseof that,familieswithahigherincomeareabletoovercomethelackof some public services by privatizing them, by hiring privateservices. Such economic inequalities are connected to bothgender and race naturalization. Domestic labor is naturally seenas a woman's job and, as such, not worthy of a fair pay, as itsupposedly does not involve special skills. On the other hand,duetoBrazil'scolonial history,domestic labor is alsoseenastheblack woman's  ‘ natural place. ’ One of the most evident consequences of those families'private solutions for the lack of public services is the fragilestateregulationconcerningfemaledomesticworkersandtheiremployers. Indeed, female domestic workers have recentlyenjoyed legal equalization compared to other jobs. However,there isn't reliable supervision for domestic labor. As a con-sequence,onlyone-thirdofthedomesticworkersinBrazilworkunder legal conditions. Therefore, the relationship betweendomesticworkersandtheiremployersshowsnotonlynoncom-plianceofrights,butalsoanaturalizedcodeofconductinwhichgender, class and race inequalities make domestic workerssusceptible to disempowerment and a violation of rights.Inside their employers' home, a fragile state regulationsets the relationship between the female domestic workerand their employers. In the public sphere, on the other hand,their unions actively struggle for better state regulation.Therefore, the female domestic worker unions have tried foryears to create a partnership with the black movement, thefeminist movement and other class unions in order toimprove their rights. In this case, the axes of gender, raceand class power, unlike what happens inside their em-ployers' home, mobilize for democracy and the domesticworkers' empowerment.This paper aims to explore two dimensions of domesticlabor: the face-to-face relationship between the domesticworker and their employer, which happens inside theemployers' home, and the female domestic workers' politicalmobilization throughtheir unions. Our analysisis based on theconcept of intersectionality. As we will demonstrate, this Women's Studies International Forum 46 (2014) 72 – 800277-5395/$  –  see front matter © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Women's Studies International Forum  journal homepage:  concept is helpful in understanding the interwoven relation-shipsofdiverseaxesofpower,themostimportantofwhicharerace,classandgender,intheproductionofbothsubjugationandpolitical agency. This approach is effective for comprehendingdomestic labor in Brazil, as it takes us beyond discourses thatisolate individual markers of difference by dynamically joiningthem.Wefocusonhowtheaxesofgender,raceandclasspoweract in that face-to-face relationship which disempowers thefemale domestic worker. On the other hand, we explore howthose same axes of gender, race and class power acted as a toolfor empowerment and democratic mobilization through thedomestic workers' political organizations. Concerning the latter,such axes of power are mobilized from exchanges among thedomestic workers' political organizations and the feminist andthe black movements, as well as their syndicates. As a result of this exchange, the female domestic workers have succeeded insome aspects concerning their profession's regulations.This article is divided in five parts. The first part describesour research methodologies. The following part shows thetheories about the concept of intersectionality. It is good tohighlight that such concept may refer to either disempow-erment or empowerment. The third and fourth parts useempirical data and the concept of intersectionality to explainhow the axes of gender, race and class power interact, on theone hand, to trigger disempowerment in the female domesticworkers' workplace and, on the other hand, to trigger politicalmobilization through their unions. Finally, the last part bringsour final considerations. Methodology: Listening to domestic workers' voices Basedonthemainroleoftheconceptofintersectionality,thisarticle aims to study how gender, race and class dimensionswork in the privatesphere, and how it causes disempowermentandinequality;and,asfarasthepublicsphereisconcerned,howthey result in empowerment and democratic mobilization.The data on which this research is based on was collectedintwodifferentperiods,allfromunionizeddomesticworkers.In2006, as part of a research for my doctorate study, I carriedout semi-structured interviews with twenty-three unionizedworkers from five out of approximately forty existent unions inBrazil. Those unions were based in Campinas (São Paulo state),São Paulo (São Paulo state), Salvador (Bahia state), Recife(Pernambuco state) and Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro state). Ialso interviewed the leaders of the Domestic Workers NationalFederationanddidsomeresearchinthefilesofeachoneofthoseunions, as well as in documents and resolutions of the domesticworkers' national congresses. 