The singing maids

It’s not too long before I’ll have been a year in the UK, but news from Brazil is never far from my mind. I noticed social media full of debate this week about new laws which are set to improve the working conditions of Brazil’s 6.7 million female maids (among many other things, as social media in Brazil is a big deal). According to some research that came out at the beginning of the year, Brazil has more maids than any other country in the world. It’s easy to believe. After getting kicked out of my flatshare, I found myself sleeping in the tiny bed (arms and legs lolling off the side) which had been built into my friend’s apartment for the maid. As many are typically from the north east of the country, they are small in stature, and this didn’t suit me greatly, as I once almost fell completely out of bed. Happy to have escaped to safety (and recovering from Dengue fever at one point) I slept in late, only to be woken by the maid. Although many families have moved away from having maids who live in the house, like a kind of slave, it is still the norm for those who can afford it to have someone who visits and not only cleans but radically tidies and often cooks. She seemed quite outraged to find me there, and virtually turfed me out of bed so she could get to the cupboard above my head where the cleaning products were. I suppose that after many years (and so many hours per week) of working in the same house, the maid can end up spending more time there than the working residents, and can feel a certain sense of propriety.

It wasn’t the first time I had found the whole thing quite disagreeable. One of the more sickening aspects of a culture which is heavily maided-up is that you will hear middle class and upper class ladies opine about how well they treat their maids – the Christmas bonuses, the gifts, sometimes even the children who are adopted or houses bought (frequently in favelas) for those who have finished their service. In fact, the maid I chatted to who worked another friend’s place in Barra de Tijuca, home of the Olympic games, said her half-brother had been adopted by the family where her mother worked, being as he was the product of a liason between the male owner and her mother as a employee. When I expressed surprise, a friend told me such stories are in fact common. There seems very little consciousness at times that it would be kinder not to have maids in the first place than to give them really nice chocolates at Christmas. It is certainly a very surreal sight to see those nannies and maids in the Praca Nossa Senhora de Paz, Ipanema, all dressed in white, in 40 degree heat, trying to supervise children while they played in sandpits and ate ice creams. Like some bizarre Gone With The Wind fantasy. I think in fact I’ve blogged before about that very sight.

It seems as if progress is being made however. I was always seeing stories in the Brazilian media about how the middle classes now struggle to find suitable maids, who are lured instead by other, better paid professions. Perhaps a good reflection of this shift can be seen on the soap operas. It is a well-known cliche that the whole of Brazil grinds to a halt for the finale of its novelas, mainly filmed in Rio de Janeiro. But while the subject of these has so often been upper class families, in grandiose settings such as the Roman Empire, the novela Cheias de Charme had roaring success last year and was a total departure. The story of three maids who form a band and find fame away from their evil employer, it is not light on escapism either (or high camp for that matter), but the choice of heroine/s was refreshing. I remember finding it odd, when watching the excellent movie Diva (starring the equally great Brazilian actress Lilia Cabral), that a pivotal scene where the protagonist tells her husband she doesn’t want to be with him anymore was conducted under the eyes and ears of the home help. That film was only made in 2009, so it can only be a good thing if maids are becoming visible at last. Change may take some time, but with this law limiting the hours of live-in maids to 44 per week among other benefits, it is definitely on its way.