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Cassia Mendes, who has been working as a housekeeper for more than 20 years, cleans a house in Sao Paulo, Brazil. From 2006 to 2014 the number of employed Brazilians who were domestic workers fell from 8.6 per cent to 5.8 percent. But with a recession under way, Brazil’s economy has lost over a million jobs in the last 12 months.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Jane Pinto thought that her days of cleaning other people's houses were behind her. She started in domestic work at the age of 12, when her mother, who was also a maid, enlisted her in the business to help keep the family fed.

But Ms. Pinto, 38, left the work nearly two decades ago, when she had children of her own. Her husband got a good job, driving a truck in Rio's port. His wages rose steadily and they bought a car and sent their kids to private English classes. Ms. Pinto got a commercial driving licence and started looking for work as a driver too.

Then her husband was among many port workers laid off earlier this year. And Ms. Pinto couldn't find skilled work either. Finally, to keep the rent paid, she went back to mopping floors and washing dishes – joining a procession of women returning to Brazil's kitchens.

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One of the more striking aspects of this country's decade-long boom cycle was the mass exodus from domestic work. From 2006 to 2014, the proportion of employed Brazilians in cities who were domestic workers – cooks, cleaners, nannies – fell from 8.6 per cent to 5.8 per cent. Unemployment was at record lows, government offered low-cost or free skills training and postsecondary education programs, and millions of low-income women seized the opportunity to leave the field where generations of their families had been precariously employed.

But the recession under way here – the product of the end of a commodity cycle, a giant corruption scandal and a political crisis – has driven unemployment up sharply. The Brazilian economy has lost more than a million jobs in the past 12 months, the majority of them in manufacturing and blue- and pink-collar service jobs. Families such as the Pintos, who had carved out a tentative toehold in the new middle class during the years of growth, are seeing their fortunes start to reverse. For many, casual domestic work for women is the only way to keep a roof overhead – because even in a crisis, Brazilians still want maids.

This is one of the more tangible signs of the ways in which Brazil's current crisis is threatening the gains that were made in the boom years, when about 33 million people moved out of poverty. Now, with unemployment and inflation shooting up in tandem, and government slashing social programs, the permanence of those gains is being called into question.

For example, Ms. Pinto's oldest son, who was on track to have a much better education than his parents, has abandoned plans for university to hunt for a job; the family has let their private health insurance lapse. The proportion of people in domestic work was back up to 6.1 per cent in August this year.

Adriana Silva, 40, left her children behind in a city three hours from Rio earlier this year to find work as a maid. Once a nanny, she trained in computing a decade ago and was teaching computer skills until 2012, but she hasn't been able to find work since then. Her son excelled in sciences and she wanted him to study engineering in university. "But in a little while, we will barely be able to buy food, things are looking so bad."

The economic transformation, and how it played out on the intimate terrain of domestic work, is the subject of a new feature film that has generated intense debate in Brazil.

Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Be Home? which is screened as Second Mother in English) tells the story of Val, a domestic worker from the northeast who works for nearly 20 years in the home of a rich family in Sao Paulo, leaving her own daughter behind and lavishing affection on her employers' son. Val's daughter unexpectedly comes to stay, because she is writing the entrance exam for the country's most prestigious university; the wealthy family is bewildered by the poised and intelligent maid's daughter, who meets their gaze head-on. Awkwardness becomes friction, precipitating a confrontation in which Val is forced to face the reality that she isn't really "one of the family."

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It is a subtle, powerfully acted film – it won a major award at the Sundance Festival and will be Brazil's submission in the foreign film category of the Academy Awards – and it has struck a national nerve. In an interview with the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, Margaret Carbinato, founder of an association representing employers of maids, sniffed that the awkward scenes the film depicted could be avoided if people "knew their place." (In contrast, none of the 20 women gathered at a domestic workers' union on a recent afternoon had seen the film, perhaps because tickets cost $13.)

Filmmaker Anna Muylaert started writing the script 20 years ago, but she gave it a major overhaul not long before she began filming: In an early version, Val's daughter came to Sao Paulo and became a maid just like her mother. But Ms. Muylaert saw richer fodder in the economic transformation and the way it was remaking Brazil.

A range of historic factors, including a vast pool of uneducated underemployed labour, and a lack of regulation on wages, had accustomed even middle-class Brazilians to having servants – not just an occasional house cleaner, but a live-in maid, a nanny, a cook, a driver. "There is a very deep tradition of being served here," said Hildete Pereira, a professor of economics and specialist in domestic labour at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio.

But in recent years there was a major shift inside Brazilian homes: The government of Dilma Rousseff introduced legislation in 2013 putting a cap on the hours that staff could be asked to work and mandating employers to cover pensions, sick pay and maternity leave. Employers began to change how they treated domestic staff, Prof. Pereira said, not because they had a great awakening of conscience, but because of the threat of enforcement and newly pro-active domestic workers' unions. Badly treated maids could quit, knowing they had other job options.

And even with a large return to domestic work, the terms will not be exactly as they were preboom, she added. The workers' children have already had the opportunity to imagine themselves in another future, in a way their mothers never did.

But many women will probably have to resort to occasional work as Ms. Pinto has, as opposed to formal daily employment, and these maids' jobs do not have the same degree of worker protection. And desperation for a job may push women to accept conditions that are technically illegal. "People want to eat, so they put their rights aside," Prof. Pereira said.

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Indeed, Ms. Pinto has already faced this choice. "A friend and I went to clean an apartment" in a middle-class suburb a few weeks ago, she said. "The building was fancy. They even took your photograph before you could go in. But then the woman who hired us wanted to pay us very little money. She said, 'It's the crisis.' She wanted to give us [$20] each for the day. She was a businesswoman in that fancy building. I told her, 'That's a sin, miss. You are in a crisis? What about us?'"

With a report from Manuela Andreoni

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