Global Policy Forum

Domestic child labor: An overview of Brazil’s recent experience




Armand Pereira

January 2010

Child domestic work received little attention until the late 1990s. It remains highly neglected because of the relatively invisible nature of such work, the difficulty in getting good data within and across countries, lack of interest among policy-makers and legislators, limited law enforcement, etc.  In several countries, labor-related laws still do not address domestic work, much less that of children which is still perceived by many people as a "good" option for poor girls. This problem has as much to do with children's rights and public attitudes as with deregulated labor markets and necessary changes thereof.

Domestic work represents up to 10 percent of total employment in several countries, according to ILO's labor statistics. Yet, it is generally undervalued, overworked, underpaid, unprotected and, therefore, open to abuse of children and adults as well. Indeed, a significant proportion of domestic workers are children in spite of international treaties and national laws prohibiting it. Yet, the first point to stress is this: Human rights violations get more sympathy when it comes to children, but we can more effectively crack down on domestic child labor through efforts to improve the regulatory framework covering domestic work at large - a critical point reemphasized at the end of this article.

One in seven children is in child labor of some sort, according to ILO's statistical efforts since the late 1980s. Over 6% of the working children are in community, social and personal services, including domestic work. Child domestic workers are estimated around 175,000 under 18 in Central America, nearly 325,000 between 10 and 17 in Brazil, over 53,000 under 15 in South Africa, some 38,000 between 5 and 7 in Guatemala, more than 688,000 in Indonesia, and probably much more in some other large Asian countries for which semi-reliable estimates are still missing.

About 90% of domestic child workers are girls; boys may exceptionally share up to 50% (e.g. in Katmandu in the late-1990s); most are in the 12-17 age group, but some are as young as 5 or 6. They are often far from their families, controlled by their employer, invisible to public authorities, frequently deprived of basic rights and related social services, decent lodging and working conditions, deprived of protection from sexual harassment and mental and physical abuse. As some evidence shows, they are often victims of child trafficking between and within countries.

On the whole, the global situation concerning domestic child labor is way off targets of eradication of worst forms of child labor set for 2016. It is shameful, scandalous and unacceptable. Some progress has surely been made in the attitudes of policy makers, legislators and the public in general, but not even close to what needs to be done.

Some reflections in the light of Brazil's experience

Brazil is one good example showing both advances and difficulties in eradicating child labor and, among its worst forms, domestic child work. Since the early 1990s, positive initiatives have been put in place - with the Government's leadership and/or blessings - to curb child labor, including domestic child work since the late 1990s. Among developing countries, Brazil had the most impressive drop in child labor between 1992 and 2004 in both absolute and percentage terms, making its experience relevant enough for many other countries.

Major advances

Much of the 30% decline in the most critical 5-15 age group from 1992 to 1998 and, again, from 1998 to 2004 was due to a good mix of initiatives, particularly in education, labor inspection, and family income assistance, combined with efforts to develop child labor statistics, national- and state-level multi-entity forums and related action programs by local and state governments and NGOs partly assisted by international agencies.

Constructive pressure from civil society and the media in collaboration with governmental and international agencies have raised public awareness and helped to mobilize action-oriented efforts.

One example of this has been the "Communications Action Plan to Cope with Domestic Child Labor" - a partnership of ILO, UNICEF, Fundação Abrinq for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, the News Agency on Children's Rights (ANDI) and Save the Children UK. This same partnership was extended to an ILO regional project covering Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay and seven countries of Central America. In Brazil's case, the Project also involved four government Ministries and several civil society organizations in different states. Initial action began with three pilot projects: in Belém by Cedeca-Emaús, in Belo Horizonte by Circo de Todo Mundo and Recife by Cendhec. This work included qualitative studies on domestic child labor followed by meetings and workshops with nationwide media coverage, publications, follow up training, etc.

