The moral dilemma of employing an empregada

Since we bought our apartment last year, my husband has been broaching the subject I have been dreading since I agreed to move to Brazil: having a maid.

It is difficult for a Brazilian, who has been brought up in a culture where it is perfectly normal for many families to employ a maid (empregada in portuguese), to empathise with my feelings on this. My husband grew up knowing that you could discard your clothes all over the house and miraculously find them cleaned and folded back in your drawer. Interestingly, this didn’t happen so much when he moved in with me… 😉

Personally, I hate cleaning, and every kind of housework. I would rather poke my eyes out than iron a man’s shirt – not because I am a raging feminist, but because it is so mind-numbingly boring and time-consuming, and the shirt will most certainly look worse after I have finished with it. However, I am willing to do my fair share of housework, IF the work is shared. I don’t work full-time, so there is time for me to do some household chores. My husband on the other hand has a very demanding job, and it would be unfair of me to expect him to come home late in the evenings and clean the loo! So for the sake of our relationship, we agreed that we needed some help.

I should like to make my own living Published ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which leads me onto my next point. Have you ever read the book called The Help? (fabulous book!). I read it last year and straight away it struck a nerve. This is a book about house maids and racism in the 1960’s in the US, and yet to me it still resonates with life here in Brazil in 2013. Apartments are built with an area de serviço (maid’s quarters if you will) off the kitchen, which consists of a bedroom so tiny you couldn’t fit a normal single bed in it, often without windows, a tiny bathroom and the washing machine. There is also a separate lift in most buildings for workers as opposed to residents.

It’s true that not all apartment buildings are built this way anymore, but most are. Our apartment building has this area de serviço, yet it is only two years old. The culture of employing an empregada to handle the cleaning and cooking is ingrained in many people’s lives. Yet what does it say about equality if certain people are expected to use the back door? Why can’t they use the same bathroom as any other guests would?

Soon after we moved into our apartment, a lady that used to work for my husband’s family came to work for us one day per week. I had met her years earlier and remembered how smiley and friendly she was. The day she arrived at our apartment, she went to change into her old clothes and came and stood before me, asking me shyly where she should start, and my heart just broke. I can’t tell you why exactly. Partly, I feel sorry for her having to do this job, and guilt that I don’t have to. I also don’t want to tell her what to do – that doesn’t sit well with me, especially if I could be doing it myself.

There is also the really selfish reason of not wanting someone in my house all the time, invading my space. I hope that as my portuguese improves, I can get to know whoever works for us and treat them with kindness and respect. That doesn’t change the fact that they are not family or friend, not really. They will still prefer to eat alone and use their own bathroom.

Maybe part of the issue is with my use of the English word ‘maid’. Perhaps ‘housekeeper’ is better, but you can dress it up however you like, the job is still the same.

Then I came across this great article by a fellow blogger, entitled The Maid Culture in Brazil. Here he explains that on the other side of the argument is the fact that many empregadas didn’t have the opportunity for a good education when they were young. They are using the skills they have in order to make enough money to look after their families and send their own children to school. Maybe they feel none of this akwardness about the situation that I feel consumed by. And I am truly grateful for their hard work too. I would be lying if I said I didn’t come home last week to a lovely clean bathroom with that glorious bleach smell and smile at how nice it was. There is nothing better than a clean, tidy house.

I had hoped that by writing this, I might have some kind of revelation and no longer feel guilty and lazy for employing an empregada. Unfortunately, I don’t think my feelings about this, or the maid culture in general, are going to change any time soon.

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15 responses to “The moral dilemma of employing an empregada

  1. Hey, you’re not the only foreign woman who struggles with this. I think it’s actually harder for the empregada if you are uncomfortable though. I feel the same way about the invasion of my privacy. For me it’s a sign of Brazil’s historic backwardness that this is still common – but then again, who does it help if someone who wants a job and someone else who wants to pay someone to do that job can’t come to a mutually agreeable arrangement? In your situation you’d probably have a cleaner a few hours a week if you lived in North America or Europe either – so just treat the situation as similarly as you can to that one. It’s the unnecessary ‘humbleness’ that empregadas feel they have to display that makes me feel most uncomfortable – hopefully she’ll quickly realise that you aren’t looking for someone to act all servile, just to do a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. Good luck!

    • Thank you for your comments Helen. I think you’re quite right, my feelings may well make the situation worse. I will have to try to do as you suggested and just accept that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement and stop dwelling on a culture that I can’t change. Thank you for your insight!

  2. This was really difficult for me, too. As Helen said, you’re not alone!

    I must say, I vehemently disagree with the rationale used to justify this specific socioeconomic construct – and it took every ounce of social grace I had to not snipe back at my ex fianceé when I was given this “justification.” For me, I just viewed it as, “this is how it’s done in Brazil.” And while I disagreed…I tried to move through this system as gracefully and respectfully as I could and I did my best to treat the person who cleaned my toilet with the same dignity as a person I shared the “social elevator” with.

    • It doesn’t seem like much of a justification does it. And there is certainly no hope of ever changing the situation if people clutch onto this rationale. I think I will go with your thinking of “that’s just how it’s done in brazil” and try to get on with it. Thank you for your comments!

