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How do we make labour rights real?

Domestic workers have achieved many gains in Colombia in the past years. Now they're setting their sights higher.

Photo provided by authors.

Today in Colombia, people and government are finally talking about domestic workers rights. This might sound a little strange, given that it is such a fundamental issue. Historically, these women have been relegated to the least visible margins of society, and their work has been consistently undervalued, despite their enormous contribution to society. These women (because talking about male domestic workers is naming the exception, which in itself portrays the problem) have been subjected to every possible form of discrimination: extensive work hours1, payments that are much lower than the minimum wage2, and no social protections – without forgetting to mention instances of labour and sexual abuse. While the past six years have been marked by a series of steps towards improving work and life conditions for domestic workers, it will take a lot more work to push back against centuries of discrimination.

Our journey in this struggle started seven years ago, after we agreed with other people and organisations that were concerned about this issue that the only way to move forward was through collective action and teamwork: by combining our knowledge, the few economic resources to which we had access, and hundreds of hours of volunteer work. Our goal was to make people in our country value the great contribution of paid domestic workers – 96% of whom are women3 – as well as understand that undervaluing of these workers structurally contributes to social inequity.

Despite their own financial and social difficulties, these female domestic worker leaders opted for a democratic approach – which is committed to the peace process4 – towards becoming aware of their rights and demanding them through unionism. These brave women have had constant support from the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS) and the Fundacion Bien Humano.

An organised sector

Colombia currently has three domestic worker unions: Sintrasedom, Sintraimagra and the Unión de Trabajadoras Afrocolombianas del Servicio Doméstico (UTRASD). The last of these is based in Medellin and is the most politically influential. UTRASD’s board members, María Roa, Claribed Palacios, Flora Perea, Nydia Díaz, Gloria Céspedes and Reynalda Chaverra, have been important figures and voices for advocating for domestic workers rights. Particularly María Roa, was recognised as one of the most important leaders in Colombia in 2016.

UTRASD was officially established in 2013, as a result of two important developments. First, in the few years preceding 2010, afro-Colombian leaders from Medellin began to mobilise for their rights. Then, in 2011, the ENS and Carabantú, an organisation for the empowerment afro-Colombian women in the region, conducted the investigation “Barriendo la Invisibilidad de las Trabajadoras Domésticas Afrocolombianas en Medellín. The findings of this research prompted ENS to decisively support the UTRASD’s workers union, which they have done for the past six years. A group that started out with 23 women in 2013 quickly began growing and now consists of almost 400 members, a dynamic directive board, two sub-chapters in Cartagena and Apartado, nine committees, three active cooperation projects, and an ambitious action plan.

With a basis in law

At a legislative and governmental level we can say that domestic work caught the public eye in 2009, when Colombia’s Congress began discussing the Care Economy Law (Ley de Economía del Cuidado), which was being promoted by senators Cecilia López and Gloria Inés Ramírez. Thanks to them, in 2010, law 1413 ordered the measurement of women’s contribution to the economic and social development of the country through unpaid domestic work for the first time.

In 2011, the International Labor Organisation shook things on a global scale with the Domestic Workers Convention (C189), which was the first international call for addressing the conditions of domestic workers. The following year, Colombia passed law 1595 to incorporate C189 and express the government’s will to protect domestic workers, before ratifying the convention in 2014.

Why doesn’t Colombia have an association of representative voices of the employers of the domestic workers? And how can one be created?

In 2013, decree 2616 was issued to regulate social security and was followed by decree 721, which gave domestic workers access to the family benefits system. As a result, out of nearly one million domestic workers in Colombia, "in February 2016, more than 19,000 people were registered for social security depending on their income. According to the Superintendence of Family Subsidy in March of 2016, the number of domestic workers accessing family benefits increased to more than 104,000 people".

In 2014, the Constitutional Court of Colombia issued judgment C-871, which charged the Colombian Congress with correcting the discrimination faced by domestic workers regarding the denial of their service bonus, namely the right to one month’s salary per year as a bonus. Last year, the Constitutional Court also recognised the infringement of domestic worker’s rights in the 185-16 judgment, whereby they were determined as subjects needing special constitutional protection. Exactly five years after C189 was adopted in Switzerland, the Colombian Congress – led by the legislators Ángela María Robledo and Angélica Lozano – unanimously approved the 1788 ley de prima, or the law that recognises the same service bonus for domestic workers as for the rest of Colombia’s workers.

