Female domestic workers, waste pickers & fisherwomen: the reality of women’s work during the pandemic

The Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE) recognizes the context of extreme social inequality, structural unemployment and precarious labour relations of the neoliberal approach, which reflect a development model that ignores different ways of life and deepens ethnic and racial segregation, and the subordination of women.

Here we continue our 1 May reflections about the issues of social inequality and racism that have affected young people and women within the world of work, particularly domestic workers, during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this second text, CESE presents reports from four representatives of social organizations that highlight women’s daily struggles to guarantee employment and income.



On 21 February 2020, Italy announced its first COVID-19 victim.  Shortly after, the country became the focus of global news because of the large number of new cases and deaths caused by the disease.  In a way, the virus that affected one of the first victims in Brazil came from there. It could not have been more symbolic: a female domestic worker infected by her female boss who had returned from Italy.

For 10 years, this worker had provided services in the same house, located in Leblon, an upscale neighbourhood in the city of Rio de Janeiro.  Since she lived in another municipality, about 100 km away, she spent part of the week in her boss’s home. According to the victim’s relatives, her employer had gone to Italy for carnival and when she returned to Brazil she did not even inform her employee that she suspected she had contracted the virus.

During the pandemic, such situations have not been rare, according to Creuza Maria Oliveira, President of the Union of Domestic Workers of Bahia (Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Domésticos da Bahia: SINDOMESTICO). “The bosses say that if a domestic worker comes and goes on crowded buses they will carry the virus, but they continue going to parties, receiving people at home, without concerning themselves with the health of their employees,” she declared.

To maintain their sources of income, workers end up accepting the conditions imposed on them by bosses who violate their rights. “Many employers still see their workers as objects.  They demand they remain confined for years.  They cannot get ill, it’s as if they don’t have families.  They don’t respect their right to come and go.  If they have a husband, he’s unemployed.  She’s the only one who can pay the bills. How do you refuse?” she asked.

Creuza Maria Oliveira, President of the Union of Domestic Workers of Bahia (Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Domésticos da Bahia: SINDOMESTICO)

Creuza noted that the withdrawal of domestic workers’ rights occurred long before the pandemic. “Before the Labour Reform, employers sought out the union much more frequently, to ensure employment termination was conducted properly.  Nowadays, that happens much less often.  They feel secure about not paying all the severance payments.”

According to data from the Continuous National Household Sample Survey (Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios Contínua: PNAD Contínua), between 2019 and 2020 the overall number of domestic workers fell – from 6.4 to 4.9 million.  Of these, 4.5 million are women and 65% are black.  The reduction of 1.5 million domestic jobs represents approximately 18% of the total number of people who were unemployed over that period.

The number of domestic workers in registered employment also fell from 1.6 to 1.1 million, while those whose employment was not registered rose from 3.4 to 4.3 million professionals.  Black domestic workers lost more jobs than white ones – 900 thousand and 400 thousand respectively.  This represents another feature reported by Creuza: white domestic workers enjoy better working conditions than black ones.

“Black women suffer more bullying and sexual harassment.  Even men – drivers, caretakers – are better treated.  When a man goes to the union, there are few reports of violence.  The complaints are usually related to working hours,” she said.

Despite this difficult situation, the struggle does not end, nor do these female companions give up.  SINDOMESTICO itself has two campaigns to support female workers during the pandemic: one for them to be excused work without losing their jobs, the other to include professionals in the priority group for COVID-19 vaccination.  In 2020, CESE supported one of the union’s projects to purchase and distribute staple food baskets for domestic workers.

PHOTO: SINDOMESTICO / Activity to deliver staple food baskets to domestic workers

In Ceará, some domestic workers have found solidarity in the Ibiapabano Women’s Movement (Movimento Ibiapabano de Mulheres: MIM). A market, set up more than 10 years ago by female farmers with support from the movement, continues playing a fundamental role in the city of Viçosa do Ceará in the Serra de Ibiapaba region, particularly during the pandemic.  It grew out of joint action between the women, MIM and some local organizations.  The general idea was to train these farmers in self-organization.

With the arrival of the pandemic, domestic workers were affected – often  by unemployment – as were female producers, who saw their sales plummet.  MIM appeared as a bridge between these groups of women.  Since July 2020, with funding from two institutions, including CESE, at three distinct times, the movement has brought solidarity to both sectors.

The activity consists of purchasing agro-ecological products from rural female producers and distributing staple food baskets to vulnerable women in the urban area of Viçosa do Ceará – the choice was due to logistical issues during the pandemic.  Liliane de Carvalho Silva, MIM activist, explained that the activity did not stop there.  Training activities are also part of the process.

PHOTO: MIM / Organizing staple food baskets to distribute to beneficiaries

“One of our prerequisites is that the beneficiaries themselves make up their own staple food baskets when we go to distribute them, to get away from the feeling that something is being given. It’s a question of self-esteem,” she noted.  Currently there are 31 female beneficiaries of this activity, which represents an increase – the first time there were 20, while the second time this number was 25. Most of the women are domestic workers.

The baskets were delivered to the same place, however at two different times, to avoid crowds.  Filled with pride, Liliane explains that the training occurred at the same time as the delivery, underneath an acerola tree.  “We addressed themes such as domestic and family violence against women, femicide, agro-ecology, the solidarity economy, agribusiness, racism and anti-racism, sexual and reproductive rights.”

