Brazil’s ‘Poor’ Middle Class, And The Poor That No Longer Serve Them (Forbes)

By Kenneth Rapoza – 1/22/2013 @ 11:41AM |8.546 views

Let me preface this by saying that this is not a jab at Brazil. This is actually a story that shows how Brazil’s rising tide is lifting all boats. The poor have more opportunities than ever before. They are earning more money (for some, how’s 56 percent sound?). And for the middle class that used to depend on them to wash their dishes and make their lunch, those days of luxury are over.

Bemvindo a vida Americana, meu bem!

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My “house.” Edificio Bretagne. How I miss it. Right in the fold, top floor, all three windows were mine all mine. And a maid cleaned them for me.

Ask an expat what they love most about living overseas and they will inevitably tell you this: the taxes and the maid service. That’s right. Maids. And not for the rich, mind you, but for middle-of-the-road, beer-from-a-can drinking, 2.5 GPA achieving riff-raff professionals. Whether they’re living in Dubai, Mumbai or Brazil, they all love their maids. It’s a luxury they cannot afford back home.

I lived in Brazil for 10 years. I left in March 2010. Maids cooked my lunch, always a three courser. Rice. Beans, sometimes black, sometimes Carioca-style, which meant brown. Meat. Salad. Desert. Fresh squeezed orange juice or Swiss lemonade. Passion fruit. Guarana. Then, she did my dishes. Afterwards, she washed my clothes and pressed them.

As time went on, maintaining a daily maid became too costly. I cut back. I had a maid just twice a week. She cleaned. She did laundry. I cooked. I paid her R$80 a day, or R$140 a week, which was around $78 for two full days of work. Her name was Hélia. Me and my girls loved Hélia. I hope she is doing well. Anyway…

We lived in this beautiful building pictured here in São Paulo, in the Higienopolis neighborhood. A colleague of mine from one of the big U.S. newswires lived there, too. Our children hung out together a lot, especially in the swimming pool, which was surrounded by palm trees that housed these small green parrots that blended in with the palm leaves. He too had a maid, only his maid was there every day and sometimes on the weekends. A female columnist from Folha de São Paulo newspaper lived in the building, too. She also had a daughter. Only her daughter had a maid and a nanny, seven days a week. This was an early 40-something year old newspaper columnist, not a rock star.

Like me, my colleague was an American living a life we could never afford in the States. Ever. We were both scum sucking reporters waiting for the ax to fall on our necks. He, a little richer and hopeful; me, a little younger and angrier. One thing we all appreciated was being able to afford the extra help.

My swimming pool. We even had a barman. Though he was a grump. Me, my daughter and the daughter of an American reporter colleague called him Mr. Grumpy Pumpkin Man during our Halloween parties. Ahhh, the life…

Over the last 8 years, the income of Brazil’s domestic workers has risen by an estimated 56 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics, IBGE. It’s a hard number to quantify because every single maid in Brazil is paid under the table in cash. By comparison, the average income in general rose by 29 percent. Nationwide, the average salary paid to domestic servants runs around R$721 a month, or around $360. However, that figure is double or triple in big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The income of Brazilian maids has risen by an average of 6.7 percent in just one year in real terms. Adding to the price tag is a steady decline in the number of domestic workers in the market.

Quite frankly, Brazil’s economy is getting richer. The poor have better things to do than clean up after middle class teenagers who still haven’t learned to fold and put away their own  T-shirts.

Short supply, high prices. Many Brazilians cannot afford the help. Welcome to your American Dream, Brazil!

Carol Campos is an administrator at Banco do Brasil in São Paulo. It’s a nice, full-time middle class gig. She lives in Higienopolis. I’ve been to her house many times. Our kids are friends. They went to school together. She used to have a maid every day when her first child was born, then down to a couple days a week and now — because of the rising cost of living — she tells me, “We are now down to just one day per week. It’s too expensive.” She pays her maid R$90 ($45) a day.

A host of new labor laws designed to protect informal workers drove up costs. The government wanted the working poor, most of them women, to have enough money to save for retirement and, of course, healthcare. That started driving up prices around the year 2000.

