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“A few steps forward, still a long way to go”: old issues, new movements

A critical approach to domestic work based on our lived experiences.

Members of the Asociacion de Trabajadoras Remuneradas del Hogar outside Ecuador's national assembly. IDWF/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The situation of paid domestic workers in Ecuador has been, and continues to be, a critical issue. Despite the knowledge that our rights as humans and workers are being violated on a daily basis, many of us choose to endure conditions of abuse, exploitation, and discrimination because of economic necessity and our responsibility to take care of our families.

We must educate our children, as we do not want them to be subjected to the same work conditions, humiliation, and abuse.

In addition to caring for the households of our employers’ families, many of us are heads of our own households, which involves a host of additional responsibilities. Every month, we need to pay rent and other fees for social housing (that is, if we are lucky enough to obtain government assisted housing). In addition to these expenses, we need to account for health, food, and clothing costs, as well for basic electricity, water, phone, internet – with technology advancing, the internet has become indispensable for the education of our children – and daily transportation costs for our families and for ourselves. To cover these expenses, we need a source of income, and without education or professional training, our only option is to find work in homes, which guarantees neither adequate conditions nor fair treatment and pay.

Many of us migrate from rural areas to big cities from a very young age in search of work opportunities, with the intention of achieving economic stability for our families and ourselves. We must educate our children, as we do not want them to be subjected to the same work conditions, humiliation, and abuse – both psychological and physical, including sexual abuse by our employers or their sons. We want our children to have qualifications, professions, better work opportunities, and a better quality of life.

Domestic labour involves a multitude of responsibilities: we are in charge of cooking food, general domestic chores, and taking care of our employers’ pets and families. It’s not the nature of domestic work that is terrible, but the conditions and circumstances we face at work: the lack of adequate supplies to perform our tasks, the exposure to risks, and the occupational illnesses that can result from this kind of work. Employers need to understand that we are people just like them, with rights and responsibilities, and that we also have families that need us and wait for us. They need to start treating our work with the dignity and importance it deserves, and they need to acknowledge that we also contribute to the country’s economy. After all, it is our labour that allows them to go out and work and improve their own economic condition.

Domestic labour under power relations

Women perform most domestic labour, not surprising given that women’s roles have historically been considered largely reproductive. They have been perpetually undervalued by a patriarchal system and culture, in which men are seen as being the sole economically, socially, culturally, and politically productive agents in their households. This often results in women, be they children or young adults, feeling inferior and dependent on men, regardless of how important their economic contribution is to their families. This is especially true for low-income women, who are more vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination, and human rights violations.

It is also expected that domestic workers show gratitude for working in elite households, instead of advocate to improve their labour conditions. The ‘patrona’ is the woman of the house, i.e. the one with the power, money, and respect. She decides how much and when she will pay the ‘criada’ or ‘sirvienta’, who cannot protest out of fear of being thrown out of the house and into the streets. The fact is that this power formula goes largely unquestioned further contributes to domestic labour being undervalued and rendered invisible.

The ‘patrona’ is the woman of the house, i.e. the one with the power, money, and respect.

Furthermore, this power imbalance facilitates the path towards discrimination, racism, inequality (with regards to class, ethnicity, and gender), sexual harassment, and abuse, not only in the home, but also at a systemic level. These unequal power relationships – which often result in gender violence and woman-to-woman discrimination – have been reproduced and normalised by our society. As such, decades have passed without any serious attempt to create and respect laws to protect women in this sector.

Organising as a path towards claiming our rights

Historically in Ecuador, the rights of domestic workers have not been recognised: we have had to endure conditions such as long working days, job instability, no access to social security, no contracts, no vacation days, and no access to the benefits that other workers receive from the government and from society.

There have been many cases of employers violating our human and workers rights. Currently, many of us are not being paid the legal minimum wage and do not have work contracts to rely on for our protection. Many of our employers demand that we work through casual service contracts, which effectively absolves them from their responsibility to provide us with 13th month bonuses, paid vacation, and health insurance.

These issues and the general precariousness of domestic work inspired a group of compañeras to gather in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1997 to create the Asociación de Trabajadoras Remuneradas del Hogar (ATRH), an association that fights to defend labour, gender, and human rights for domestic workers. The association includes members from Guayas, Manabí, Los Ríos, Pichincha, Esmeraldas, among other provinces.

Through different media outlets, the members and founders of the ATRH have been able to inform themselves about labour rights, social security, among other themes of interest and have educated their peers. They were also able to use this knowledge to provide free guidance to members who suffered from various human rights violations.

Other NGOs such as FOS Socialist Solidarity, Centro de Solidaridad Sindical de Finlandia SASK, and Care International have played a crucial role in the development and operation of our activities by providing counsel and supporting us economically. The organisation is currently struggling to sustain itself financially since its only source of funding is limited and comes from SASK.

We have had roundtable discussions with the Ecuador’s Ministry of Labour Relations, the Ecuadorian Institute for Social Security, and other departments in order to advocate for the rights of workers from our sector. On 20 June 2016, after a long struggle of 18 years, the Sindicato Nacional Único de Trabajadoras Remuneradas del Hogar Ecuador (SINUTRHE) was established with the aim to guarantee compliance with workers’ rights in the domestic work sector.

In addition, Ecuador ratified the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention (C 189) in 2013, for which there was unanimous support in the National Assembly. We – the women from ATHR – are also a part of the Central Única de Trabajadores (CUT). These milestones indicate that the government of Ecuador and its different ministries, as well as several important NGOs, are willing to support the struggle for domestic workers rights.

Progress, step by step

In 2008, the legal juridical framework for domestic workers changed positively under the mandate of president Rafael Correa and the new constitution written for the Republic of Ecuador. The government raised and regulated wages of our working class, from an unjust salary to a basic, unifying the salary for all workers. There are no specific regulations for the domestic care sector, as domestic workers fall under the Labour Code and therefore are supposed to have the same rights as other workers.

From 2008 to 2017, the minimum wage increased from 180 to 375 US dollars per month. According to the code, the minimum we can make is a basic unified salary for a full day of work, in addition to overtime after eight hours of work, regardless of whether the worker is a live-in domestic worker. Additionally, we now have the right to be affiliated to the Ecuadorian Institute for Social Security, bonuses, reserve funds, paid vacations, health rights, and other benefits stated by the law.

Domestic workers are also protected by articles 243 and 244 of the Organic Integral Penal Code in Ecuador, which penalises employers who do not affiliate their workers to the Ecuadorian Institute for Social Security or comply with work inspections at a national level. Domestic workers can also have permanent part-time contracts, and thus have access to the same rights and benefits of full-time workers. 

The continued advancement of domestic workers’ rights largely depends on a joint effort between the associates and workers of our association, the SINUTRHE, the government, and society in general, to make sure that laws are followed and that our workers’ rights and human rights are being respected.  

About the author

Lourdes Albán has been a paid domestic worker for almost 23 years. She currently combines office work with housework. She graduated from college with a specialisation in commerce and administration, and has taken courses in file management, commercial writing, basic accounting, crafts, dressmaking, and hairdressing, among others. She has been very active in and is currently an essential member of the Asociación de Trabajadoras Remuneradas del Hogar in Ecuador.


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