The Pandemic, “Flexible” Work, and Household Labor in Brazil (Interview)

Luiza Nassif Pires | December 1, 2020

[The following is an interview by Paula Quental of Lygia Sabbag Fares, one of my coauthors for this post on how home quarantine has impacted domestic violence. The interview originally appeared in Portuguese and is posted here with permission.]


Labor market deregulation is bad for all workers and even more perverse for women, says economist.

According to Lygia Sabbag Fares, a specialist in Labor Economics and Gender Studies, labor reform is a way for the powerful to transfer the burden of productive costs to workers. According to Dr. Fares, there is no indication that a more egalitarian division of domestic chores between men and women, a supposed “gain” from the pandemic, will be sustainable in the future.

by Paula Quental

The discourse in defense of work flexibility—including working hours with a bank of hours, part-time, work on weekends, and relay shifts, among other measures—usually touts the advantages for workers, especially for those (in general, women) who need to reconcile hours worked with domestic duties. This argument has gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, considering the spread of the home office and a supposedly more equal division of domestic tasks between men and women.

According to the economist Lygia Sabbag Fares—professor at the Escola Superior de Administração e Gestão Strong, certified by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), PhD in Economic Development and specialist in Labor Economics at Unicamp, holder of a master’s degree in Labor Policies and Globalization from the University of Kassel and the Berlin School of Economics and Law (Germany)—the reality is quite different from what the work flexibility enthusiasts believe. According to her studies, these processes “are driven by capital, with the objective of obtaining profits and externalizing costs, following the capitalist model of production under the aegis of neoliberalism”. The result is severe job insecurity, or greater pressure in the case of more competitive jobs, and in both situations, women are the most affected.

There is also no guarantee, according to her, that in the post-pandemic scenario, couples will still push to share domestic chores relating to their home and children. The net result of this period seems to be more negative than positive, considering the increase in domestic violence and divorce.

Read the following interview with the Brazilian professor, who has just received an invitation to teach at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, in the United States:

In an article published in March (co-authored with Gustavo Vieira da Silva), you warned about the risk of increased domestic violence during the quarantine period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, has domestic violence increased in Brazil? Is it possible to see the data on the increase in the number of separations and divorces?

Regardless of the difficulty in measuring cases and possible underreporting due to the pandemic, it is possible to say that violence against women and girls increased during the period of social isolation. In April, the number of complaints of violence against women received on the 180 line grew by almost 40% compared to the same month of 2019, according to data from the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights (MMDH). According to the Public Security Forum, cases of femicide increased by 22% in 12 states in the same period. The lack of more recent data can be explained by the pandemic—the expected gap between their collection, production, and dissemination—but it is noteworthy that there is no official information on the website of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights.

According to data from Jus Brazil, there was a 177% increase in demand for specialized law firms in Family Law and divorces, compared to the same period last year. Due to social isolation, the tension of remote work, or unemployment, living together can become challenging. However, it is important to note that these difficulties only become violence because of sexism, which unfortunately is openly supported by the president, his ministers, and advisers.

What has the federal government done to address the issue? Or, on the contrary, has the issue been made invisible through a demobilization of the few existing instruments to combat violence against women?

An article that I co-authored, still under review, entitled “Gendered impacts of COVID-19 in Brazil: a preliminary assessment”, addresses this issue. We believe the federal government is not concerned about gender mainstreaming, a concept defined by the United Nations in the 1990s that establishes the institutionalization and integration of gender equality norms and policies in countries and international organizations. We argue that in the 2000s, Brazil moved towards building a positive institutional and legal framework for the promotion of gender equality, with the creation of the National Secretariat of Policy for Women holding ministry status in 2003, the implementation of the Pro-Gender and Race Equality Program in 2005, the promulgation of the Maria da Penha Law in 2006, and with the creation of the Municipal Secretariat of Politics for Women of the city of São Paulo in 2013, where I had the honor to be director of the department of alternative income.

However, after 2015 begins a process to dismantle these institutions, which is made explicit in the misogynistic statements of the president; in the elimination of the Municipal Secretariat of Politics for Women of the city of São Paulo; in the reduction of the ministry status and the choice to place Damares Regina Alves as the current minister, as she is openly antifeminist, just to mention a few examples. In this sense, I believe that unfortunately it is possible to affirm that there is a demobilization, both in the discourse and in practice, of previous victories regarding gender and race equality, women’s rights, and the instruments to combat violence against women and girls.

What does the episode of the reaction of fundamentalist groups to a ten-year-old girl’s right to legal abortion show about the country’s current situation regarding the rights of women, children, and adolescents? Are we seeing an institutional setback or just the “empowerment” of reactionary voices?

Based on this specific case, given the girl was able to have the procedure, I believe that regardless of how fragile our institutions are, they still fulfill, as they did in the past, a fundamental role in maintaining, even if minimally, some rights in our country. However, I understand that the “empowerment” of reactionary voices, such as, for example, the criminal affront to the Child and Adolescent Statute, by activist Sara Winter, when publicly exposing the girl’s identity and calling for protests in front of the hospital, has perverse effects on our culture, in public opinion, and may have institutional effects in the future. The historical composition of the National Congress (heterosexual white males; representatives of a conservative elite) is at this moment even more worrisome, considering the increase of congressional blocs that support guns, agribusiness, and evangelical groups. The thought that those parliamentarians are the ones making the law, legitimized by these reactionary voices, is concerning.

