Today we are fortunate to have a diary describing the current condition of domestic workers in Mexico. This is an issue which has received increasing attention in the last three years. A long-time activist in the Domestic Worker Movement, Irene Ortiz Rosen, is the Co-Founder and Director of Collectivo Atabal, an organization of activists and feminists formed to defend the rights, dignity and demands of domestic workers in Mexico City. She is also the Co-Author of “Así es, Pues” a socio-economic study of domestic workers in Cuernavaca. A recent emigrant from Mexico, she approaches the subject from a global perspective which emphasizes the class and anti-imperialist aspects of the struggle as well as its patriarchal nature.
In the world of labor, a large group of women whose work is the maintenance of the homes of others is largely ignored—domestic workers. According to the ILO, there are more than 52 million domestic workers in the world.
In almost all countries, domestic workers share the following characteristics: 1) invisibility; 2) migration; 3) low levels of education; 4) gender, ethnic and racial discrimination; and 5) the informality of their labor. These are all products of poverty.
Domestic workers make up an invisible workforce because their work is carried out in the private sphere, that is, the homes of their employers. Their contract is verbal, their work is isolated, and their mobility is common.
Generally they are migrants, usually, within their own countries. This is the case for indigenous women and women who come from rural areas in Latin America. And as the gap in inequality grows throughout the world, in the poorest countries the phenomenon of migration (usually without papers) is growing beyond borders. That is how they arrive to United States and Canada, by informally working as House Cleaning Personnel, Nannies and Home Attendants. In New York alone, we are talking about more than 200 thousand people who are working under disadvantaged conditions due to their Undocumented status.
Their discrimination is shared with nearly all women, and its logic corresponds to the subordination of women in a patriarchal culture. Within the patriarchal view of the traditional role of women, their work is an extension of the reproductive role, which is considered natural for their gender.
We should not forget that women in general, as housewives and mothers, perform domestic work without any pay whatever. Consequently, their work is not considered part of the national economy despite the fact that it makes up about 20% of the GDP. If a woman looks for waged work, she enters the labor market in a disadvantaged way; forty-five percent of women domestic workers receive salaries that are 10% lower than salaries received by men for the same work.
Global economic policies that have impoverished the majority of the world´s population have brought women in all countries into the public sphere. The women working in the public sphere then need to hire a domestic worker to care for their children and home. However, because they, themselves, are not paid well, they are unable to pay a fair wage, even if they value the services being performed by domestic help.
Out of an employed population of 42.6 million in Mexico, there are 1.58 million domestic workers. They make up the fifth-largest group of informal workers.
The Mexican Federal Labor Law (LFT), in a brief chapter, only refers to domestic workers who live in the homes of their employers, “live-in workers,” and specifies two rights: the wage and the working day. In Article 334, it says, “the pay should be 50% in kind (food and a room).” And in Article 333 it says, “they have the right to have necessary time to eat and to rest at night.” In practice this means that the wage is minimal and that the working day is 12 to 15 hours.
In the case of “external” workers,” their employers are typically members of the middle class and look upon this work as a “service of help,” sporadic and temporary. The law does not specify their labor rights. Their only power is to negotiate their wages according to the current state of supply and demand in the labor market. Occasionally, those who are valued on their jobs because they have been doing it for so long and those who are part of a union (some are unionized) do achieve better work conditions.
From my experience of 20 years as an organizer of this workforce in my country, I see similarities not only in the conditions of the work, but in the efforts and organizing strategies as well, in Latin America, in California, New York, Chicago and Canada.
Labor union organization, as it is well known, is almost impossible because domestic workers don´t work for a single employer. The attempts to organize the unions in Latin America, are almost symbolic, without recognition or force when facing the employers. They are more like social organizations.
Nonetheless, over the past 40 years, there have been organizations, each with its own character in each country. The principal demand is to stop “live in” which is the most exploited type of work. There have also been addition demands, like regularizing the working day, receiving full pay for holidays and other benefits like the year-end bonus, vacation time and health insurance.
The strategies implemented and agreed upon are based on the sociopolitical and historical context of each country. In my work, emphasis is on the following strategies: 1) the search for alliance; 2) integrating oneself in social movements; 3) searching for solidarity and actively seeking the company of activists and advisers. This includes, accepting and looking for donations, creating campaigns, editing publications, reaching the media, lobbying political actors, and most importantly, educating workers about their rights.
In Mexico, the initiative began when activists pushed workers to unionize. There are also the personal goals of the workers affiliated with unions such as educating them about their rights, the acknowledgment of dignity in their industry, the improvement of their working conditions and their legal defense in abuse cases.
Of collective achievements, I would like to point out the best known ones: The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights recently won after ten years of struggle in New York State; a federal deputy of indigenous origin in Bolivia who had been the leader of a domestic workers organization; in Brazil, a representative of a domestic workers organization to parliament, along with labor law reform and the recognition of a domestic workers union; In Uruguay, the syndicate achieved health coverage legislation, along with severance pay and a bonus on retirement. In Mexico, 20 years after activists began promoting the organization, an indigenous leader, is continuing the process of organizing in Mexico City.
The most significant achievement is the adoption of Convention 189 by the ILO on June 16, 2011, which advocates for the dignity of work for domestic workers, along with the adoption of Recommendation 201, which sets the goal of guaranteeing dignified pay and working conditions for domestic workers around the world. At this point, however, only six countries have ratified the convention: The Philippines, Mauritius, Italy, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Uruguay.
I want to conclude by emphasizing that with every achievement, the workers face new challenges that motivates them to keep on fighting. The Bill of Rights, in New York, now has the task of informing each worker of it’s content and it’s right to be followed. No more, no less. It’s a process that some must begin and others must continue in hopes that tomorrow things will be better for everyone.