WFH During the Pandemic and the Limits of Law in Solving Gender Inequalities: Domestic and Care Work in Brazil and France

by Alyane Almeida de Araujo, Université de Lille (France) and Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (Brazil)

[This blog is part of a series on the pandemic. The introduction to the series can be found here.]

What happened to work/life balance from a gender perspective during the covid pandemic in Brazil and France? This blog post attempts to answer this question by analysing the legal and the factual contexts considering the impact of stay-at-home orders on the possibility to work from home (WFH) and the gendered division of labour related to care. Taking an intersectional perspective to verify the “necessary factors” and “sufficient factors” about the law and the society, we can reflect on the ambiguities that exist with working from home, which reinforces gender stereotypes as an obstacle to achieving equality.


In Brazil, the first victim to die of covid was a domestic worker whose employer had been infected after returning from a trip to Italy. The exponent of black feminism in Brazil, Djamila Ribeiro, questioned the responsibility of this employer and the anthropologist Debora Diniz wrote an article denouncing the different levels of injustice in this case, as the employer lived “in the most expensive area in Rio de Janeiro”. This case showed that the pandemic was not experienced equally by all workers.

The covid pandemic revealed the gender inequality in the labour market. Women were the majority of frontline workers in the health and social care sectors. In addition, the number of women that worked in precarious, informal, and low paying jobs increased during the covid pandemic. However, the gender inequality dimension was not restricted to paid work.

Unpaid domestic and care related work also increased during the pandemic, due to temporary closure of care facilities. Studies carried out in France verified that women were overloaded with childcare and household chores compared to men. On average, women spent 59% more time than their husbands on household chores. A survey by Insee also showed that childcare work was mostly taken over by women during the pandemic: 83% of women and only 57% of men living with children spent more than 4 hours a day on childcare. In addition, among employed people, mothers were the majority of those who gave up working to take care of their children, almost twice as much as men (21% against 12%). Among employed people who did not take work leave to look after their children, 80% of women spent more than 4 hours a day with their children (52% of men) and 45% worked “double working hours” at work and at home, accumulating 4 more hours of work and 4 more hours with their children (29% of men).

The increase created an unprecedented double burden that seriously impacted women’s productivity during the pandemic. The scientific journal Nature published an article demonstrating that the female submission rate seriously reduced during the pandemic, while the male submission rate increased (Nature (2020) 581, 365-366). The ILO Report “Working from home: From invisibility to decent work” warned about the risks related to women working from home as it is likely to reinforce traditional gender roles. As such, the pandemic seriously worsened the working and living conditions of many women. Paid working conditions worsened and created new health and safety risks, while women who were indeed able to work from home, faced new challenges to balance work and domestic responsibilities.

The deepening tension between the spheres of paid and unpaid work at home was responsible for several injustices. On the one hand, the need to work from home created an overlap of paid work and unpaid care work, due to the closure of schools and childcare centers, and on the other hand, the informal domestic workers had to continue their paid work to survive, providing the care work for middle-class families. Therefore, the injustice was not only gendered, but also social class-based. It is the reason why the intersectional approach considering class and other dimensions is essential to analyzing gender inequalities. It was not only women who were most affected, but mainly poor women, in informal jobs and without specific legal protection.

A factor analysis of home working within an intersectional perspective of gender

The factor analysis is usually carried out in the area of medical and biological sciences, but there are also researchers in the social sciences who use the concept in analyses of structural factors of society (BETZ, Frederick. Managing Science: Methodology and Organization of Research. London: Springer, 2011. p. 252).

By applying a factor analysis method within the law, we can reflect on the interaction between law and social facts. On one side, the “necessary factors” are those without which results cannot happen and the “sufficient factors” are those capable of producing or initiating a consequence.

It is observed that without the “necessary factors” of labour law mechanisms that allow a balance in the working time and family responsibilities, the law would be a factor of exclusion that would reproduce social gender injustices. However, these mechanisms do not constitute “sufficient factors”, as they are not sufficient to guarantee an equal distribution of paid and unpaid (care) work between men and women.

As the law on work/life balance is necessary, but not sufficient, allowing flexible working from home can be ambiguous. Due to the persistence of traditional gender roles within most societies, these ambiguities can represent a potential problem as well-intended policies can potentially reinforce inequality between women and men. To determine the impact, law and society cannot be analysed in an abstract way. Instead, legal rules must be analysed in their concrete interactions with social facts, positioning each person in relation to their experience as belonging to a determinate group with privileges or oppression of class, race and gender.

In the article “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics”, published in 1989 (University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8), Kimberle Crenshaw used the concept of intersectionality to denote the juxtaposition of the factors of race, gender and class as a specific form of discrimination experienced by black women. This concept shows how the interconnection between the structures of crossing experiences of the subject situated in society. According to the Brazilian researcher Carla Akotirene, “for more than 150 years, black women have invoked intersectionality and political solidarity among the Others” (O que é a interseccionalidade. Feminismos Plurais. Coordenação Djamila Ribeiro. Pólen Livros, São Paulo, 2018, p. 22). The intersectional approach of the analysis of gender in domestic and care work reveals that the supply of this labor is directly linked to social inequality.

Home working during the Covid pandemic in Brazil and France

With the Covid pandemic starting in December 2019, social confinement measures became imperative. The closure of daycare centers, schools and childcare services during the pandemic led to a deepening crisis in the management of unpaid work and care time.

Each government managed the pandemic with different and specific legal, administrative, and supervisory instruments. In France and Brazil, the governments enacted laws to manage the crisis.