1 During my research, I traced thehistory of the Santos Domestic Workers Association, which wasthe first political association of female domestic workers inBrazil, founded in 1936. In 2011, I interviewed five domesticworkers of the unions of the New Iguaçu district (Rio de Janeirostate) and the Franca district (São Paulo state). Those sevenunions, especially the five from my 2006 research, have beenin charge of the organization of the domestic workers' nationalcongresses. They are considered the core of the domesticworkers' movement not only because of that, but also becausethey give to us a historical glimpse into the domestic workers'political organizations (Bernardino-Costa, 2007, 2011).The interviews were carried out in each one of the above-mentioned unions and they took 90 min in average. Allinterviewees were asked questions about their backgrounds,first job, union affiliation, their union's political struggles,experience exchanges and cooperation with the black andfeminist movements, as well as with other class unions,among others. Interestingly, all of them filled out the consentand confidentiality terms of the University of Brasília. In2011, however, during my presentation as a special guest inthe10th National CongressofDomestic Worker,in Recife,theinterviewed domestic workers asked me to list their realnamesinmyarticleswhenIwastomentionthehistoryoftheirpolitical organization; their anonymity was to be maintainedonly when I was to mention a specific personal history. Thisarticle, thus, follows their request.Fromthemethodologicalpointofview,oneoftheguidelinesin this article is the use of what Enrique Dussel (1996) calledethical listening.Thatmeanstoethicallyrecognizetheexistenceof the ones who were faded and silenced by the hegemonicepisteme. By listening to the domestic workers, we tried toundermine the power of the hegemonic speech in the Braziliansociety, especially about black women, who are viewed by thehegemonic episteme as deprived of rationality and thereforeunable to tell their own histories.Therefore, as we listened to the interviewees, we intendedtodeconstructaBrazilianbeliefofharmonybetweenwhiteandblack people, and between rich and poor. The idea of Braziliansociety as onethat forged harmonious relationships, especiallybetween whites and blacks, has been propagated over thecourse of the nation's history. We question this perspective;not only does it obscure diverse forms of violence, but it alsofailsto “ ethicallylisten ” toboththeblackandpoorpopulationsof the country. In contrast to such social and racial harmonyspeech, the private sphere of the Brazilian society shows theaxes of gender, race and class power moving towards thedisempowermentofthefemaledomesticworker.Ontheotherhand, as we listen to the domestic workers telling their storiesabouttheirpolitical organization,wedonotnoticea process of victimization, but resistance to oppression, exploitation andthe suppression caused by the country's hegemonic speech.To analyze the relevant data, our arguments were struc-tured around the concept of intersectionality.  A brief discussion of the concept of intersectionality  Especially in the political and academic fields of gender andrace studies, the concept of intersectionality has been employedto stress the interconnections between certain categories,including race, gender, class, generation and sexuality.Two aspects stand out in the use of intersectionality as aconcept: on the one hand, the homogenizing dimension of various categories such as class, race, sexuality and genderhas been questioned in favor of highlighting intra-class,intra-gender, intra-sex and intra-race differences. On theother hand, rather than utilizing an additive logic in whichthe axes of subordination simply compound one other, asin the idea of double or triplediscrimination, the concept of intersectionality focuses on the interaction between two ormoreoftheseaxesofpower(Brah,1996,2006;Brah&Phoenix,2004; Carneiro, 2003a, 2003b; Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 2002,2006; McClintock, 1995; Yuval-Davis, 2012).In the 1990s, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in a dialog with blackfeminists on the supposed universalism of   “ woman ”  as a 73  J. Bernardino-Costa / Women's Studies International Forum 46 (2014) 72 – 80  political category, was largely responsible for popularizingthe concept of intersectionality, and she herself became anindispensablereferencepointin discussionsofthetopic.Inherwork, intersectionality is used to describe the way in whichracism,patriarchalrelations,classoppressionandotheraxesof power generate discrimination and inequalities. Crenshaw(2002, 2006) emphasizes how the intersectionality of race,class, sexuality and gender are responsible for oppression anddisempowerment. The metaphor of a crossroads allows us tounderstandwhattheauthormeansbythisconcept.Theaxesof power  –  race, gender, sexuality and class  –  overlap and crosseach other. Crenshaw (2002: 177) writes:  “ racialized womenfrequently find themselves in a position where racism orxenophobia, class and gender meet each other. Consequently,they are liable to be hurt by the intense flux on these roads. ”  Aperson subject to intersectionality, following the author'smetaphor, is like a pedestrian at a crossroads, suffering thedamage caused by collisions from multiple directions. Hence,the concept utilized by Crenshaw shows the disadvantages,vulnerabilities, oppressions and disempowerment suffered bywomen situated at the meeting point of two or more axes of power. Crenshaw's examples of sexual and domestic violence,sexual harassment, discrimination and inequalities in terms of accesstojobsandeducationrevealpreciselythedimensionsof oppression and disempowerment implied by the concept of intersectionality (2002, 2006).Crenshaw notes that the dynamics of the axes of power  – race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc.  –  are not unilateralin the sense of generating only oppression, since members of marginalized groups are able to resist and mobilize politicalwill, individual and collective. The intersectionality approach issharedbyPatriciaHillCollins(2000:13),whoproceedsfromthenotion of a dialectic between oppression and activism.Another author of significant contribution to the discus-sion of intersectionality is Avtar Brah (1996, 2006). Whiledrawing attention to the dynamics of oppression, discrimi-nation and exploration in power relations, Brah highlightsthe importance placed on the dimensions of activism andpolitical mobilization in intersectionality. Depending on thehistorical context, the difference informing the notion of intersectionality often leads to more democratic forms of political agency (2006:16). To understand Brah's position, itis important to keep in mind that she researched Britain'sblack movements in the 1960s and 1970s and became awareof how the term  ‘ black ’  was employed as a political categoryto mobilize and unite people with African, Caribbean andSouth Asian srcins in response to their shared experience of stigmatization, inferiorization and discrimination in work,education, housing, the legal system and welfare. Initiallytaken as a category of subalternization, the concept of  ‘ blackness ’ waslaterusedtomobilizecolonialsubjectswhowouldneverhavebeenpreviouslyidentifiedwiththeterm.ThroughBrah'sresearch,webecomeawarethatracemayhavediverse meanings according to context.In considering class, race, sexuality and gender as axes of power, it behooves us to recall Foucault's insights concerningpower. Power is not a property, but a relation. Power relationsalter continually, new conflicts and new points of resistancespring up all the time, leading to the emergenceof newsubjects(Foucault,1995).Hence,dependingonthecontext,thenotionof intersectionality can be utilized not only to examine negativeeffectslikeoppressionanddisempowerment,butalsotoexplorepolitical mobilization.The concept of intersectionality has the advantage of allowing us to view two dimensions of power relations: onthe one hand, the production of disempowerment, oppressionand discrimination; on the other, the production of politicalagencies, democratic mobilization and political subjects.The use of this concept also affords us an analysis based onthe interaction of a multitude of axes of differentiation andpower. This concept emphasizes that different dimensions of social life cannot be analyzed discretely, in search of absolutistexplanations about the processes of power and inequality; onthe contrary, we are reminded of the importance of analysesthat bring together the various existing systems of differenti-ation in specific local contexts.Intersectionality becomes an important tool for under-standing how discrimination, oppression and domination of Brazilian domestic workers are produced and stabilized. It alsoemergesasanimportantconceptforourcomprehensionofthepolitical mobilization of workers in Brazil. Discrimination,oppression and domination occur primarily in the workplace,whereas political mobilization operates primarily in the spacedelineated by the trade unions representing this professionalcategory. Intersectionality between class, race and gender inthe workplace Revisiting interviews from earlier research on femaledomestic workers' unions in Brazil, the explanatory potentialof the concept of intersectionality becomes clear. From theoutset, it is important to stress that the explanatory potentialof intersectionality varies according to the context invokedby the domestic workers themselves. When the women talkabout their experiences before joining political associationsor unions, the dimension of intersectionality emphasizingoppression, disempowerment and inequality becomes useful.But when they discuss their experiences after joining theunions, the dimension emphasizing agency, empowermentand political and democratic mobilization comes to the fore.It is also important to stress that we are not talkingabout purecontexts: that is, a context in which intersectionality impliesdisempowerment only, and another in which it emerges as akeyelementinpoliticalmobilization.Rather,Iamarguingthat,in any given context, one of these meanings of the concept of intersectionality prevails over the other without implying thecomplete absence of the latter.Most female domestic workers begin work as children,recruited from the contingents of poor women with minimaleducation who migrate to towns and cities from rural areas.Theirculture,language,dressandrace areconsideredinferiorto those of dominant urban classes. They usually work aloneand sometimes without pay  —  the employers claiming thatthey are  “ raising ”  them, as if they were their own children(Bernardino-Costa, 2011; Chaney & Castro, 1989). Such situa-tions,experiencedbydomesticworkersinBrazilandelsewhere,especially various Latin American countries, reinforce the factthat the predominant kind of intersectionality experienced bythese women is one of disempowerment and oppression. Inother words, race, class and gender are experienced in terms of racism, class discrimination and patriarchy. 74  J. Bernardino-Costa / Women's Studies International Forum 46 (2014) 72 – 80  In their life narratives, domestic workers frequently citemarkers of their race, class and gender identities to explainthe difficulties and hardships of their everyday lives. All thedomestic workers interviewed started to work at an earlyage, when they were children, often after they had beengiven to the employer's family to be raised, with the promisethat they would be provided with a formal education andbetter living conditions. Instead, they faced a life of daily toil,very differentfrom the employer's promisesto their mothers.The story of one of the women interviewed, aged 66 at thetime of the interview, clearly illustrates the conditions facedby many domestic workers in Brazil.Madalene (not her real name), currently affiliated withthe Recife Female Domestic Worker's Union, remembers herfirst job as a domestic worker in the northeastern region of the country in during the 1950s. She, like other children, wastaken in by the employing family with the promise that shewould be treated like one of their child, with access to goodhousing and schools. What in fact followed was an experi-ence marked by discrimination, inequality and differentia-tion. Her