These legislative and juridical advancements have helped show the people in Colombia that domestic workers have the same rights as any other worker.

Next steps

In 2011, the Fundación Bien Humano started a project called “Hablemos de Empleadas Domésticas” as a strategy to give domestic workers more visibility and to position them as subjects with rights. The project includes support for the empowerment and the pubic positioning of base organisations, such as the UTRASD.  

Bien Humano also created a robust communications network through its Twitter account @Empleadas_hogar, a Facebook page Trabajadoras Domésticas, a YouTube channel Hablemos de Empleadas Domésticas, and the website trabajadorasdomesticas.org, to disseminate information resources. With the conviction that “unity makes strength”, Bien Humano joined forced with ENS and UTRASD in 2011 as part of a strategy that has allowed them to reach the highest functionaries, other national and international organisations, mass media outlets, and the leaders and citizens of Colombia with the message that dignity and the law must start at home, with our women workers.

The latest political development in Colombia has been the creation of tripartite roundtable, an ideal scenario codified in the Bonus Law (Ley de Prima) in order to promote C189. In this committee there are places for representatives of the national government (Ministry of Work), workers (trade unions and the UTRASD) and for the employers is the Asociación Nacional de Empresarios (National Association of Entrepreneurs), which gives rise to many questions: why do employers of domestic workers in Colombia get to be represented by businesspeople? Are problems faced at home, in the private sphere, comparable to problems in the business industry? Why doesn’t Colombia have an association of representative voices of the employers of the domestic workers? And how can one be created?

In Colombia, domestic workers have started a formal path for organising; the topic has entered the political and media agenda; domestic workers rights have gained more visibility through social media; civil society organisations have effectively demonstrated support; and there is a legitimate base for achieving decent labour for domestic workers, but compliance is distant and the path to obtain it is rife with uncertainty. However, we see a lot of potential in modern information and communication technologies and in social media.

While the national government has manifested political willingness to address these issues on occasion throughout the past years, it nevertheless lacks a permanent strategy, designated leaders, and economic resources to do so. Moving forward, it is also necessary to adopt an inspection plan to record developments in homes, sanction the non-compliance of norms, and to cut the cultural tendency of abuse towards domestic workers. It is just as important to create massive permanent campaigns to raise awareness about these new legislative developments, as well as for the government to provide support for domestic worker unions that goes beyond words.

It is true that there is an increase in how much domestic workers rights are being talked about in Colombia, and that this cause has received the support of many people and organisations; but the real question is: how can we make the government and employers take these rights that are currently on paper and apply them in everyday life?

This article was written in representation of the workers union Trabajadoras Afrocolombianas del Servicio Doméstico - UTRASD (Afro-Colombian Domestic Workers), Escuela Nacional Sindical - ENS (National Worker-Union School), and the Bien Humano Foundation.

  1. The “Eradicating Invisibility Investigation”, took place in 2012 by the National Workers-Union School (ENS) and the Afro-Colombian Corporation of Social and Cultural Development (CARABANTÚ), with the mission to describe the working conditions and the racial discrimination towards afro-Colombian women who are domestic workers in the city of Medellin. It was reported that 91% of live-in domestic workers worked between 10 and 18 hours daily and that 89% of non live-in workers worked between 9 and 10 hours, without receiving payment for any extra hours in 90.5% of the cases. ↩︎

  2. The same investigation revealed that 62% of domestic workers receive between 300,000 and 566,000 pesos each month; 21% between 100,000 and 300,000; and 2.4% between 50,000 and 150,000. (The value of the USD at the time was of 1,750 pesos). ↩︎

  3. According to the most recent data of the National Administrative Statistical Department (DANE), in 2015, in Colombia there were 725,000 people hired as domestic workers out of which 96% are women, which represents 7.4% of the total employed women in the country. ↩︎

  4. During the past four years in Colombia there has been a peace process taking place with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which aimed to reach peace agreements to end a war that has lasted more than 50 years. The civil population, mainly in the fields, has been greatly affected by displacement and abuses from both the FARC and the state. These agreements are now in their implementation phase. ↩︎
About the authors

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.


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