Housemaid-turned-rapper gives voice to suffering of domestic helpers in Latin America

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 12:14pm

A Brazilian housemaid-turned-rapper has cast a spotlight on the suffering of Latin America’s millions of exploited domestic workers by chronicling the abuse they receive from their employers.

For seven years Joyce Fernandes was one of six million workers that cook, clean and mind children for Brazilian families.

Now 31, she is a qualified history teacher, recorded rap artist, anti-racism activist and all-round celebrity.

She is better known by the alias Preta Rara, or “Strange Black Woman.”

Over melodic hip-hop beats she voices fierce calls for social justice.

Her face with its bright blue lipstick and nose-ring has appeared in media around the world.

After leaving domestic service, she started writing about some of her experiences online in a Facebook page titled “I, Housemaid.”

“Joyce, we hired you to cook for us, not for yourself. Please bring your own food and cutlery,” she recalled her employer telling her.

It is the voice of domestic employees who have wanted to speak out for a long time but had no particular channel to do so
Joyce Fernandes

“Eat before us at the kitchen table if possible. It is a question of maintaining order in the household.”

Fernandes’s tales prompted countless others to post their ordeals in domestic work: working long hours without food for snobby families.

“I think it is the voice of domestic employees who have wanted to speak out for a long time but had no particular channel to do so,” Fernandes said.

“My memoir was a trigger that awakened other stories and opened up a discussion,” she added.

“We are making our voice heard. With this site I want to provoke and shake up the model of the traditional Brazilian family which will recognise itself in most of these stories.”

A report by the International Labor Organisation in 2013 showed Latin America was the region with the most household employees in the world.

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Some 7.5 per cent of employees in Latin America worked in that sector compared with 0.8 per cent overall in the developed world, according to the study.

Brazil employs more domestic help than any other country in the region: around six million, most of them women, according to the IBGE state statistics institute.

“In Latin America, it is not just the very well-off families” that employ household workers, said Laura Carpentier of the French political studies school SciencesPo, author of a report on the subject.

She said there is more demand for domestic workers in Latin America because countries there have fewer daycare centres for children and nursing homes for the old.

In 2013, Brazil’s left-wing government imposed rules to protect domestic workers, guaranteeing them a minimum wage and limiting their overtime.

Uruguay and Chile have passed laws limiting housemaids’ working hours and boosting their welfare rights. The 2014 law in Chile spared them the obligation to wear a uniform in public.

But testimonies on the “I, Housemaid” page and by rights groups in other countries indicate that many such workers in the region still suffer abuse and prejudice.

In some countries they live in a legal void.

In Guatemala, the Domestic Workers’ Association says children as young as eight and women as old as 70 work in domestic service. Some employees work up to 16 hours a day.

Over recent years “there has been a rise in pay for domestic workers in numerous Latin American countries,” said Alexandre Fraga, a sociologist at Rio de Janeiro University.

But most have no formal work contract.

The mistreatment of housemaids also raises dark historical memories in a country where slavery was not abolished until 1888.

“This profession reflects social inequalities. In Brazil, most domestic employees are female, poor and black,” Fraga said.

“That cannot continue. This cannot be a hereditary profession.”