However, when the pandemic became more acute in the city, the groups became even smaller.  This meant that the training required a new format.  And that came: straightaway booklets and roundtable conversations gave way to ‘Letters from Godmothers’. MIM began to send audio messages to beneficiaries with content that was usually discussed at in-person meetings and ran debates via a WhatsApp group.

“We saw that there was less interaction with the audio.  Sometimes, during the roundtables, not everyone had time to speak. And there was a reading barrier.  Many women don’t read very well.  This obstacle didn’t exist with the audio,” Lilian explained.


The reality for fisherwomen and female waste pickers

For many fisherwomen, the COVID-19 pandemic came after another devastating situation: the oil spill that affected the coast of Northeast Brazil in 2019.  Only a few months short of its second anniversary, Maria Celeste de Souza, Coordinator of the Movement of Artisanal Fishermen and Women (Movimento de Pescadores e Pescadoras Artesanais: MPP) in Piauí, reported that it is still possible to find oil residue in state waters.

“When the tide is very high and very strong, we are still surprised by the residue that appears here on the coast,” she said.  She also noted that support from the federal government after the episode was the same as that provided at the time of the spill: none.  “Since there was no contingency plan, we had to put our hands to the wheel, in partnership with the universities and the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade: ICMBio).  We got dirty in order to clean the waters”.

Maria Celeste de Souza, Coordinator of the Movement of Artisanal Fishermen and Women (Movimento de Pescadores e Pescadoras Artesanais: MPP)

Celeste described how sales were affected at the time. “The waters were contaminated and this directly affected food sustainability for the fisherwomen.  We were prevented from fishing.  More than 80% of the shellfish pickers’ sales were at risk.  People didn’t want to buy our fish, our prawns.”  And then the pandemic came.  Celeste reported that, once again, sales have been affected.

She described how the fishermen and women have donated to each other during the pandemic. “We had campaigns for donations of masks, food, medicines to take to the communities.  I’m 66 years old.  How many times did I have to leave my social isolation to help people in need?” she exclaimed.  In 2020, CESE supported an MPP- Piauí project to purchase and distribute staple food baskets.

But the challenges did not end there. On 13 February the buildings used to store the catch of the fishermen, fisherwomen and shellfish pickers from the community of Cajueiro da Praia (Piauí state) in Porto da Lama, were demolished, in an action supported by the State.  Approximately 20 of these spaces were demolished, without explanation and with no opportunity to remove their artisanal fishing material and tackle.

The destruction of these storehouses had an escort from the military police.  Irregular constructions had been spotted in areas of permanent preservation along the Piauí coast.  In the same city, mangroves are being deforested and fenced in as a result of property speculation.  As well as the mangroves, the region is also the home of the manatee – a species threatened with extinction.

The pandemic has had a direct effect on female waste pickers.  At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Brazil, many professionals left their jobs through fear of infection.  But this fear did not dissipate as they returned to the streets: the fear then was of becoming infected through garbage from families who had had the virus.

PHOTO: CAMAPET / Clarice Cruz, 63 years old, black woman, mother, grandmother and waste picker. “I built my house with the money from recycling” she said.

Michele Almeida, waste picker and President of the Cooperative of Selective Collection, Plastic Processing and Environmental Protection (Cooperativa de Coleta Seletiva, Processamento de Plástico e Proteção Ambiental: CAMAPET), noted that the pandemic has had an impact on the waste pickers in many ways.  “Other companies started closing, imagine what it was like for a cooperative that depends on recyclable materials.  There was less waste material, some cooperatives needed to close their doors.”

She noted that getting formal work so that people can earn their crust and support their families has always been difficult.  “Now things are worse.  Some of the alternatives we had were to become a street vendor or to pick recyclable materials from the street”.

Michele is one of the millions of waste pickers in Brazil who provide a service rarely provided by the country’s public authorities.  According to data from the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada: IPEA), waste pickers are responsible for about 90% of all the recycling undertaken in Brazil, however Michele still complained about their lack of recognition as professionals.

Michele Almeida, waste picker and President of the Cooperative of Selective Collection, Plastic Processing and Environmental Protection (Cooperativa de Coleta Seletiva, Processamento de Plástico e Proteção Ambiental: CAMAPET)

“We have removed so many tons of materials that could have gone into landfill, but still we aren’t paid for it.  The municipal authorities don’t recognize it.  The vaccine, for example, is something we’re fighting for.  It’s not only the people who clean the city who need the vaccine, but we are also a priority.  We are waste pickers, we are on the streets, working in cooperatives, so we also need immunity,” Michele noted.

She ended by drawing attention to the profile of these professionals. “The fight continues.  The work isn’t easy.  It’s a job for fighters.  Most of the cooperative members who are on the frontline are women, black women, heads of households, responsible for earning their daily crust.”


Work and CESE

With its Right to Work and Income policy, CESE is seeking the guarantee of the necessary conditions for the production and reproduction of life, strengthening resistance to the neoliberal dynamic and stimulating the construction of alternatives in the field of production, commercialization and consumption, such as family and peasant farming, agroecology, the solidarity economy and grassroots sectors.