When Rights are Lost in a Matter of Minutes. The situation of domestic workers in Central America
By: Helen Barrientos, FCAM Program Officer
Veronica, age 41, began working as a domestic worker when she was 12 years old. “Since quarantine began, they did not let me leave until two weekends ago.” She spent quarantine alone, the other domestic worker that handled cleaning had left. She was responsible for doing everything on her own for 15 days, and finally spoke with the family about the workload, “I would get back to my room at 10:30pm, after waking up at 5:00am to make breakfast. I’m really stressed out.” They sent her to do errands, but that was also a risk. “Night is the only time that I can make calls with my friends and family, or participate in the workshops organized by the Association of Domestic and Free Trade Zone Workers (Asociación de Trabajadoras del Hogar a Domicilio y de la Maquila –ATRAHDOM).” Veronica does not feel that she is compensated adequately for her work, and her salary does not correspond to the amount of work that she does. “I’m tired, I’m sad, and I get down a lot. It’s a lot of extra stress to have to serve four people all day, without any rest.”
Situation Facing Domestic Workers During the Pandemic
Veronica, like many other Central American women, has not had access to formal education, as is the case for 93% of women that are employed in domestic work. According to a study carried out by UN Women, the vast majority lack access to social security and in the midst of the pandemic are suffering more labor rights abuses¹.We often ask ourselves, what is going on among members of society that we do not want to recognize domestic labor as work? It is considered part of the informal economy, but it is impossible to place domestic work in that category given that there is a contractual relationship with a specific employer, and in this case, an entire family. But when it comes to labor rights and human rights, the majority of these workers’ rights are not recognized.
Susana Vásquez of ATRAHDOM (Guatemala) tells us that, “on March 16th, our telephone did not stop ringing, workers were all calling to tell us that they had been laid off without pay, without benefits, with nothing. It was terrible to receive those calls, some of these workers had spent years working in these homes. Many of them are heads of their own households and there was no consideration for that.”
With the health crisis and shutdown of Central American countries and their borders, domestic workers were the ones that immediately suffered the consequences. Floridalma Contreras from the Union of Independent Domestic Workers (Sindicato de Trabajadoras Independientes de Trabajo Doméstico Similares y a Cuenta Propia – SITRADOMSA, Guatemala) shared the following, “We have been following this so closely with domestic workers, those that work on a day-to-day basis have been out of work since March, their employers told them they would call them back when this was all over. They are not receiving support from the government, because that requires filling out paperwork and resources like internet and smartphones, which they do not have.”
According to a survey completed by ATRAHDOM in Guatemala, there are more than 250,000 domestic workers, of which 32% have been laid off since the pandemic began, and 65% have remained working but quarantined in exploitative and high-risk conditions. Some have seen their pay reduced. Susana Vásquez tells us, “One of our members has not been paid since February, they tell her, just wait, you cannot go to your house now anyway, and if you go home you are not going to be able to come back, why do you want the money? They will not let her use the phone, and it has been several days since we have been able to communicate with her.”
The situation is much the same in Nicaragua, all domestic workers are affected in some way or another, as many domestic workers work for employees that have likewise lost their jobs. There are 27,000 workers registered in the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, and 50% are unemployed. As a result, salaries for domestic workers have been cut while their workload has increased. Work is unstable, they are told to come on some days and not to come on others, and families do not want workers leaving their homes so that they do not infect the family; the workers feel imprisoned and unsafe. – María Mercedes Martínez from the “Julia Herrera de Pomares” Federation of Women Domestic and Varied Workers of Managua (Federación de Mujeres Trabajadoras Domésticas y de Oficios Varios de Managua “Julia Herrera de Pomares” – FETRADOMOV).
Why Do We Not Care for Those that Care for Us?
In general, domestic labor is not considered a job, but rather the role and mandate that is ascribed to women simply by virtue of being a woman. How many times have we heard the same story from men? My wife does not work, she stays at home caring for the children, she does chores, cooks food. What a job! We should remember that she maintains the stability of the home, its financial health and the health of those that live in it. But this is not considered a job. In the words of Silvia Federici, “capitalism has taken it up itself to convince women that their area is domestic work and reproduction, without recognition or salary. It has led women to believe that domestic chores and caring for children is ‘an act of love.’