job was to clean the house, wash clothes by hand,iron clothes with a coal iron, and serve breakfast to heremployers. While the family's children went to school, shehad to stay at home and perform physically exhausting work,without the right to go to school.Although Madalene participated in the intimate life of thefamily, overhearing their conversations, witnessing their mo-ments of joy and sorrowand generating well-being through herwork, her feeling was that she and the other domestic workersemployed in the home were treated like slaves, their humanityneglected. Her employers seldom talked to her and often talkedabout her in her presence, as if she were not there.The reference Madalene makes to slave labor is notadventitious. Although it has metaphorical content in thisreference, there is also real evidence that that job retainedconcrete traces of slavery, officially banned in Brazil in 1888.She worked from 6:00 am to 8:00 pm, without remunerationand was exposed to physical and emotional violence, andoccupied spaces set apart within the home. Similar to theslavery period, in which the slaves' quarters were isolatedfrom the overseer's house, Madalene reports that her roomwas separate from the employing family's home.Anotherfemaledomesticworker,Carla(notherrealname),youngerthanMadalene,alsodescribedworkingatanearlyage,this time in Salvador, also in the Northeast. Although theirexperiences took place in different cities and during differentperiods of the twentieth century (the 1950s and 1990s), wecan observe similarities in their narratives, including workingunpaid or for unlawful pay, being overworked and the youngage at which they began working.Carla told her story as follows:A woman visited my town andasked my mother to let herraise me. So my mother allowed her to take me away ( … ).My experience in that job was very long, very harsh andvery sad. I was nine years old and I had to take care of twochildren and clean the whole house. So it was very tough.I didn't have time to study or play. My playtimeamountedto taking care of two children younger than myself. Ilooked after them, bathed them, cleaned the house. I evencooked. I ironed clothes ( … ). My work was very heavy, itwas humiliating. I was beaten. They would burn me. He(the husband) tried to rape me. I started work there whenI was nine years old and left when I was fourteen.[Carla, twenty-three years old in 2005, af  󿬁 liated to theBahia Female Domestic Workers' Union]Both Madalene's and Carla's narratives describe an every-day experience of exhausting work and denial of freedom,includingsleepingattheworkplaceandreceivingnopay.Whatisnotableintheirlifetrajectoriesisthattheywerebothsubjectto their employers' will because they started working indomestic service while they were still children. Madalene'snarrative  –  like those of other interviewees who cannot beincluded here for space reasons  –  is also notable for the linksshe herself makes between domestic work and slavery:  “ Therewasaseparateroominthehouse,inthebackyard.Itwasliketheslaves'quarters. ” Carlaalsorecallsanargumentshehadwithherfemale employer in the 1990s, when the latter remarked thatslavery should never have been abolished in Brazil.The encounter between two women in the same domesticspace,onetheemployerandtheotherthemaid,doesnotmeanthat they will inevitably build a relationship of solidarity justbecause they are women.Class and race differences frequentlyintersect with gender, producing a hierarchical difference inthe positions occupied by women. The fact that such youngchildren became domestic workers indicates how much classforces are a determiner of this fate. Class does not operate inisolation, but rather in combination with race. If it is true thatchild domestic labor is an option for poor girls in the Braziliansociety, it is more so for girls who are poor and black.Class and race are evident not only at the moment of employment; they operate throughout the new labor rela-tionship. There is a clear distinction between class habitusand the racial distinctions that become forms of humiliation,denigration and dehumanization. On the other hand, in thiscontext of power relations, gender is also a dimension of lifethat disempowers these workers, making them vulnerable tosexual violence.The interviewees' life narratives are very similar. Whetherthey come from Brazil's northeast (Bahia and Recife), or thesoutheast (São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro), we come across thefollowing facts: (a) they begin work as domestic employeeswhiletheyarestillchildren;(b)thefemaleemployerpromisesto raise the child, but she actually exploits her as an unpaiddomestic worker; (c) the women are recruited from poorfamilies from rural areas; (d) as children, they are obligedto follow an adult's work routine with no respect for theirphysical capacity and well-being; (e) they frequently recountstories of physical violence, verbal abuse and very often sexualharassment and violence; (f) their freedom is restricted, thewomen are unable to enter and leave their employer's housewhenever they want; (g) they frequently receive no regularpayment; (h) the majority of the women are black (all inter-viewees were black women).Examining the interviews, we can note the presence of multiple axes of disempowerment in their social relation-ships. The variables of class, gender and race work as markersof difference, subordinating one woman to the other. BothMadalene'sandCarla'scasesshowushowtheintersectionalityamong gender, race and class subdues them. The simple factthat they are women does not trigger any gender affinity from 75  J. Bernardino-Costa / Women's Studies International Forum 46 (2014) 72 – 80
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