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Latin America: For domestic workers, a push for rights gains ground

Latin America: For domestic workers, a push for rights gains ground

by IDWFED published Feb 06, 2016 12:00 AM
Contributors: Whitney Eulich/The Christian Science Monitor
Organized groups of domestic workers have been fighting for employment contracts, health care, pensions, and other protections.



Read the original article in full: For maids and nannies in Latin America, a push for rights gains ground | The Christian Science Monitor


Story of Marcelina

hen Marcelina Bautista Bautista was 14 years old, she put on a maid’s uniform and began a journey familiar to generations of women in her poor, southern state of Oaxaca.

She left her parents and 12 siblings and traveled to Mexico City, where she worked for a wealthy family – caring for their children, cleaning their home, preparing their meals, and, she says, suffering their abuses.

“Even when [a boss] was kind, the discrimination was always there,” says Ms. Bautista, who only spoke the indigenous language Mixtec when she first arrived here “Sometimes the signals were small, but they were always strong,” like not letting her eat off the same plates or in the same room as the family.

“I was constantly reminded I was worth less,” she says of her more than 20 years on the job with multiple families.

That lesser value society assigns to domestic workers often translates to rock-bottom wages, no safety net, exploitation, and almost none of the legal protections provided for other types of employees.

But Bautista – who as a young girl dreamed of becoming a lawyer – chose a different path. She decided to rally her peers, studying labor rights in her limited time outside of work and found La Esperanza, or Hope, in 1988 to pass on her knowledge to other domestic workers. In 2000, she went on to create the Center for Support and Training for Domestic Workers.

Last fall, her advocacy reached a new level, when she founded Mexico's first union of domestic workers, run for and by women just like her.

Some landmark moments

There are more than 19.6 million domestic workers across Latin America, according to a 2013 report by the ILO. Typically poor, uneducated, minority women, they are paid meager wages that fall short of other incomes in the informal sector, from taco salesmen to construction workers. And nearly 8 in 10 domestic workers in the region don’t have formal work contracts that might protect them from abuse or injury. 

The industry has witnessed some recent landmark moments: In 2011, the ILO’s Convention 189 was passed, guaranteeing decent work conditions for domestic workers, including minimum wage and days of rest. The convention has been ratified in 11 Latin American countries so far. And in 2013, Uruguay saw the creation of an international domestic worker trade union.

Enforcement is hard

Despite progress in organizing unions and associations in several countries, which makes it easier to petition governments for concrete protections, it is still a challenge to enforce the laws on the books. Domestic workers work behind closed doors, in homes where it is much more difficult for an outsider to spot problems or conduct inspections.

Some countries have taken creative approaches. Ecuador, for example, ran a “Dignified Domestic Work” campaign where it went door-to-door in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods asking for proof of employment registration for domestic help, in compliance with laws there. Those in the clear received a “dignified work” sticker at the entrance of their door, and sometimes the encounters were filmed by television crews.

“It was pretty effective. There was a social pressure for domestic workers to enroll, and we see the number of workers registered in the formal system increased,” says Mariano Bosch, lead economist of the labor market and social security for the Inter-American Development Bank.

Me? Join a union?

But getting employees to join unions and domestic worker organizations is still a tall order, says Roca from WIEGO. “It’s hard to convince someone on their one day off to go to a union meeting instead of visit their family,” she says.

No laws currently protect this type of worker in Mexico, and fear, intimidation, and a lack of understanding often play into maids and nannies not wanting to rattle employers by asking for signed contracts or minimum wages.

But Bautista is hopeful. She ran an NGO focused on advocating for domestic worker rights for the past decade and a half, and feels she and her colleagues have the organizing experience – and now the voice and strength that come with being a union – to push for fair treatment and protection.

“15 years ago I dreamed of starting a union,” says Bautista, whose association is made up of roughly 100 members and spans four states and Mexico City. “Now my dreams are getting bigger.

“I want Mexico to see this work as a fundamental part of society. See that this work deserves dignity and protection.”

Source: Whitney Eulich/The Christian Science Monitor

Story Type: News

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