In France, according to Decree 2020-325 of March 25, 2020, partial activity was intended for people who had to take care of their children at home and could not work from home/ work remotely due to the nature of their work. This provision allowed the employer to benefit from compensation costs (articles L. 5122-1 and R. 5122-1 of the French Labor Code) that entitles employer to reduce or suspend work activity, with the public purse assuming the employees’ salary costs up to 1,000 hours per year and employee. The allowance was set at 36% of gross hourly pay.

To have access to this provision, the worker must submit a sworn statement indicating that they are the only one of the two parents applying for this benefit with the goal to take care of children during the period in which they are obliged to stay at home. During the pandemic childminders had specific regulations to maintain their salary. Childminders provide care for children in their own home, which made them responsible for their own health and safety.

Thus, we can observe that the main advantage of the French regulation was that it allowed parents to temporarily pause their work contract to take care of their children, while receiving wages throughout this period. But despite being equally able to share domestic responsibilities between men and women, statistics have shown that there has been a perpetuation of gender inequality in domestic and care tasks for women.

In Brazil, the parents did not have any comparable rules that allowed them to stay at home and care for their children. The temporary Brazilian law (“Medida provisória”) nº 927/2020 imposed an obligation to work remotely for jobs that could be done from home. In addition, the law 14.020/2020 created the Emergency Employment and Income Preservation Program, which allowed companies to reduce working hours and wages and, in return, rely on the payment by the federal government. There was no specific legal provision regarding domestic workers.

The remote working for some professions generated an increased demand for other people to look after children, as schools and nurseries were closed. In a context of economic and social vulnerability and informality, workers whose activities could be carried out remotely have continued using the services of domestic workers to look after their children. This caused a dangerous situation for the domestic workers, who remained exposed to a contagious virus and made it impossible for them to take care of their own family in a context of social isolation.

The president of the National Federation of Domestic Workers, Luiza Batista, questioned the Minister of Economy of Brazil about not having day workers and informal domestic workers included in the first emergency aid announcement for self-employed professionals. However, even after the inclusion of the category, the emergency aid in the monthly amount of R$600 (under £100), created by law 13.982/2020, was not enough to remove these women from the condition of vulnerability, because the financial support was insufficient to cover the expenses of food and housing.

The vulnerability of these workers in Brazil is due of historical slavery regime, the high rate of informality and the government’s failure to guarantee investments to provide vacancies in schools and day care centres. The day care coverage rate in Brazil is only 27.7% for children ages 0 to 3 years. This situation worsened in 2019, because the “Brasil Carinhoso” Program, created by law 12.722/2012, did not receive funding for the maintenance and development of early childhood education.

Data from the IBGE national survey by household sample show that the household care work is mostly performed by women (92%), black (65%), in a precarious and informal way (76% do not have a formal contract) and paid at a lower rate (with the national average which was reduced from R$1,016 to R$930 per month (under £150), which is less than the minimum wage. The International Labour Organization has already warned that 8 out of 10 domestic workers in Latin America and the Caribbean work informally.

In practice, black women are often forced into these precarious labour conditions, because of a lack of opportunity and inequality. Studies in Brazil have shown that it is common for domestic workers not to want this occupation for their daughters (KOFES, Suely. Mulher, mulheres: identidade, diferença e desigualdade na relação entre patroas e empregadas. Campinas: Editora Unicamp, 2001, p. 171), which suggests that lack of opportunities retains them in the profession. Accordingly, the reduction in the supply of domestic services in 2012 in Brazil could be explained by three simultaneous factors: the better distribution of regional income, the growth of the economy and the education of the population.

As of 2019, however, Brazil re-entered the hunger map, with the increase in misery among the poorest people and the insufficiency of a universal program of access to the minimum income. As such, working and living conditions of domestic workers in Brazil was already exacerbated before the start of the pandemic and left them especially vulnerable for further exploitation.

As a result, there were many testimonies of women in situations of vulnerability who had to continue working at the house of their employer. This was the reason why they were unable to isolate themselves at home and protect their own health.

As such, the Brazil’s government failed domestic workers as well as parents as it neither provided adequate legislation for workers with family responsibilities to enable them to take care of their children in a context of nursery and school closures nor ensured the health and safety of domestic workers.


Although the paid and unpaid work are treated as disconnected spheres, there is an intrinsic interaction. The big link is time. The time spent in each space leads to a series of implications both in the private space of the home and in the public space of work. The use of time in these two spaces particularly affects women, seen as people socially destined for family care.

From the gender perspective, the right to work from home could be a potential solution for a more egalitarian division of childcare and household chores but instead revealed the unequal distribution of domestic and care tasks. Women assumed a greater load of unpaid work and had difficulties in fulfilling their responsibilities with paid work in a home office, although fathers also worked from home and theoretically could have assumed a fair share of domestic responsibilities.

This unfair division of household and care tasks already happened before the Covid pandemic, both in Brazil and France. But in Brazil the situation was worse during the pandemic because there was no law allowing the payment of wages for parents with family responsibilities to stay at home. Families with higher incomes thus transferred the care responsibilities to other women.

Moreover, the high degree of informality and precariousness of domestic workers made them the main victims of covid in the country. This causes a situation of greater vulnerability, perpetuating social and economic inequality. It was paradigmatic that the first victim to die of covid was a person from this vulnerable group.

The problem itself is not in the legal frame of labour laws that allowed the possibility of working from home, but in how the society still reproduces stereotyped values and gender roles that prevent parents from sharing family responsibilities in an equal manner. This phenomenon ended up showing that there are limitations in the law in relation to equality by reinforcing gender stereotypes in society, worsening the situation of women of vulnerable social groups.

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