The social security that women want

Guacira Oliveira

The social protection system is in need of urgent changes. Despite the ongoing debate on social security reform, injustices persist. When it comes to women, and especially black women, domestic workers and rural dwellers, the discrimination they face is even greater, since they must work more to receive fewer benefits.Socialsecurity reform is currently a central theme of political debate. In January2007, President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva’s government created the NationalSocial Security Forum to discuss proposals for changes in the social securitysystem. The Forum is tripartite, composed of representatives of the government,trade unions and private sector business associations, who only account for50.6% of the economically active population. The sectors excluded from thepresent social security system and women’s organizations are not represented.

The decision to exclude those segments from the discussion is indicative of therefusal to seek alternatives which would make the system universal, as well asto come to an agreement regarding specific inclusion strategies. Since the 19thcentury, the social security system has only provided coverage for workerswithin the formal labour market – that is, mainly white men from privilegedsocial sectors. The formal work model, and therefore the possibility of gainingaccess to the benefits of social security, has historically been linked to a‘white-skinned’ and masculine model. Decent and valuable work, whichgenerates rights for the worker, was and remains far from the reach of mostwomen and black people. This is even more true for black women, who are subjectto a double division of labour: racial and gender-based.

Parallel and Itinerant Social SecurityForum

In 2005, there were 44.2 million people contributing to the social securitysystem (35.3 million of whom were in possession of an official work card),whereas a contingent of 32 million people, 70% of whom were women, were excludedfrom the system. This led a group of women’s organizations[1]to create the Parallel and ItinerantSocial Security Forum, which will discuss alternatives to the socialsecurity system, taking into account all of the Brazilians who have beenexcluded from the Forum set up by the federal government. This initiative hasthe support of Social Watch Brazil, the National Union of Federal RevenueAuditors (UNAFISCO) and the Federation of Federal Revenue Auditors (FENAFISP).

From the point of view of the Parallel Forum, the main problem to be confrontedis the exclusion of the greater part of the population from effective socialsecurity coverage. In 2004, over half of economically active women (50.5%) and39.5% of economically active men (PNAD, 2004) were not covered by the socialsecurity system. If their dependents were taken into account, the number ofBrazilians totally deprived of social security coverage would rise to a total ofapproximately 100 million people (Melo and Considera, 2005). In our view, it isthis lack of social protection that justifies the reform of the social securitysystem which, as a matter of principle, should be public, solidarity-based anduniversal.

However, in the view of the business community, a significant part of thefederal government and the mainstream media, all of whom carry great weight inthe moulding of public opinion, the key issue is not this widespread lack ofprotection, but rather the search for solutions to the medium-term financing ofthe social security system, taking demographic transition (the ageingpopulation) into consideration as well as the need to free up resources foreconomic growth.

Debunking the myths

Among other factors, the social security system has faced difficulties as aresult of the non-implementation of the budget assigned to the system asstipulated by the Federal Constitution of 1988. From the beginning of the 1990s,rhetoric regarding the social security deficit has gained strength, despite thefact that all sources of evidence (including official ones) show the opposite,even when using different methods of analysis. Individual contributions continueto be the only consideration, although the system has several additional sourcesof income which allow it to produce a surplus year after year.

Contributions to social security established by the Constitution and later setup in order to finance the system include the Social Security Financing Tax(COFINS), the Legal Entity Net Profit Social Tax (CSLL) and the ProvisionalFinancial Movements Tax (CPMF), as well as the net social security contribution,which basically refers to the payroll contributions made by employers andemployees and contributions from the Simplified System (Special Unified Systemfor the Collection of Taxes and Contributions of Micro and Small Enterprises).As regards expenses, the following items are taken into account: payment ofurban and rural social security benefits, welfare benefits, and the actions ofthe Single Health System (SUS), as well as actions related to the financing ofthe Ministry of Health and its return to sound administration andaccountability. According to the ANFIP (2005), the primary surplus of the socialsecurity budget in 2004 amounted to BRL 42.5 billion (USD 21.5 billion)(Boschetti and Salvador, 2006).

