The inaction of the Brazilian government during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed some members of Brazilian society into an even more vulnerable position. Yet many of these groups seem to know what they need to do to fight the virus. Here, we highlight the capacity of some domestic workers and residents of favelas to organize both quickly and innovatively during the pandemic. Importantly, we show that favelas can be a site for empowering transformation, rather than just a place of misfortune.
“I watched a report on the TV. They were interviewing an upper-middle class family about the lockdown. But the domestic worker could be seen in the background, working. “Oh, this family is isolated”. But what about that worker back there? Isn’t she someone?” (Cleide Pinto, from FENATRAD, domestic workers union).
Sharing videos of life in quarantine has become a commonplace during the pandemic in Brazil. Television personalities have provided a glimpse of their lives at home, showing what it has been like for them to be in quarantine. Yet, staying home in Brazil is a privilege and not possible for more than 50 million Brazilians[i]. Although a large part of the population is dependent on informal jobs and must continue to leave their houses every day, they are virtually invisible—to most.
This scenario is just another reflection of the abysmal inequality where the richest 10% hold 41.9% of the country’s total income[ii]. In the labour market—where around 36% of employed people work under informal conditions—domestic workers number approximately 7 million[iii]. Despite these numbers, their jobs remain precarious—domestic work was finally recognized as formal work in 2015, but most of domestic workers still do not have formal contracts.
To aggravate this state of affairs, during the pandemic domestic work was declared an ‘essential service’ in several states of Brazil, forcing a large number of women to continue working and having to risk being infected whilst taking public transport or whilst toiling in the households of the elites. In cases where employers allowed them not to work for their own safety, many were also not paid or feared losing their jobs.
However, Brazilian civil society was organized and often vocal, playing an active and central role in the fight against COVID-19. Collaborative initiatives based in solidarity emerged in various settings to provide temporary support for those in need. Civil society used existing networks and infrastructure of support, but was also innovative in its actions, forging new and strengthening existing solidarity networks. The trigger was the knowledge that the state was not going to see them, nor take care of them. On top of that, many of these workers, including domestic workers, live in communities with poor socioeconomic conditions, often known as favelas (informal settlements).
As a response to the pandemic, the national association of domestic workers (FENATRAD) organized national campaigns, such as the Cuida de quem te cuida (‘care for those who care’)[iv] to pressure public institutions not to consider domestic work as essential during the pandemic and to encourage employers to put workers on paid leave. FENATRAD published videos on social networks to raise awareness and promote other forms of support, such as gaining access to the online platform for the federal government’s emergency fund. Such organization played a crucial role in informing workers about their rights, particularly how to protect themselves.
Leaders from within the favelas took charge, organizing online fundraising campaigns and the distribution of primary goods. The Favela of Paraisópolis, situated next to a rich neighbourhood in São Paulo, made it to the Dutch news as an example of a community that managed to fight COVID-19 using its own means. Vital to this success has been a partnership with the network ‘G10 das Favelas’[v], an organization that supports entrepreneurship within different communities across the country. Their lemma is based on the idea of favelas as a place for empowering transformation rather than a place of misfortune, according to Gilson Rodrigues, a community leader in Paraisópolis.
Through the partnership, civil society created the idea of ‘presidents of the street’, employing 542 volunteers as ‘street presidents’ responsible for distributing food and hygiene products in their allocated areas. A further deficiency in social assistance is that of SAMU, public service for ambulance urgencies, as noted below:
“SAMU does not get to Paraisópolis. It did not do so even before the pandemic, even less so now” (Gilson Rodrigues).
As many public services were not available, they trained 240 first aid brigades within the community, hired private ambulances and medical staff, and organized information campaigns on hygiene procedures and on how to recognize symptoms of the disease.
Two schools in the neighbourhood were transformed into centres to host those who tested positive for the virus, allowing them to be in isolation, with food, a TV room, and a proper space in which to recover. To support domestic workers of the community, they created the program ‘Adote uma diarista’ (‘adopt a domestic worker’), providing financial resources, hygiene material, and/or food for more than one thousand informal workers.
These examples show an exceptional response from civil society in Paraisópolis. However, not all favelas have the same level of organization. Although these initiatives temporarily alleviated the burden of the pandemic for the people in these communities, they do not offer structural solutions for their situation. Domestic workers unexpectedly became frontline workers. An optimistic future would be to imagine that these initiatives would result in greater recognition of domestic work and greater empowerment and rights for the people in these communities. However, with the present political scenario, this future is hard to imagine.
 Governments of the states of Pará, Maranhão, Rio Grande do Sul and Ceará are among some of the states in which domestic work was declared as essential during the pandemic.
 This is the second out of three posts to be published on Bliss presenting the main findings of the research work about COVID-19 in Brazil for the project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’. We performed desk research and a qualitative comparative analysis of in-depth semi-structured interviews conducted with members of three civil society groups in Brazil: residents of favelas (informal settlements), domestic workers, and indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Interviews took place in July 2020, at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in Brazil.
 For more info, please see: https://g1.globo.com/sp/sao-paulo/noticia/2020/04/07/paraisopolis-se-une-contra-o-coronavirus-contrata-ambulancias-medicos-e-distribui-mais-de-mil-marmitas-por-dia.ghtml and https://newsus.cgtn.com/news/2020-04-19/Favela-fights-coronavirus-PNzcVTweKk/index.html
[i] IBGE – Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística. Síntese de Indicadores Sociais 2017.
[iii] According to FENATRAD.
[iv] The campaign Cuida de quem te cuida (Care for those who take care of you) is an attempt to pressure the Public Ministry to forbid states from filing decrees declaring domestic work as essential work. Despite the campaign, the decrees continued to happen and with the reopening of the economy, it became even hard to implement a monitoring system that would guarantee a safe work condition for these women.
About the authors:
Fiorella Macchiavello is an economist and holds an MA degree in Urban and Regional Development from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Brazil. Currently, she is a PhD researcher in the third year of a Joint Degree between the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam and UnB, University of Brasilia, Brazil.
Renata Cavalcanti Muniz is a full time PhD researcher at ISS in the last year of her research. Her PhD research was funded by CNPQ-Brasil, and she is part of two research groups at ISS, DEC and CI.
Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.
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