Educate, Agitate, Organise!

“If you look back over history, most progress has come about when popular movements have emerged led by determined men and women,” said veteran British politician Tony Benn.

Cleaning the kitchen and putting on the washing before leaving for work this morning, I thought of one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met, Creuza Oliveira, leader of the Brazilian domestic workers’ national federation. Something that Creuza taught me was that struggles for rights are also about recognition: about being seen by the state, but also about being able to see ourselves and be regarded by others as fully human, deserving of respect as well as rights.

For domestic workers in Brazil, it’s been a long, hard struggle to achieve rights and recognition. The movement began in the 1930s, led by a determined black domestic worker, Laudelina de Campos Mello, who established the first domestic workers’ association. During the years that followed, domestic workers joined together in protest over the appalling labour conditions and pay that was part of the legacy of slavery. Creuza entered domestic work – unpaid, a domestic slave – at the age of 10. She was forced to eat left-overs, teased and told she was ugly. There was no-one to turn to. She was forced to live in the house of her employers. Isolated, lonely, she suffered abuse and ignominy. What hurt the most, she told me, was that they disregarded her as a human being. Birthdays went uncelebrated. She never received any acknowledgement, let alone praise, for her work, reduced to the pair of invisible hands dealing with their dirt.

In the years of the dictatorship, as Creuza was growing up, the only spaces in which these conversations could continue were those of the Catholic church. Associations and trades unions were banned. Creuza heard on the radio about a meeting of domestic workers organized by a church group, went along and found a passion that has never dimmed. She told me of how she’d always asked herself why she and women like her were so badly treated: when she joined that group, she began to see that it was because they did not have any rights. As democracy returned to Brazil, Creuza and her colleagues formed first an association and then the first national union of domestic workers. They came together with others – the black movement, as so many of Brazil’s domestic workers are black and their struggles are also struggles for racial equality, the feminist movement, because the majority of domestic workers are women, and other unions, who were engaged in educating, agitating and organizing Brazil’s massive working class.

Brazil’s “Citizens’ Constitution” of 1988 was the fruit of social movements coming together with their demands for a Brazil for all, one in which their rights would be guaranteed by a state that recognized and respected them as human beings. The Constitutional guarantees brought ordinary citizens from all walks of life into view of a state that had up to that time either ignored or oppressed them. Over the last 25 years, and especially under a Workers’ Party government led by a leader from the metalworkers union, Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, Brazilian social movements have made enormous gains in legislation and entitlements. Domestic workers now have maternity and sick leave, a day off a week, entitlement to a minimum wage and a number of other labour rights. They have achieved substantial gains. But  their struggle for recognition continues. The short film Creuza offers a glimpse of what that fight involves.

As I scrub the saucepans, I think of Creuza and her colleagues around the world and of the workers’ movements without whom we may still not have the labour rights that allow us to take the time off work to nurse our sickness, to rest and seek pleasures of leisure, and to protest injustice without fearing that we’ll lose our jobs. These are rights we might take for granted in the UK, but even here, even now, they’re not rights enjoyed by legions of informal sector workers the world over for whom the long, hard struggle for recognition continues.


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