  3. I’ve been to Brazil many times and concur with you. I’ve only seen a maid come in to clean the house/cook when I was staying with a family in the northeast.

    I know how you feel.

    Maybe this isn’t practical, but why not learn a little about your maid (esp if he/she is young — the one I met in the NE was 17!) and help him/her get a leg up to advance in life?

    Help him/her succeed and see that there are better things out there and help her move up in society. Find out what they’d like to do and help them advance.

    • Hi Robert. That’s certainly a good way of looking at it, but then does it not become a bit like a charity case? I will definitely find out what I can about them. It would be lovely to find that, even at an older age, she still has other things she wants to accomplish. Unfortunately the pessimist in me believes that she probably resigned herself to this “career” a long time ago. Thanks for your comments!

  4. I hate to bust up this “pity party” but people hire other people all the time to do those things we cannot do for ourselves. This is a fact of life. Stop judging “the help” and consider that the guilt you feel may be due to the shame you have for not taking care of your own home. Until you have dealt with your “issues” treat this person with the respect she is due and remember she works for your in-laws and that this extra work is the real imposition. Compensate her for the extra trouble.

    • Firstly, thanks for sharing your point of view. I never assumed that everyone feels the same way as I do about this sensitive subject. Secondly, I think you may have misinterpreted my point of view. I don’t judge “the help” at all, I judge myself (for exactly what you said, not doing it myself) and the whole service culture that exists here in brazil. Of course I treat her with respect and compensate her well (she does not work for my in-laws, only us) and I am very grateful to her for doing the job she does. It doesn’t change the fact that I wouldn’t want to do that job myself.

  5. My “issues” with regard to Brasil are the attitudes imposed on the people of this country by those of us from the “First World”. I understand you believe that your POV is about yourself, but it reflects a basic lack of understanding of the class structure of Brasilian life. I have struggled with this concept as well. It helps to look at the history of this marvelous country if one is truly trying to get over oneself and enjoy Brasil. Good luck.

  6. Actually I find the class structure in Brazil offensive, whether or not its accepted. It remind’s me somewhat of the class structure in India where when your born poor your discriminated against and therefore can never get out of your situation. At least in the US even if your dirt poor you can become successful and make money. In Brazil the way society has set up the structure usually if your born poor you stay poor. I also think that Brazilians “well off” Brazilians are way more discriminatory toward the lower class and I don’t like it. I have read up on Brazil and I’m married to a Brazilian man who told me a lot Brazilians have bad attitudes (he used a better word) when it comes to the poor and they way they treat them. He also made note that the US is way better on this issue. That might be why she feels a twinge of guilt.

    Just because something is ingrained in a culture and accepted does not mean its right or should not be changed.

  7. In Colombia from where I am from, the same structure exists. It is very common for middle class people to employ maids to do their cleaning. I am actually educated to master degree level but when I was studying I worked as a cleaner for a TV personality for over half a year in England where I lived more than a decade. Today, I am a mum facing the same moral objections as you do. In England at least people seem to be more respectful and considerate and there is less of a feeling of exploitation. In Colombia it is appaling as they are paid the minimum wage or under which means that people employed for this type of work are forever in poverty working all day sometimes including saturday mornings. Often these ladies are the sole earners in households with many dependent children. And yes, the small bedrooms,separate toilets, not contributions being made towards their health and pension and the indignity in which they are treated by middle class arrivistas, who declare themselves emmancipated by not having to do it. Although cleaning is not enjoyable it is a great leveller.Soon we take it for granted and do not appreciate truly the contribution these courageous ladies make to their families and to our families. They are real heroes! Are you interested of befriending a real hero when you meet one or taking this interaction as an opportunity for being part of uplifting that person up in ways to ameliorate their poverty? We can’t change the inequalities of the world but we can make ourselves available to be present to other human beings in all their splendour.

  8. Hi, I was born and raised in Brazil and now live in the US after marrying an American.

    It’s interesting how foreigners see the maid culture in Brazil from an equality perspective. I have been away for 13 years and after cleaning my own toilets and caring for my family day in and day out while running a small business of home organizing (of all things!), I have developed a full appreciation for the work “empregadas” do. I also have full appreciation of Brazilian history and socio-economics and I know that as long as education isn’t available to all nothing will change just because we feel guilty for hiring them.

    I approach it this way: every work needs to get done and if you accept them as equally important and vital – from cleaning your loo to your husband’s highly demanding job- you’ll always treat everyone with dignity because you appreciate that everyone’s work is equally important. As long as house work is seen as an annoyance and not as part of life, then we can never appreciate that all necessary work is necessary work.

    Also, our feelings of guilt is a privilege because we have the means to hire help. The debate “should I clean the loo or my husband” shows that we prefer having it cleaned by someone other than ourselves. That said the poverty that is rampant in Brazil will not go away because of our guilt, but requires a broader structural change. In this case the maid is a glaring reminder of the inequity and inequality in our societies.

    I have been visiting Brazil yearly and I see important social changes taking place and I dare to predict that in not a very distant future, my dear friends there will start cleaning their own loo. 😉

  9. Pingback: Life Skills to Create a Life You Love | Helena Alkhas·

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