Salvador We were lucky that Sunday is traditionally the day off for household domestic workers around the world. We were scheduled to meet the director and leaders of SINDOMESTICO-BA, the Domestic Workers Union in the Brazilian state of Bahia late in the afternoon in Salvador. The address was eluding us, but we were early. Uber dropped us off on the wrong side of the expressway. Google Maps showed the building behind impenetrable gates and a strip of small businesses. None of this reflected the reality. Finally, two of our party, acting as scouts, walked several blocks away and messaged us to follow. Before climbing up the steep stairway to their headquarters, it was of course impossible to ignore the very obvious sign indicating their presence hanging over the sidewalk from the building.
There were fifteen women seated in a square with their director, the only man, waiting for us. The introductions included how many years each woman had done domestic work, which ranged from months to decades. They listened with equal attention to our translator’s description of our work, and where we were from, before we swiftly got into the issues.
They told of a minimum monthly wage set by the state for domestic workers, but underlined how little it was enforced. So little, in fact, that none could immediately tell us exactly what the minimum was. The issues they faced included sexual harassment that was common as well, and for live-in domestics, they described a situation that existed as modern-day slavery.
Creuza Oliveira, one of the primary directors, described the history of their union which stretched back decades, but started in earnest in the early 1980s, but only won the legal right to be a union in 1988, and was formally constituted under the law in 1990. There was a sign on one of the walls filled with pictures of their activities that noted thirty-three years of “Luta e Resistencia” or fight and resistance. I asked Sister Oliverira about one picture of the hundreds where former, and now current, president Lula de Silva was standing next to her.
His time in office had been important to the union compared to their struggles since 2017 under his predecessor, who had crippled their union and others with new regulations. They now had 2000 members in Bahia out of the 150,000 in Salvador and the eight-million nationally. Only 50 regularly paid dues, and we spent a lot of time discussing how they could improve collection and shared our experiences, both good and bad. Under Lula, a household owner seeking a domestic worker had to sign paperwork and the worker had to present the agreement for approval and signature by the union, allowing them to collect dues and enroll the member. Having gotten in the habit of having workers come to them, the last six years had been difficult when they would have needed to shift gears to do outreach. They wanted advice on raising resources that we were unable to provide.
It was dark as we prepared to leave them to the rest of their Sunday, but then they produced snacks. Sister Oliverira took me on a proud tour of their office. They gave us mugs with their insignia. It wasn’t necessary. None of us present will ever forget the meeting and our conversations.