If there is a surplus, the argument that it is necessary to reduce governmentspending on social security in order to redirect resources towards investment sothat the economy can grow is clearly absurd. At the end of the day, socialsecurity has not harmed the progress of the economy; on the contrary, theeconomic policy which is being implemented affects social security, underminingboth its principles and its budget.

The problem is that part of the resources of social security are diverted inorder to make up the primary surplus (to pay interest on foreign and internaldebt), by means of the Dissociation of Union Contributions mechanism. Notcontent with that, the government places limits on additional resourcesthroughout the year, which does indeed cause a deficit in the social securitysystem.

The lack ofrecognition for domestic work

Thereis also talk about the need to reform the social security system because of theincrease in the number of elderly people in the country, which could make thesystem unviable in the near future. To those who support this thesis, the rightsachieved by women up to the present represent a threat to the sustainability ofthe social security system. It is argued that women retire five years before menand live an average of eight years longer, and therefore cost the Treasury 13years in extra expenses.

As regards the ageing of the population, it is worth noting that the issue ofcare for the elderly is completely absent in discussions about the future of thesystem. This omission is directly related to the lack of recognition andconsequent undervaluation of the unpaid domestic work carried out by women.Social reproduction activities (domestic tasks, child care, care of the sick andof the older adults in the family group) make a significant contribution to thesocial and economic development of the country, but continue to be relegated tothe kind of tasks which are carried out as part of ‘women’s vocation’ andare consequently absent from the agenda of the debate on labour rights.

If domestic tasks were taken into account, they would represent a 13% growth ofBrazil’s GDP (Melo and Considera, 2005). However, reproductive labour does notgenerate rights, but rather an extremely heavy load on women who, as well asthat burden, must face the prejudices that result from insertion in the labourmarket under absolutely unfair and unequal conditions. As a result, women areoften obliged to interrupt their working lives, turn to the informal sector, oreven be fully excluded from the labour market. The higher proportion of women inmore vulnerable and poorly paid jobs is a reflection of this fact.

Data collected by CEDEPLAR/UFMG (Development and Regional PlanningCentre/Federal University of Minas Gerais) in 1997 show that women make a highernumber of transitions between activity and ‘inactivity’ throughout theirlives. While men remain in each occupation for an average of 15.2 years, theaverage length of stay for women is 8.9 years. This is one of the results of thesexual division of labour. And in this area, reality is hard to change.

This information shows that the proposal to put an end to the differentiatedretirement age for women (five years before men) in compensation for theirdouble work load is untenable. The difference between the length of stay in anoccupation for men and women is 6.3 years (CEDEPLAR/UFMG). However, a comparisonbetween the number of working hours devoted to domestic tasks shows that womenwork at this type of activity at least double the amount of time as men. Infact, for there to be real compensation, a difference in retirement ages of overfive years would be required. As we understand it, this should be a transitorymeasure. What women’s and feminists’ movements want is not compensation, butthe equal division of productive and reproductive tasks, as well as equalconditions of participation in the labour market.

In 2005, according to the Ministry of Social Security, 30.7% of women’sretirements were due to age and only 6.8% due to length of contribution.Consequently, if the issue of informality is considered, women work for longerthan men in order to ensure their retirement pension, but receive a lowerpension due to their diminished capacity to contribute and their dependentcondition.

Women face double discrimination

Many people who have spent most of their economically active lives in theinformal labour market, particularly in urban activities, are at a doubledisadvantage due to the demands of individual taxation, since they havecontributed to the wealth of the country at a low cost, without having receivedthe benefits of the National Social Insurance Institute (INSS) or the GuaranteeFund for Length of Service (FGTS), nor paid unemployment insurance (andtherefore were unable to exercise their labour rights). In old age, thesepersons will be affected once again, since they will not be able to enjoy theirrights to social security.