And for those that hold these same ideas, when they hire someone else to do this work, it is for them to “help.” We should realize the burden that this carries. We continue to not recognize that domestic labor is work. In this current health emergency, for the majority of people the first thing that they did was fire their housekeeper. In her place, was “the woman of the house.” She also knows how to do this work; it is how she was raised and educated. Even if she is working remotely, she is responsible for checking her children’s homework, and keeping on top of her many tasks.
All of us women that can employ another woman as a domestic worker in our homes, should keep in mind the oppression that we also cause or in which we participate, we are oppressing other women. We can contribute to dignifying this work and improve working conditions for domestic workers, thereby improving conditions for all women.
We are all responsible for dignifying domestic work. “Our struggle is for social services, for improved working conditions, and this will continue to be a challenge until we reach a point in which our work is considered work” (Federicci). This recognition is crucial, because in addition to demanding better laws that recognize worker’s rights, we also need to refresh our ideas. Work should be a place where all people, in addition to earning the resources that they need to live, have the opportunity to live to their fullest potential.
As Veronica explains it, “to be able to have some down time and focus on myself, I rent a room that I continue paying for. It is a place for me to rest, no one can bother me there, and I use it to have my weekends free to myself.” While we know that this comes at an added cost, it is necessary and vital for Veronica to have her own space, to stay organized and continue studying, as this is what has given her the tools she needs to defend her rights and move away from the exploitation that they seek to impose upon here.
The Relevance of Domestic Work Internationally and Within Social Movements
The issue of domestic work has had a lukewarm reception within social movements, as Maritza Velásquez of ATRAHDOM tells us, “we continue to be the ones that are bringing the issue of domestic work to the forefront, it is not on the agenda of the women’s movement or the union movement, we are the ones raising awareness among organizations while also serving domestic workers.” Floridalma Contreras of SITARDOMSA agrees, “there is not much coordination across institutions, this has been most successful in terms of increasing the visibility of violence against women. The International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) is bringing this to the attention of governments. The International Labor Organization (ILO) made specific recommendations to the governments about the issue of worker’s rights and long work shifts, and that included domestic workers.”
For leaders of these organizations, international alliances are very important – especially when participating governments make commitments to fulfill the basic rights of domestic workers. The struggle to ratify Convention 189 in this this context in Guatemala and El Salvador is particularly difficult, but it is a struggle that organizations and alliances cannot abandon despite being in quarantine.
No crisis – be it a health or political crisis – can be overcome when basic human rights are undermined. In Nicaragua, FETRADMOV continues working on labor inspections with the Ministry of Labor to ensure that the rights of domestic workers are not violated when they become sick and are sent home without salary or medicine. All of the organizations consulted here are part of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), and they are working together with IDWF to develop a post-pandemic Occupational Safety manual. This is a tool that all of us can use to prevent COVID-19 and protect the women that care for us, who risk their lives and receive few benefits for doing so. In the words of María Mercedes, “If we do not take care of ourselves, who will take care of us? We are raising awareness for workers to care for and protect themselves. Employers should provide the resources for them to do so, but if they do not, we need to raise awareness for the moment we are in, and beyond this moment as well.”
Continuing the Struggle for Worker’s Rights in This and Future Crises
One of the most urgent challenges that we continue to face is that social movements and women’s and feminist organizations have to create sustainable strategies in the face of devastating contexts that for decades we have continually had to confront. Workers’ rights organizations assert that one way to do this is to continue to denounce labor rights violations by employers, and to not rest in advocating with legislators of each country to ratify ILO Conventions 189 and 190. They will continue to gather data through surveys and consultations with workers, keeping up with them to ensure that they know that they have a place in the organization to seek help if they need it. They will continue to organize all of the trainings that are necessary, adapting them to the technological needs and schedules of domestic workers. They will amplify these issues on social media, and increase awareness among employers so that domestic work is considered a job like any other, with its corresponding rights.
Nine years after the International Labor Organization approved Convention 189, we have to keep fighting. We have to make sure that the countries that have not ratified it do so, so that workers can improve their lives. United we are stronger! María Mercedes Martínez (FETRADOMOV)
¹María-Noel Vaeza, Director of UN Women for the Americas.