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Paradoxes of subaltern politics: Brazilian domestic workers’ mobilisations to become workers and decolonise labour

Acciari, Louisa (2018) Paradoxes of subaltern politics: Brazilian domestic workers’ mobilisations to become workers and decolonise labour. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.5f2lk9uqtpf6


This thesis investigates the possibilities and forms of subaltern politics through an empirical study of Brazilian domestic workers’ mobilisations. Domestic work, often described as a legacy of slavery in Brazil, is characterised by the intersection of gender, race and class matrices of oppression, which makes domestic workers a subaltern group. As a result of their subaltern status and characterisation as ‘non-standard’ workers they are expected to be harder, or even impossible, to organise and represent. Yet, Brazilian domestic workers have been organising since 1936; they formed their own autonomous trade unions, and won partial recognition in 2015 when the Brazilian Congress approved a law extending basic labour rights to them. Thus, my thesis examines how this subaltern group has been able to organise, and argues that instead of considering subalternity as an impediment to collective action it should be understood as a potential resource for mobilisation. I have identified three paradoxes of subaltern politics. First, I show how the professional identity ‘domestic worker’ is both necessary for political recognition in the Brazilian corporatist state, but also rejected, as it re-inscribes domestic workers into the raced-gendered power relations they want to challenge. Furthermore, I find that while the intersecting nature of their oppression is what has constructed domestic workers as a subaltern group, it has also enabled the formation of broad-based alliances with women, black and workers’ movements, thereby turning subalternity into a resource for collective action. Finally, domestic workers have used their perceived vulnerability to force recognition from the Brazilian state, yet, this has led to a paternalistic mode of recognition and a certain demobilisation of the domestic workers’ local unions. As domestic workers gained partial recognition as workers, they were also forced into an industrial relations model that did little to respond to the complex and multi-sided forms of oppressions they face, posing new challenges to their modes of organising.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2018 Louisa Acciari
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Sets: Departments > Gender Institute
Supervisor: Madhok, Sumi

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