Another pioneer action project targeting child domestic work has been ongoing in Salvador by CEAFRO - Centro de Estudos Afro-Orientais (Ceao) of Bahia's Federal University in cooperation with UNICEF, ILO, the Bahia Domestic Workers' Union (Sindoméstico), European donor agencies, etc.

The effectiveness of all these campaigns and initiatives on the real numbers of children working is unclear. Yet, these efforts did increase public awareness and undoubtedly paved the way for more effective policies, legislation and law enforcement.

Although the estimates of domestic child workers are not very reliable, the numbers have fallen from nearly 500,000 between 5 and 17 in 2002-03 to 323,770 between 10 and 17 in 2008 (94.2% girls), according to the latest national household survey. Since the number between 5 and 10 is known to be relatively small, the estimates therefore suggest a significant decrease nonetheless.

Civil society and the media have also played a critical role in mobilizing action and in tracking government obligations to the ratified UN Convention on the Children's Rights (1990) and the ILO Conventions 138 and 182 respectively on Minimum Working Age (1973) and the Worst Forms of Child Labor (1999). For example, Article 3 of ILO Convention 182 called for national tripartite consultations to define hazardous work (the forth category of worst forms of child labor) and, for that purpose, enact the necessary changes in the regulatory framework to facilitate "immediate and effective action". The Federal Constitution (Art. 7, in particular) and nine ordinary laws include elements applicable to domestic workers. However, this framework had been insufficient due to conceptual ambiguities and legal loopholes.

Finally, in June 2008, in follow up to ILO Convention 182 (Article 3), the Government passed Decree 6481 defining a revised list of work activities that are prohibited to persons under 18 years, i.e., "work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children". This new list now includes domestic child labor, unlike the earlier list published in September 2001 by MTE's Portaria 20 with more limited legal implications than the 2008 Decree. The new norm resulted from two years of discussions in the framework of the National Commission for Child Labor Eradication (CONAETI), comprised of 33 entities from the Federal Government, employers' and workers' organizations and other entities of civil society. Since September 2008, that Decree enables a clear definition of illegality and facilitates concerted actions by the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MTE)'s Inspection Bureau and the Labor Prosecutions Office (Ministerio Publico do Trabalho-MPT) and other institutions empowered to act in defense of children's rights.

In this context, another positive effort has been the MTE's Normative Instruction 77 of June 3 2009. It provides clearer guidance to the roles, obligations, and limitations of labor inspectors regarding procedures in follow up to complaints concerning child domestic work and the steps they can objectively take in collaboration with the MPT with supplementary powers under the Constitution to review cases of alleged non-compliance with the law and prosecute employers. In a recent case in a suburb of Salvador, Bahia, the MPT filed a Public Civil Action against a family for using child domestic labor in conditions analogous to slavery, after an anonymous complaint addressed to the Special Bureau for Policies on Women's Equality and then forwarded to the MPT for further review. As a result, Gabriela de Jesus Silva was rescued on June 10 2008. She was then 25 and had been working for that family since 10 years old, "without receiving wages, suffering torture, threats, violations and no right to leave." The police investigation is still ongoing, and its conclusion will be interesting enough to watch over coming months (or years). In another case in the State of Goiás, in April 2008 the MPT filed a public civil action in the Labor Court with an order requiring a family to pay compensation of at least R$ 1 million (about half million US dollars) for using domestic child labor in conditions analogous to slavery, as well compensations for individual and collective moral damages. The MPT justified the action by extreme violence, abuse, forced labor, torture and threats. The family's assets had been blocked while the court process continued

Major challenges

In spite of the recognized advances, the decline in child labor has dramatically slowed down since 2004. In fact the 2005 figures for the 5-15 age group increased 5.6% from 2004 and then decreased again, and more significantly from 2007 to 2008. Yet, the absolute numbers remain very high for Brazil's level of national income and income per capita. Over 60% of domestic child workers are of African descent, and about 50 per cent are from families with a household income of less than half of Brazilian's minimum monthly wage (i.e., half of about US$ 100 in early 2003 compared with US$ 290 in Jan 2010). What has definitely changed for better, to the credit of both the Brazilian Government and the global economic trends is the fact that absolute poverty in Brazil has declined and this should, in the least, enable easier efforts to pull neglected children out of intolerable work.

