Jorge Adorno/Reuters
Domestic workers march through a street calling for higher wages and better opportunities on Domestic Workers' Day in Asuncion March 30, 2014.

For maids and nannies in Latin America, a push for rights gains ground

Organized groups of domestic workers have been fighting for employment contracts, health care, pensions, and other protections.

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 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. 

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.

Maria Roa was 15 years old in 1996 when her sister was killed by leftist rebels in her small town in western Colombia. She, like millions of others, fled the countryside to nearby cities. The only work she could find in Medellin was as a housekeeper, where she was forced into 16- to 18-hour shifts and made less than $160 a month. She heard countless stories of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse from other maids.

“I started this union because of what we were living through in other people’s homes … not making the minimum wage, facing discrimination,” Ms. Roa says. “We had to understand ourselves what was happening.”

Today, 126 members work with her to demand more rights. In 2013 the union successfully got the Colombian Labor Ministry to require employers provide benefits like health insurance to domestic workers. She says that she and her colleagues “now realize that we are important, and we are empowering ourselves,” Roa says. “We are taking control of our rights.”

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.

And pressure isn’t limited to sit-down meetings with government officials. In Peru, for example, the entrenched practice of employers requiring domestic workers to wear uniforms when out in public hit legal pushback soon after a group of nearly 1,000 maids, activists, and allies took to a tony beach one summer dressed in aprons and smocks to protest the explicit and discriminatory ban of hired help from wearing swimsuits and enjoying the surf there.

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.”

-Joe Parkin Daniels contributed reporting from Colombia.

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