Rural working women have been struggling for years to obtain recognition assmall agricultural producers. The cultivation of vegetable gardens and medicinalplants, and the raising of small animals, is absolutely vital for the survivaland support of their families, but it is rendered invisible and is undervalued.In consequence, their rights as workers are not acknowledged. Meanwhile, themost serious situation is that of almost six million women, mostly in the ruralareas, who do not possess any kind of documentation and are therefore denied allthe rights of citizenship.

When the racial dimension is brought into consideration, the situation becomeseven more unjust. Black and racially mixed women, subject to multiple forms ofdiscrimination, end up concentrated in the most precarious occupations and ininformal labour. The high concentration of black women in domestic employment(22%) should be noted, as well as in the categories related to production forpersonal consumption, construction for personal use and in unpaid labour. On theother hand, white men most often appear in the position of employers (7.5%against 1.3% of black women) and as employees with an official work card (38.4% vis-à-vis20% of black women).

The case of domestic workers in particular deserves special attention, and anurgent solution should be provided by the social security system. Immediatelyguaranteeing the right to retirement of domestic workers who are currently 60years of age or older would constitute a measure of reparation. This is asignificant contingent of women who are subject to sexual and racial division oflabour and have achieved a quotient which as a general rule is the lowest in thesocioeconomic scale in terms of recognition, performance, quality of life andlabour rights, but on the other hand is the highest in terms of duties andlimitations as regards reproductive tasks.

Ensuring the sustainability of social security

Ensuring the sustainable increase in the number of beneficiaries and thetransformation of the demographic profile, from the actuarial point of view,depends on several factors, including the broadening of the sources of financingfor social security. In our view, the fact that the labour market does not offeradequate conditions which enable each female worker to make her individualcontribution to social security does not mean that she has no right to be a partof the social security system. Other mechanisms are required to safeguard thelife and citizenship of women. This implies dissociating social rights from thetraditional employment model, and in particular, dissociating the right to aretirement pension from formal employment.

In this sense, the actuarial sustainability of social security could beconstructed on the basis of a re-evaluation of employer exemption criteria andamnesty for debtors; combating evasion; the creation of new rates and taxesconsistent with the principle of solidarity and the redistributive nature ofsocial security; the imposition of taxation on great wealth, internationalfinancial transactions and agribusiness; the creation of a solidarity fund basedon a specific contribution; broadening the contributive capacity of workers byincreasing employment and other work opportunities; the creation of differenttax models compatible with the multiple productive arrangements that workershave established for their survival; and the creation of the appropriateconditions for young workers to be able to join the system early and thuscontribute for many years to its sustainability.

The reorientation of the developmental model is evidently a basic premise in theconstruction of alternatives for inclusion in the social security system.Economic policies should be devoted to guaranteeing the rights of thepopulation, and not the other way around.


ANFIP (2005). “Análise da Seguridade Social 2005”,<>.

Boschetti, I. and Salvador, E. (2006). “Orçamento da seguridade social e política econômica:perversa alquimia”. Serviço Social& Sociedade No. 87, São Paulo: Cortez.

CEDEPLAR/UFMG(Development and Regional Planning Centre/FederalUniversity of Minas Gerais), <>.

IPEA (Institute of Applied Economic Research), <>.

Melo, H. and Considera, C. (2005). “Os afazeresdomésticos contam”. Economia. Textospara discussão 177. Universidade Federal Fluminense. Rio de Janeiro.<>.

Ministry of Social Security,<>.

PNAD (National Household Survey) (2004). Brazilian Institute of Geography andStatistics:<>.


[1] Articulaçãode Mulheres Brasileiras, Articulação de ONG’s de Mulheres Negras, CampanhaNacional das Donas de Casa pelo Direito à Aposentadoria, Federação Nacionalde Trabalhadoras Domésticas, Marcha Mundial das Mulheres, MovimentoInterestadual de Quebradeiras de Coco de Babaçu, Movimento de MulheresCamponesas, Movimento de Mulheres Trabalhadoras Rurais do Nordeste.

Guacira César de Oliveira is a sociologist and co-director of the Centro Feminista de Estudos e Assessoria (Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services, CFEMEA) and a member of the Social Watch Brazil reference group.