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Mexico: Mexico City's domestic workers - a life being treated as a lesser person

Mexico: Mexico City's domestic workers - a life being treated as a lesser person

by IDWFED published Nov 10, 2015 12:00 AM
Contributors: Nina Lakhani/The Guardian
The city’s social inequality is starkly evident in the situation of women who toil for low pay and suffer discrimination as they serve wealthier families. Finally, they have their own union to demand changes.



Read the original article in full: Mexico City's domestic workers: a life being treated as a lesser person | The Guardian


Photos: Sean Smith. Nina Lakhani. Ginnette Riquelme/The Guardian (screen capture)

Marcelina Bautista

Marcelina Bautista moved to Mexico City at the age of 14 from the southern state of Oaxaca. She dreamed of becoming a lawyer but her village had no secondary school and her parents, who are farmers, were struggling to support their 13 children.

She arrived in the capital speaking no Spanish, only Mixtec, and began work as a live-in housekeeper looking after two children, as well as cooking and cleaning for a wealthy couple who scolded her constantly. But Bautista learned Spanish from the children, changed jobs as soon as she could, and started finding out about employment rights through church advocacy groups.

“I had to put up with insults from people who believed they were better than me because they’d studied more, because they didn’t value what I did, because I was poor and indigenous, and they held the power,” says Bautista. “Mexico is a patriarchal society and the underlying classism is very marked. People with money contract us, they insult us, treat us like lesser people, but we have to thank them for the work.”

Carolina Hernández

Carolina Hernández was just 13 when she left her family in a mountainous village in the eastern state of Veracruz to find work in Mexico City. Her brother-in-law, a much older man, was trying to force her into a sexual relationship and she was terrified. She left with a female family friend who had promised to help her find work as a maid.

The first few months were awful. Hernández, who had grown up speaking the indigenous Otomí language, was frequently mocked and called “stupid” for not speaking Spanish. Her first job was as a live-in housekeeper for a middle-class family on the city’s northern outskirts. After two weeks of long days cleaning, doing the laundry and picking up after the children, the family refused to pay her.

“The señora accused me of stealing. I hadn’t stolen anything but she had put a pair of scissors and two jelly desserts in the plastic bag in which I kept my clothes. She threatened to call the police unless I left, and didn’t pay me my wages,” says Hernández, who is now 49.

María Llanos

María Llanos, 49, originally from the eastern state of Puebla, also moved to the capital at the age of 14 with an older sister. For years, she endured a gruelling schedule and disdain from her employers, and was even forced to leave her own babies crying if there was housework to be done, until she finally found a family who treated her with respect.

“I was with the family for 16 years and thought they were good people,” she says. “Then one day I was cleaning the stove and the señor walked past me and touched me. It was so uncomfortable but I didn’t know how to react. It started subtle and slow, but it kept getting worse, until one day he locked me in a room and started touching me, saying he wanted a relationship.

“I felt as if I had no choice but to have a sexual relationship with him. My children were in secondary school, they paid me well, and what work could I do if I left? I stayed for six months before I couldn’t stand it anymore and left, but I didn’t report it or tell anyone as back then I didn’t understand what had happened.”

Domestic workers in Mexico

There are around 2.3 million domestic workers in Mexico, including 225,000 in the capital. More than 90% are women – often indigenous women who have moved from rural villages to cities in other states to find work. Their average age is 35, but one in five like Hernández began working before the legal age of 16.

In Mexico City, the vast majority either live with the families they work for or spend several hours each day travelling to and from the sprawling state of Mexico which surrounds the capital. When the traffic is particularly bad, it can take Hernández three hours to reach work in the morning.

Even today, verbal, physical and sexual abuse of domestic workers remain alarmingly common, according to a recent study by the National Board for the Prevention of Discrimination (Conapred) (pdf). It found that 14% of domestic workers had been beaten or suffered sexual abuse, or knew another domestic who had had this experience; insults are even more widespread; 17% had been falsely accused of stealing, and another 17% had been unfairly dismissed.

Union demands

The new union’s priority is to demand mandatory access to the social security system which would give domestic workers rights to a basic pension and better healthcare.

The union will also pressure the government to ratify the binding International Labour Organisation Convention 189, which states that domestic workers are entitled to basic rights and conditions: a minimum wage, paid overtime, weekly days off, maternity pay, formal contracts and protection from abuse and harassment. Mexico signed the convention in 2011 but has so far failed to ratify it.

Bautista says: “We’re not fighting to eliminate domestic work, we’re fighting to ensure people’s rights are respected and to say to society that we are equal to everyone else, that the work we do is valuable, and that they shouldn’t blame us or discriminate against us for being poor.”

Source: Nina Lakhani/The Guardian

Story Type: Story

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