“About four years ago, when me and my sister were in college and working, my family all decided to just hire a ‘diarista’,” says , Leoberto José Preuss, a systems analyst at Brazilian IT firm TOTVS in Joinville, Santa Catarina, one of the more middle class states in the country.  Back then he says, a diarista, a maid that just comes once in a while and charges a flat day rate, charged just R$60 a day to cook and clean a house. “You’re lucky if you find anyone for less than 90,” he says. “We have someone come three days a week. It’s difficult to find anyone available these days.”

It will get harder. And as time goes on, it will definitely get more costly. So costly, in fact, that the majority of middle class Brazilians will no longer have a maid.

The government recently required full time domestic workers to receive the coveted “thirteenth salary”, a whole month’s work of pay in December, plus workman’s comp through the FGTS tax.  Brazilian maid service is becoming professionalized, and that has pulled the rug out from the middle class that has come to depend on them to keep their house in order.

A poll from Folha de São Paulo this month asked respondents if they would be able to afford a maid given the new labor laws. Out of the 1,177 on line respondents, 44 percent said no, 26 percent said they’d have to cut back on hours. So a total 70 percent are starting to get used to the fact that the good ole “Banana Republic” days are gone.

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Sarah Castro, 28, is also from Santa Catarina. She is one of the Brazilian middle class that grew up with a live-in maid, her very own Mary Poppins. For Americans, this is an imperial wet dream.  All that’s missing is Tinkerbell. In the dream, you’re from the rich nation before the days of labor rights, and your family can afford to hire your neighbors wife to clean the house, while he cleans your chimney.  Those days are gone in London. They are ending in Florianopolis, Santa Catarina, where Sarah was raised and now works as a reporter.

“Our maid was named Nice. She lived with us and was part of our family. I miss her. There was no one like her,” she says. “Nowadays, we only have a maid once a week.  A good maid is hard to find.”

Let’s rephrase that. Barring a dystopian future, by the time Sarah is in her 40s, an affordable maid will be impossible to find.

I was in my early 20s when I first came to Brazil in 1995, I lived with a family in a city called Londrina, population around 500,000.  It’s in the center of Parana state, an agribusiness boom town.  The father was a professor at the local university.  The mother owned a small business, operating a clothing company out of what was once their garage. They had one weaving machine that made fabric 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I can still hear that thing moving back and force, swish-swoosh; swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh. They were Brazil’s middle class. By my standards, they were rich because six days a week they had a maid who cooked and cleaned for them so both parents could work. The maid served them. She picked up after the four children. She cleaned up the dog’s mess in the yard.

Here’s the rub, I was raised by a maid. My mother didn’t graduate from high school. But she grew up in America. A maid that didn’t go to school in Brazil doesn’t live like one that grew up in the U.S.  The Brazilians couldn’t believe that a maid’s son had a basketball pole in his yard, an above ground pool and that my family had three cars. Their car ran on ethanol, and that thing was a piece of junk; a jalopy is more like it. Damn, meu filho; I had aCamaro Berlinetta!

Inequality in Brazil allowed the middle class to enjoy a life of luxury their American peers envied.

I never saw a messy Brazilian house in the decade I lived there. Everything was in its place.  Two-income households in São Paulo, as busy as a two-income household in New York, never had a dish in the sink, an unmade bed, or a laundry basket overflowing onto the bathroom floor.

Embrace the mess, Brazil. (And pick up those socks!)

“I have a maid come once every 15 days and that’s it,” says Keli Bergamo, a lawyer in Parana state. “The cooking, the clothes washing, I have to do myself. But I live alone. I know a lot of people who are cutting back. Brazilians will get crafty with the labor laws, though,” she says, adding that many wealthy Brazilians will avoid the full time labor rules by getting rid of full time maids and hiring part-timers in their place.

“These new laws make it more costly to maintain domestic help in Brazil,” she says. “A lot of people are going to give up this comfort and will have to divide the labor between the members of their household from now on.”