In addition to the affirmation of conservative values, today in Brazil we are witnessing the dismantling of labor rights that were consolidated over decades. Many advocate work flexibility, saying, for example, that it allows for a more adequate arrangement of time to balance work, child care, etc. But your studies show that it is precisely women who are most harmed by these changes. Why is that?

As I discuss in my doctoral dissertation, the deregulation of work hours in Brazil has been a phenomenon observed since the 1990s. Despite the discourse that work flexibility would allow the reconciliation of productive and reproductive work, in my study I seek to demonstrate that the processes of work flexibility are driven by capital, with the objective of obtaining profits and externalizing costs, following the capitalist model of production under the aegis of neoliberalism. The most recurrent forms of flexible working hours are overtime, working on weekends, taking shifts, and part-time work. The impact of these arrangements is negative for workers in general and their impacts on women are even more perverse.

Analyzing women’s entrance in the labor market, it was possible to observe that, on the one hand, the jobs in which the hours are flexible or reduced and allow them to remain in the role of home caregivers are precarious and underpaid. On the other hand, better paid jobs demand long and antisocial hours, incompatible with care of the home and family. In other words, jobs that “offer” a certain flexibility of working hours, considering women as “responsible” for productive work, are generally jobs that offer lower income and social prestige. Jobs in more competitive sectors, historically done by men, allow opportunities for women, but they do not take into account the fact that reproductive work exists and that it is not shared, so women in those jobs are under greater pressure.

Some see the post-pandemic world with some optimism, believing that some lessons will be learned and could lead to behavioral changes. For example: men forced to stay at home started to contribute more to household chores and to relate more to their children. What observations do you make about this? Is there really a change underway?

I am developing a study on the topic, and my preliminary perceptions point out that it is not possible to generalize a higher male participation in domestic and care work. In some cases, a higher rate of male participation is observed, precisely because they spend more time at home, creating a better division of labor along gender lines, but there are many women reporting an even greater burden during the pandemic. Besides, when on-site work returns, it is possible that there will be a setback, even in families that have started to better distribute care work, because this issue, although seemingly domestic and personal, is structural.

Men (and more women) are expected to be fully available at work. In addition, the costs of reproducing the workforce, which previously fell only on women, now also affect some of the men. In this scenario, both men and women are under pressure to offer work flexibility. Therefore, it is important to consider that capital externalizes the costs of productive work with the flexible working day and continues to externalize labor force reproduction costs, perhaps in a somewhat less unequal fashion among some couples, but benefiting from this free work and transferring the burden to families.

Among the reasons that led Bolsa Família to be a program recognized worldwide is the fact that it gives autonomy and a certain power to women, who are the cardholders, in addition to helping reduce child and maternal mortality. In other words, it is a basic income program that has improved women’s lives. In your opinion, a basic income program like the one promised by Bolsonaro’s  government carries what risks for women, given it does not take into account gender issues?

When I was Director of the department of alternative income at the Municipal Secretariat of Policy for Women in the city of São Paulo, I worked in solidarity economy programs in the city hall. Low income women participated in these income generation programs, many of whom were victims of domestic violence. I have often heard stories about the importance of the Bolsa Família program as a minimum income that, by providing economic autonomy, allowed these women to leave abusive relationships and go away from home. One of them said “Now my husband is Lula, and I am not beaten anymore”. I believe that targeted cash transfer programs must be targeted at the most vulnerable people. In our society, the data show that women, and black women, are the most vulnerable. To remove basic autonomy from these women would be a great step backwards.

You were invited to teach at an American educational institution. I would like you to comment on what it is like today, under a far-right government, to dedicate yourself to a topic such as Labor Economics and Gender Studies? In order to deepen your line of studies, is it more prudent to leave the country?

In the article “A Feminist Perspective on the 2017 Labor Reform in Brazil: Impacts on Higher Education Faculty” written by Dr. Ana Luíza Matos de Oliveira and me, for a book called Female Voices from the Worksite [Lexington Books, 2020], we discussed the consequences of labor reform for university professors. The challenges of the academic career in Brazil are many and, as we pointed out in the article, working conditions since the 1990s have been very precarious in public and especially private universities.

Labor reform has the potential to contribute negatively, aggravating the hiring situation to work by the hour or as a contractor, low pay, generating more uncertainty, and precarious work. Furthermore, the lack of opportunities to work in public universities, given the cuts in funding and attacks on public universities promoted by this government, affect the few opportunities to work in the teach-research-extension triad, aggravating the situation of recent PhD graduates and young professors at the beginning of their careers.

Personally, given the conditions of the job market for private university professors in Brazil, I consider that I had a good opportunity to teach at a serious and committed college, but I missed being able to dedicate myself to research and extension. My fields of study, Labor Economics and mainly Gender Studies, are areas that are under-appreciated within mainstream Economics. In this sense, there seems to be more opportunities abroad. In this way, I am very honored with the opportunity to be able to take some of what I was able to learn from the excellent public higher education I obtained in Brazil, especially at the Institute of Economics of the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) where I completed my doctorate, and with the study group “Rethinking Development” of the Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB) of the University of São Paulo (USP) and modestly contribute to disseminate the wealth of Brazilian economic and social thinking that I learned here. Even from abroad, I am committed to collaborating in the construction of a fairer Brazil, with more solidarity and opportunities for all.



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