Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.
Paid domestic work is not recognised in my country, neither socially nor economically. This absence of recognition is experienced by thousands of women who do this type of work, and the valorisation that we receive – or lack thereof – is reflected in the terms used to describe our work.
The terms that are usually used for people doing paid domestic work are often pejorative. For example, ‘servidumbre’ (servitude), is a term that originated in feudalism and whose meaning doesn’t correspond to the notion of workers as subjects of law. Another term commonly used is ‘doméstica’ (domestic), which evokes the treatment of animals that are tamed to live in people’s homes.
For these reasons, a few years ago, we began insisting on being called domestic workers, as this term reflects that we are indeed subjects of law. However, our recognition as workers should not only be reflected in our designation, but must also manifest in concrete ways on both social and economic levels. In other words, we would like our work to be seen in the same way as any other type of work.
I am one of over two million domestic workers in the country, which represents 10% of women currently employed in Mexico without employment benefits or social security. And today, through this text, I want to claim my rights and those of my compañeras.
My story, your story
Defending my rights as a domestic worker has been a process of building awareness, surmounting obstacles, and personal empowerment.
When I was a girl, I lived experiences that marked my life: poverty and the lack of opportunities, including the opportunity to study. But these were also the factors that allowed me to make important decisions for my life in the future.
At the age of ten, my father sent me to work for a family so that I could continue my studies. However, my heavy workload meant that I worked far more than I was able to study, and the opportunity of having an education became more distant each day.
At the age of 14, I left Oaxaca, my state of origin, to move to Mexico City, a city as big as it was diverse and rife with discrimination. Working in people’s homes was my only option, since I was a minor and had progressed very little in my studies, a constraint that remains common for many women in our country. In fact, female domestic workers have an average of two to three years less education than the rest of the employed population and begin working as domestic workers when they are minors in many cases.
While I abandoned my dreams, I committed myself to taking care of children, keeping houses clean and organised, having breakfast ready, and waiting for my “patrones” (employers) with a set table and fresh food. This is what all my days looked like for many years: I took care of lawyers, legislators, teachers, feminists, and public workers, and ironically, they did not take my rights seriously. Many of them were afraid that I would leave them. They told me I was like family, and yet would give me leftovers to eat or demanded that I wear a uniform. They would go on vacation, but left me behind to work, since that was when the house had to be cleaned or the piled up work had to be done.
They told me I was like family, and yet would give me leftovers to eat or demanded that I wear a uniform.
In this field of work, affective relationships often blur the lines between labour and voluntary acts of goodwill, but what we seek are working relationships based on mutual respect.
Psychologically, many domestic workers experience blackmail from employers who don’t want them to leave. This is especially true when it comes to childcare, since we establish very close relationships with the children, which might in turn make us accept mistreatment from the parents.
Not only did I abandon my dreams and the security of my surroundings, I also experienced racial and class discrimination, as well as exploitation and low salaries because of my age.
But one day, as a teenager, I decided to free my dreams from inside the four walls of a house. Not because the job was indecent, but because I felt I needed to strive towards my goals, regardless of my young age. Many of my compañeras live in conditions of marginalisation and exploitation, with little value given to their labour and to their person.
I realised that domestic work, which remains undervalued and invisible to many, is valuable for workers, but also for employers. It was not the act of caring for an employer that reduced my dignity or violated my rights as a person and a worker, but rather the way most of us have been and continue to be treated. So I learned to claim those rights and seek out dignified work conditions.
I wanted to break barriers and convince other domestic workers, employers, and the government that dignified work and regulation is everyone’s responsibility and that we must be protected and supported by a just and fair legal framework. So I decided to become a human rights activist after having been discriminated against, mistreated, and exploited as a domestic worker for over 20 years.
A fight for all of us
Since the age of 29, I have been a part of the Conlactraho foundation, which serves as a trade union school. I served as general secretary there 18 years after its creation, taking up diverse roles in which I had the opportunity to participate in the creation of ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers. I also had the great opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other continents in the creation of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). In 2000, I founded the Centro de Apoyo y Capacitación para Empleadas del Hogar (CACEH), with the goal of creating an alternative space for implementing strategies for the recognition of domestic workers rights and to strengthen the collective organisation for social dialogue at a national level. Until December 2016, I was Latin America's regional coordinator for the IDWF.
This fight has not been an easy process but it has been very satisfying and challenging to bring domestic workers’ issues into the public agenda. This is because while the public sphere is destined for men, the private sphere is usually destined for women, and often comes with problems of discrimination, mistreatment, abuse, exploitation, and in some cases, child labour.
I had the great opportunity to represent domestic workers in the debates that took place in the ILO in Geneva, Switzerland for the creation of Convention 189, which was approved on 16 June 2011 and whose ratification in Mexico is currently but a governmental promise. While the government appears to be open to ratifying this convention, they do not seem willing to incorporate any of its stipulations into existing Mexican laws.
We aim to dignify the work of the 2.4 million domestic workers and we are convinced that we will be heard.
We now have a collective national organisation where workers can exercise their individual and collective rights, thanks to the creation of the first national domestic workers’ union in Mexico’s history, which is a monumental advancement. These rights include autonomy, collective agreements, and the right to strike or protest if a worker experiences a rights violation, for example, by being fired without justification. This came as the result of more than 15 years of struggle from our sector, which has been socially invisible.
We aim to dignify the work of the 2.4 million domestic workers and we are convinced that we will be heard. This is why we promote the ratification of Convention 189, which will allow for millions of domestic workers to leave their informal conditions and have the ability to exercise their rights as workers, to be recognised and to access justice.
We don’t want any of our domestic workers to experience injustices or for any employer to go through complicated procedures if they want to register their employees with social security, as there are currently no appropriate paths to do so.
Due to the lack of legislation in Mexico to protect domestic workers and as a way to support the ratification of Convention 189, we consistently execute a campaign called “¡Ponte los guantes por los derechos de las trabajadoras del hogar!”, which translates to “Put your gloves on for the rights of domestic workers!”
Our struggle reached an international level and the domestic workers of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe are united today through the IDWF, with the mission to turn our rights into a reality.
During the entire process of creating the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras del Hogar (SINACTRAHO) – which counted more than 100 members when it was established in 2015 – community support has been fundamental. This includes other unions, feminist and human rights organisations as well as the employer’s collective Hogar Justo Hogar, an organisation that was formed recently to raise awareness about how improving the work and life conditions of domestic workers can also benefit employers and society as a whole.
Many of you are employers of domestic workers. After reading these lines, I urge you to call us domestic workers, as we are subjects of law. And I want to invite you to reflect about our labour, which was perhaps invisible to you up until now, because this is an issue that affects all of us.
¡Ponte los guantes por los derechos de las trabajadoras del hogar!
Put your gloves on for the rights of domestic workers!
A previous version of this piece was published in Spanish at La Silla Rota.