The 2007 national household survey which included a partial emphasis on child labor suggested that the increased income assistance efforts seem to have helped increase school attendance, but had apparently had a lower than expected impact on child labor, thus leading to a number of open questions on what may be going right and wrong in the division of roles of concerned institutions, the possible gaps in the mix of policies and adjustments - which will be addressed in a future article.

Specifically concerning domestic child work (i.e. for third party households), the Brazilian Federal Constitution, while opening the door to the most essential protection to domestic workers, also closes the door of households to labor inspections of domestic work employment. As a result, the future success or failure of law enforcement efforts under Decree 6481 of June 2008 may depend on the extent of objective complaints that can trigger inquiries by inspectors, in turn, leading to MPT's further scrutiny leading to law suits against employers using children under 18 for domestic work which should increase the costs of violating the law.

In September 2008, the "administrative fine" was R$ 401 (about US$ 200) per person under 18 although it may be higher depending on the number of workers, previous violations, etc. Even so, it may be too low to deter non-compliance. However, the MPT and the courts can easily prop up that cost to employers on the basis of the penal and civil codes, as in the above mentioned case in Goiás and several cases involving debt-related forced labor in remote rural areas in recent years. For all this to work out, local vigilance may be further required to: a) promote increased monitoring, b) facilitate children's complaints and their effective follow up, c) pressure concerned authorities to tighten their controls and d) improve alternatives to the affected children in terms of access to education, social integration and legal opportunities for income generation.

So far, the state-level actions by labor inspection units in terms of inquiries and number of children under 18 released from (now illegal) domestic work seem to be quite limited. Only about three to five states appear in the MTE's database on child labor to have carried out recent operations. The limited information (at least accessible to the public) does seem to suggest that the Decree may be in fact relaxing rather than increasing operations, although the information available to the public may not be up to date yet, or it may be just too early to tell. However, other ministries also active in child labor eradication efforts may be taking further actions facilitated by Decree 6481, in particular the Ministry of Social Development, the Special Bureau on Human Rights, the Special Bureau on Policies for Women and the Tutelary Councils. The efforts of these institutions deserve further analysis.

Improved law enforcement may be difficult and limited due to the semi-invisible nature of child domestic work and the restrictions on labor inspections in households. But Brazil has now the instruments required to make a big difference. There will certainly be fewer excuses not to crackdown on so-called "informal" work, since illegality is now quite clear. For each case of child domestic work that is cramped by law enforcement, many others will be directly prevented and further discouraged. And if Brazil can make progress in this area, many other countries that have taken a back seat in eradication efforts will increasingly run out of excuses as well.

Regulation of domestic work, in general, is essential for curbing child domestic work

A broader emphasis on decent work for domestic workers will be on the agenda of the 99th Session (2010) International Labour Conference - a decision of the ILO's Governing Body recommending that governments of ILO Member States and their employers' and workers' representatives develop a new instrument that addresses the conditions in which domestic work is carried out, and strengthens protections for domestic workers. Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International immediately applauded that decision, because a renewed international debate and, hopefully, a new normative instrument in the form of a Convention (treaty) or even a Recommendation could help advance the effectiveness of other UN and ILO instruments and ongoing efforts targeting children and other vulnerable groups of domestic workers worldwide.

Armand Pereira is an international consultant, former Director of ILO for the United States and ILO Representative to the Multilateral agencies in Washington (2005-2009), former Director of ILO for Brazil (1998-2005), ILO economist in Geneva (1982-1997), etc. The author is grateful for collaboration offered from the Bureau of Labor Inspection (SIT) of the Ministry of Labor and Employment as well as the News Agency on Children's Rights (ANDI), Cedeca Emaús.


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