São Paulo, like all the big Latin American metropolises, is marked by social inequality. Luxurious neighborhoods, gigantic buildings, sports cars and even private heliports can be found in the financial center. Meanwhile, thousands of people live in favelas, neighborhoods with little access to basic services, areas with minimal state infrastructure. It is in this city, the most populous urban center in Latin America, where Jessi —an Afro-Brazilian woman— lives, works, struggles and dreams.
Jessi is 24 years old and lives on the outskirts of São Paulo, in Freguesia do Ó, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It is located far from the center and does not have a good public transport infrastructure. It is not considered a favela, but it was constituted by settlements and land takeovers. Since she was little, Jessi was in charge of caring for her mother, who is a functionally diverse person. Her mother's life has motivated her to study medicine and become a doctor; however, currently, she does not have the time or resources to fulfill this dream. She lives with her mother and grandmother and is the breadwinner for her family. She has done domestic work since she was 16 years old; in 2017 she began cleaning houses and offices through Mary Help.
In Brazil, this is one of the most used apps for paid domestic work. Currently, Mary Help is present in 16 of the 27 states of Brazil, including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Goiânia, Salvador de Bahía, and Rio Grande do Sul. This cleaning app does not let the workers choose the areas where they will work; in addition, it only notifies them where they will go in the morning of the same day that they have to carry out the service, that is, before leaving: only then will they know the gender of their client, in which direction they should move and what work they will perform : cleaning, cooking, ironing…
Sometimes, Jessi must travel for three hours to get to work — more than 20 km separate the periphery where she lives from the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods where customers reside. She travels by public transport, taking buses, subways and trains. So, if she has to get to the house or office to clean at 7 a.m., she should leave her house at 4 a.m. Meanwhile, if she has work shifts at 8 a.m., she should have woken up at 5 a.m. and will return home at 7 pm. In the morning, “I can only have a cup of coffee on the way,” she confesses with a sigh. Sometimes, she does three cleaning shifts of four hours each; then, she is away from home for more than 16 hours and, depending on traffic, the commuting may take longer. Jessi has strenuous days!
In her daily work, she is constantly traveling from one place to the other. She runs from place to place, standing squeezed in among so many people on the subway or train, and when she arrives at her workplace, Jessi doesn't even have a chair to sit on. There are clients who don't even offer her a glass of water in her workday. To save money, Jessi cooks at home and brings her food to work, but in some cases, she can't find a microwave to heat her lunch or isn't allowed to use it. On one occasion, she forgot her cutlery and decided to use a spoon from the home of the person where she was working. She did not think that this would cause her problems.
I will never forget that day, because for me it is very sad to accept that these things still happen. There was a second drawer with the oldest, most rusty cutlery; I washed a couple to eat. When I finished eating and washed the cutlery to put it away, she [the client] took them from my hand and threw them in the trash. She told me that I shouldn't have taken them and that I shouldn't have used her things to eat.
Jessi recounts this memory with outrage. This is just one of the many situations of discrimination and racism that she has had to face as a black woman working for white middle- and upper-class people in São Paulo. “Through the platform, I have already faced a lot of racism, a lot of prejudice. I wear braids in my hair; so, people look at me in a strange way… it's complex”. She is sure that her experience is not isolated and that many women workers also experience discrimination when they come to houses and offices to clean. In fact, the conditions of the women who work at Mary Help are precarious and, earning so little in the app only worsens the situation.
Many of us work with an empty stomach, many do not eat, many customers do not even offer us water. The houses that offer something to eat are rare, and we are even afraid to accept something because, generally, they offer us food and then they tell the company that we ate, that we are starving and the company complains to us. Many workers are even hungry during the day, feeling bad, with low blood pressure. They work with a bag of salt in their wallets so that their blood pressure doesn't drop or because they don't have time to stop.
Since she started working for the Mary Help app in 2017, the company has not updated the rates they pay to workers. It should be noted that the payment made by clients to Mary Help is not the same as the app delivers to domestic workers. It is calculated that the app keeps 64% of each fee. For example, Mary Help charges 152 reais (approximately USD 29) for a four-hour service, but pays workers only 55 reais (approximately USD 10). For an 8-hour work day, Jessi receives only 91 reais (USD 17, approximately). With the inflation that Brazil experiences annually, the rate that the app pays to workers is not enough to cover basic needs.
It is not a fair price, and with inflation, it is getting worse. With 91 reais, you don´t buy anything in the market. Everything is very expensive and the cost of living is absurd. And 91 reais is sometimes not even enough to buy the food for the day. We have to choose: either buy the food for the day or buy personal hygiene products.
Jessi tells me about this disturbing situation, because her salary is not enough to cover her basic needs. It is not easy having to choose between food or sanitary pads, medicines or body care products. That is not a life with dignity! Besides, Mary Help pays her biweekly, but the clients pay the app the same day of the service. As if that were not enough, sometimes the app takes longer to pay domestic workers.
Jessi has demanded on several occasions that Mary Help increases the payment they transfer to workers. However, "one swallow does not make a summer", she says between laughs and sighs, remembering the many times her voice was not heard. She believes that if more workers demanded higher pay rates, pressure could be brought to bear, but they just don't listen to her. And therein lies the challenge: how to organize women workers who are so isolated?
Mary Help does not allow domestic workers to have contact with each other or with clients. In fact, through the app, they cannot contact other workers or see their profiles or know who or how many there are. Besides, the app blocks their profiles if they find out that workers are chatting with each other or organizing. That is to say, the app prevents the organization among workers! The app, from its design, generates isolation! When asked about the reasons for the app not allowing them to be in contact, Jessi says that "it's a security method for the app because they are afraid of the employees getting together."
In addition to cleaning work, Mary Help has on several occasions asked Jessi to train new workers. This means going to a home or office with another worker, supervising her work, teaching her cleaning techniques, and submitting a performance report to the app. Jessi receives no additional payment for this training job. But, also, to the new girls who are being trained, Mary Help does not pay them for their workday, they only give them 5 reais (less than 1 USD) for the bus tickets.
The girl was with me from 8:30 to 14:30; she helped me with work, I taught her the tasks. She didn't bring lunch and I shared my lunch with her. She was with me, she learned the job and she didn't earn anything for what she did, exactly nothing, just the value of the bus ticket, not even lunch. The girl had just arrived from Minas Gerais, she was really in need, desperate to work, and the company did that to her, telling her that she was in training. They don't pay much, and it wouldn´t be hard for them to pay her something! It was so sad...
Jessi would like to organize Mary Help workers to demand the formalization and guarantee of their labor rights. Among the changes that she would like to achieve within the app, she mentions access to social security, the formalization of the employment relationship, the increase in her salary, the possibility of choosing work areas —or at least delimiting the distance— and having more flexible working hours. All these changes are possible, we can join in requesting improvements for paid domestic workers from the apps like Mary Help and the government.
As Jessi continues in this struggle, she is also looking to consolidate clients outside the app. Among her reasons for betting on working with direct employers is pay: she earns more working without Mary Help. But, in addition, Jessi points out that paid domestic work leads to creating bonds with whom you work, a kind of intimate relationship. With the app, this is lost because every day you have to go to work in a different house with people you do not know and, many times, you will not work in that person's house again.
Illustrators: Pri Barbosa | @priii_barbosa