For Maids and Nannies in Latin America, a Push for Rights Gains Ground

By Eulich, Whitney | The Christian Science Monitor, February 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

For Maids and Nannies in Latin America, a Push for Rights Gains Ground


Eulich, Whitney, The Christian Science Monitor


When 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.

It joins the growing list of organized groups of domestic workers from the Dominican Republic to Colombia, and Bolivia to Uruguay, fighting for employment contracts, health care, pensions, and the very basic recognition that their labor entitles them to the same protections and legal oversight found in other industries.

Although small groups of domestic workers have been organizing and fighting for the recognition of their rights for nearly 40 years, the past decade has brought about unprecedented shifts in the region to create an environment conducive to social change.

Economies were on an upward swing, pulling some 56 million households into the middle class over the past 15 years. This has created more formal employment opportunities, and increased access to technology. The rise of women in the work force also created a "crisis of care," says Maria Jose Chamorro, a gender specialist who studies domestic labor for the International Labour Organization (ILO). It's led to a greater demand for qualified help in the home and employees who are more willing to ask for higher wages.

"We have seen a significant shift for the positive," for domestic workers in Latin America, says Carmen Roca, Latin America adviser for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a global network.

"There are many years of work ahead of us," she says, "but the rights of domestic workers are becoming more visible on the international stage."

Some landmark momentsThere 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.

And although shifts like greater social mobility and more global awareness about the perils of this work have played a part in pushing domestic workers to take a stand, violence and displacement also played a role in some countries. …

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