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Allies or obstacles? The role of domestic employers in Colombia

Female domestic workers in Colombia have led a long struggle for their rights as workers. It’s up to employers to take the next step towards formalising domestic work. Español

Policy debate

Can employers be allies in the fight for domestic workers' rights?

We asked experts in the field of domestic workers' rights to respond to the following: 'Can employers be allies in the fight for domestic workers' rights?' This is what they answered.

Respondents

Claire Hobden & Moriah Shumpert
International Labour Organization

Saba Waheed & Lucero Herrera
UCLA Labor Center

Bridget Anderson
University of Bristol

Andrea Londoño
Fundación Bien Humano

Elizabeth Tang & Marie-José L. Tayah
International Domestic Workers Federation

Julius Cainglet & Ronahlee Asuncion
Federation of Free Workers & University of Philippines Diliman

Rosa Navarro & Mechtild Hart
Latino Union & DePaul University

Ilana Berger
Hand in Hand

Photo by Jennifer N. Fish.

In 2014, Colombia was noticeably forward-thinking in being the 14th of the 187 member-states of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to ratify Convention 189, which recognises the major and dramatic abuses that are committed against the 709,909 domestic workers in the country (95% of which are women). It is worth noting that these numbers come from official sources, although the informality of the sector may mean that there are many more women employed in this field. Despite small advancements, this is the first administration in Colombian history to have domestic workers in its political agenda.

How have we advanced decent working conditions for domestic workers?

This has been the struggle of female Colombian domestic worker unions such as Sintrasedom, Sintraimagra, Sintrahin, the Asociación de trabajadoras del hogar, and Union of Afrocolombian Domestic Workers (UTRASD). This last organisation has created three subdirectives, pushed for a law mandating worker’s premiums, is an interlocutor with the Ministry of Labor, and its leaders have been recognised on a national scale.

Two civil society organisations, the Fundación Bien Humano (through its project “Hablemos de Empleadas Domesticas”—meaning, “Let’s talk about domestic workers”) and the National Labor Union School (ENS), supported UTRASD and other domestic worker organisations in leading the charge regarding the workers’ premiums law; undertaking investigations; and framing domestic work as a rights-based issue in public, media, and social media spaces. 

Society, for its part, has included the issues of salaries, benefits, working hours, and others rights in its discussion of domestic work. Now we need them to take action.

What about employers of domestic workers as a trade union? 

A recent investigation, “El trabajo doméstico desde la óptica de la eficacia de la norma” (meaning, “Domestic work through the lens of efficiency of norms”) found that 84% of domestic workers in the cities of Medellín and Envigado believe that their working conditions have improved. Laura Penangos, a lawyer and one of the authors of the above work, explains that, “they see an improvement in certain areas, such as the payment of benefits and better overall treatment”. Regardless, according to official data, a year after the workers’ premiums law came into effect (2017); payment of said premiums only went of from 15.2% to 25.5%.   

The three-part negotiating table, an instrument for following-up on the implementation of Convention 189, is the only space for social dialogue between the government (represented by the Ministry of Labor), domestic workers (represented by workers’ unions), and the employers (represented by Andi—the national association of businessmen). 

Red tape undermines the will of thousands of employers that want to comply with the law.

After speaking with Andi regarding the possibility of their allying with domestic workers in the effort to secure their rights, Alberto Echavarría, the organisation’s vice president of juridical and social matters, made it clear that the simplification of the paperwork that is required to formalise the industry could be the greatest contribution to the recognition of the labour of domestic workers. We agree with the fact that ample red tape undermines the will of thousands of employers that want to comply with the law. We warn, however, that Andi is a conglomeration of businessmen, who operate on the principle of profitability, while domestic work operates on logics of care.

For his part, Salua García, the director of Symplifica, a company which handles the paperwork involved in the hiring of domestic workers, assures us that, “every day employers are looking for more information on how to do things right”, and that by doing this they empower domestic workers to demand their rights in the future with other employers. Here we see a ray of hope that the new generations of employers will be invested worker’s rights and will make important changes.

However, looking for the origins of business associations in Colombia, we looked to Constanza Toro, an expert in business history, who said that due to the “deeply-rooted undervaluing of domestic work in society, and its association to the practices of slavery, the possibility of an employers association looks very distant”.

Human beings generally form alliances rooted in affection or necessity. In this case, employers do not have the affective or business need to join together, seeing as the labor market continues to provide an ample pool of cheap and exploitable employees, without major risks of legal or social sanctions.

In congress, Ángela María Robledo and Angélica Lozano, members of the House of Representatives who have taken up the issue of domestic work, think that achieving the unionisation of employers would be the ideal scenario. Robledo states, “when a relationship between workers and employers is formalised, starting from a place that recognises decent working conditions, we see a ‘win-win’ interaction, because both parties can depend on guarantees”. “Also,” Lozano adds, “these minimal guarantees regarding working conditions are not favors given by employers, but rights, and it is their responsibility to be allies as well, giving necessary information if a domestic worker does not know her rights”.

In the world there are already models of associations that band together employers of domestic workers. The Liga de Amas de Casa, Consumidores y Usuarios de la República Oriental del Uruguay (The League of Housewives, Consumers, and Users of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay), and the Liga de Amas de Casa de la República Argentina (The League of Housewives of the Argentine Republic) were organisations that were initially founded to encourage traditional family values in wealthy communities, but eventually assumed a political role. They have since taken on the representation of employers in negotiations regarding the rights of domestic workers in their counties. Hogar justo Hogar (Home Just Home) has been the Mexican voice of employers that defend the rights of domestic workers before the government and other employers. Asedo, for example, is a Spanish trade union of employers and domestic employees that sets out rights and responsibilities in the sector. Domina, the national association of employers of domestic workers in Italy, functions as a consultative body in terms of domestic workers’ business relationships. Finally, Domestic Employers is a network of employers in the United States that looks to dignify and respect the relationship between employers and domestic workers.    

 We see a ray of hope that the new generations of employers will be invested worker’s rights and will make important changes.

The education of employers regarding the value of domestic work was something we began seven years ago, but this requires our continuing efforts, as it implies a cultural change. The government, for its part, cannot continue to dodge its responsibility in terms of creating specific routes for inspections in homes, not only for punitive purposes, but also to serve as diagnostics of the sector. Finally, the country needs Andi, the union of employers in Colombia, to help formalise the field of domestic work, for example, via its own recommendation of facilitating the process of hiring said workers, with help from the Ministry of Information Communications Technologies. A good example of how employers can push for formalisation of this sector is the digital calculator for the settlement of domestic workers, recently offered by the company Hogaru. 

Despite some signs of change, we are not at yet a turning point. However, employers now have the necessary tools to assume their responsibility of respecting domestic workers’ rights.  

About the author

Andrea Londoño is a journalist and political communications specialist, with a background in community management and gender studies. She is the founder and coordinator of the Hablemos de Empleadas Domésticas project (2010) and serves as a board member for the Fundación Bien Humano.

Read On

'Domestic workers speak: a global fight for rights and recognition' showcases the diversity and power of the domestic workers' rights movement. Featuring contributions from 23 worker-led groups, it details the struggle of domestic workers, explores their solidarity and methods of resistance, and calls for comprehensive rights for the world's most invisible workforce.
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