PARÁ — Luana* was exploited as a domestic worker when she was still a teenager. She almost died of exhaustion. Leila was a 15-year-old black girl when she was left in the home of strangers, who forced her to work in conditions similar to slavery. Josiane was “welcomed” by a family when she was 7, but soon they dumped household duties on her: washing, sweeping, folding, taking care of the other children.
Luana, Leila, and Josiane are just three among thousands of Brazilian girls deceived by 'foster parents' who steal them away from their families with the lure of a better life and a shot at education. It's all a lie. The chance to go to school never comes, nor do wages for their labor. They are barred from sitting at the family table or even turning on the lights. They are confined to cramped rooms, forced to eat what they don't like, passed around like objects. They are bullied, harassed, shamed, and given names such "useless, frizzy hair Nigger.”
Luana, Leila, and Josiane worked day and night. They slept crying. Their childhood died as soon as they stepped foot inside these “family homes”, scarring them for their entire lives.
Brazil has come a long way in improving the rights of domestic workers, but the country has failed to completely abolish the dangerous nexus between domestic work and child labor. The spectre of “foster daughters”, while more common in middle- and upper-class homes in the past, still haunts Brazilian society. In Pará, where the practice takes a heavy toll on the indigenous community, thousands of children remain trapped in this hell.
The figure of the “foster daughters” is an enduring one in Brazil. Girls from small villages and the outskirts of cities are “adopted” by families from urban areas with the promise of education and social mobility. They are told that "they would be looked after as if they were family”, but in effect they are recruited as bonded labor. Researchers Danila Cal and Rosaly Brito examine this scourge in the book Communication, Gender and Domestic Work, of which they are the editors. “The idea of being 'part of the family' is used to justify the exploitation of free labor by women and children”, Danila points out.
These girls are not even treated like children.
The nature of this exploitation has changed over time. Danila says that whereas in the past, “classic” domestic child labor involved girls from small cities or municipalities employed in households in the capital cities, today the employers also include poor women who need caregivers for their children while they work outside the home. These women make minimum wage and cannot afford professional carers. So they turn to teenagers in their neighborhood, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation.
Illusion of equality
The relationship between female employers and teenage domestic workers is a complex one because, despite their distinct places in the labor hierarchy, their shared gender identity can create the illusion of equality and familiarity.
“Exploiters use the expression 'foster daughter' as a substitute for 'slave labor', 'servile labor', and other similar terms", says Maria Zuíla Dutra, National Manager and Regional Coordinator of the Program to Combat Child Labour and Encourage Learning in Brazil's Labour Justice system. These girls are not even treated like children, she says. "They rarely attend school, and they will not have the opportunity to play with other children."
Race is a key element in this toxic setup. Colonial thinking suggests that black people were born to do manual labor, write researchers Louize Nascimento and Kelly Prudencio in the article “Cordial Family’: Visual Marks of Inequality in the News Coverage of the Domestic Workers’ PEC (Domestic Constitutional Amendment Proposal)”.
“The black woman was born to be a housekeeper, nursing mother, cook, chambermaid, washerwoman, seamstress, among others, possessing innate gifts for this," the article points out, "unlike the white people, who, in this view, were born to command, manage and dominate."
Conspiracy of silence
In 2019, 118,768 children and adolescents aged 5 to 17 were working as child labor in the State of Pará, according to information from the project “Kids Free from Child Labor” by the Public Ministry of Labor (MPT). Domestic service was among the three main activities carried out by this age group ( involving 7,972 children or 6.7% of the total population of child workers).
The Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) prohibits children under the age of 16 from working. There exists an exception for apprenticeships, permitted from the age of 14. Working nights, dangerous or unhealthy work, and activities on the TIP list ("the worst forms of child labor") are illegal for children under 18.
Pará has over 390,000 registered domestic workers and 28,000 day laborers, according to Lucileide Mafra Reis, president of the State's Domestic Workers Union. Data from the Dieese (Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies) pegs the number of workers in the state at 192,000, 80% of whom are engage in informal labor.
The union carries out inspections in more than 900 condominiums in the state’s capital, Belém, surveying the number of workers – including monthly and and daily wage earners. Lucileide says girls generally do not report exploitation. “We have to station ourselves in front of the condominiums so we can approach them at the exits.” According to another union official, in many cases of exploitation they investigate, the accused families continue to claim that they are "helping" the children.
Modern slave quarters
Meanwhile, girls continue to live in miserable, windowless cubicles hidden behind the laundries in Belém's luxury apartments. They are denied basic human rights, such as health and education, and are not given access to their personal documents.
“The modern slave quarters are the maid’s rooms,” writes Preta Rara (Rare Back woman) in the 2019 book Eu, empregada doméstica (I, domestic servant).
Her days were marked by relentless toil, waking before dawn and retiring long after nightfall.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Constitutional Amendment 72, the PEC for domestic workers, which guaranteed labor rights to thousands of workers in Brazil. It stipulates 8-hour working days (44-hour weeks), overtime payment, vacations, 13th-month salary, maternity leave, retirement for disability, etc. However, the law failed to change the plight of informal workers.
Born in a large family with modest means, Luana's early years were simple and joyful. Everything changed when she, along with her sisters, was thrust into domestic work. What started as babysitting for acquaintances soon turned into a harsh roster of household chores, including laundry, cooking, and cleaning, that would leach away at her childhood.
Luana's journey, recounted through her adult eyes, is a story of racist exploitation and abuse. Her days were marked by relentless toil, waking before dawn and stopping long after nightfall. She was rarely allowed to meet her family.
“I don’t think I ever really understood what happened to me.”
But all this adversity could not break Luana's spirit. A turning point came when she escaped from a particularly dehumanizing job, refusing to accept servitude any longer. Even as she struggled with employment in her new life, Luna continued to nurture her dreams of pursuing a degree in psychology and securing a better life for herself and her daughter. She now carries the scars from her past as a testament to her unwavering determination.
The story does not end here
“I wouldn’t recommend [this life] to anyone” says Leila, now 54 years old. Having suffered racism and sexual harassment throughout her professional life, Leila was finally able to escape after getting married and having her own children. She now works as a housekeeper and sells sweet couscous to supplement her income.
Josiane, now 42, has a similar story. “I don’t think I ever really understood what happened to me,” she says. She was able to escape after 12 years of physical and emotional abuse by her employers, and find a job in a supermarket. She didn't stop there – she went on to earn a college degree and get a job in a school.
Luana, Leila, and Josiane's stories are painful reminders of the prevalence of child labor and domestic abuse, and all the different ways they are normalized in a large segment of Brazilian society. They also speak to the resilience of survivors who refuse to let their past define their entire lives.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of .