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Book unveils the work of direct sales representatives in Brazil

The world’s fifth largest direct sales market, Brazil has a veritable army of sales representatives. According to ABIHPEC (Brazilian Association of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Industry), in 2013, the beauty industry created more than 4 million job opportunities in direct sales, with average annual growth of 11.5%. Sociologist Ludmila Costhek Abilio decided to investigate this large market in her PhD thesis with a focus on Brazil-based company Natura and its over 1.6 million representatives, of which only 5% are males. The essay has turned into a book – “Sem maquiagem: o trabalho de um milhão de revendedoras de cosméticos” (“No make-up: the work of a million cosmetic representatives”), which has recently been released by Boitempo Editorial. In an interview with Brazil Beauty News, Ludmila spoke about labor informality and women engaged in the activity of reselling cosmetics, being both consultants and consumers at the same time.

Ludmila Costhek Abilio

Ludmila Costhek Abilio

Brazil Beauty News - Why did you choose this topic for your study and Natura as your starting point?

Ludmila Costhek Abilio - My intention was to address the issues involving informal labor in Brazil, especially those relating to activities that are barely recognized as work. Despite its informal nature, these activities engage a large number of people and are crucial for the production and distribution chains, that is to say, an important source of profit for the companies. Natura is one of the many that work with direct sales and it was selected for being an extremely successful company, which currently leads the market.

Brazil Beauty News - Brazil is the world’s fifth largest market for direct sales, with more than 4 million representatives. How did the country get to this position?

Ludmila Costhek Abilio - When I started my research, in 2007, Natura had 400,000 representatives. In 2011, there were more than a million. The exponential growth in the number of direct sales consultants is primarily due to precarious work and lack of work rights and guarantees. This goes along with high unemployment levels, which make people opt for less formal – and often less paid – occupations to make a living. Another aspect is that the boundaries between work and consumption are not so clear – many women decide to become representatives to be able to buy the products at discounted prices. Ultimately, in the last decade, the rise of the minimum wage, higher job offer and increased credit availability in Brazil have allowed the consumer market to expand substantially, which is very visible in the cosmetic industry.

Brazil Beauty News - What leads a woman to become a representative? Is there a common pattern among them?

Ludmila Costhek Abilio - Consumption is an important mobilizing element. To be able to purchase the products, the representatives must order a minimum amount. Therefore, they often end up ordering more than they would need for personal use, which is then stocked and resold. But there are also those who see direct sales primarily as a means of generating income. I have interviewed women who started as consultants 30 years ago and claim it as their sole activity. It is hard to point out socioeconomic patterns among them – there’s everything from daily-paid workers to executives’ wives. What we can say, though, is that it is regarded a female occupation, although more men have been joining the workforce lately.

Brazil Beauty News - Why is this activity often seen as a “filler” job, rather than a profession in Brazil?

Ludmila Costhek Abilio - Legally, the reselling activity is defined as a service relationship. There are no employment ties, specific workplace or working hours – it is possible to sell however, whenever and wherever the representative wants. It is an extremely flexible activity, with no selection criteria established or risk of unemployment. As the occupation is very much intertwined with their personal consumption, it becomes even harder to establish and recognize the boundaries of a working relationship.

Brazil Beauty News - Do you think this relationship is a more advantageous for the companies than for the representatives?

Ludmila Costhek Abilio - The main advantage for the companies is that all risks involved in marketing and stocking the products is transferred to the consultants. Natura, for instance, carries minimum stock and manufactures according to its representatives’ demand. There are many other factors that result in more security and less cost for the companies – there are no physical stores, sales take place at home or in the consultants’ workplace. They also become living advertising for the company by carrying out sales and marketing activities countrywide.

Brazil Beauty News - How do you see the future of this relationship?

Ludmila Costhek Abilio - I would not venture to make predictions, but what seems clear to me is that the direct sales system responds very well to economic downturns, high unemployment rates and flexible working arrangements. It is an option for generating income and reducing consumption costs in economically tough times while encouraging entrepreneurship. But it is important to keep in mind the costs and risks incurred for the worker – or female worker in this case – with few guarantees in terms of labor rights and professional recognition.

Renata Martins

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© 2014 - Brazil Beauty News - www.brazilbeautynews.com

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