Domestic workers

The momentum of Latin American domestic workers in the aftermath of Covid-19

Eighteen million people in Latin America are domestic workers, 93% of whom are women. During Covid-19, they experienced even higher conditions of vulnerability and growing demand for their services. While some organizations in the region have promoted initiatives and campaigns, most of them still suffer from a clear lack of recognition and rights, as, Jorgelina Loza (CONICET and FLACSO, Argentina) represented.

When it comes to talking about domestic work, the Covid-19 crisis, triggered in 2020 and still ongoing, has highlighted the vulnerability of female workers, as well as the weakness of trade union confederations in Latin America. The crisis has shown the strong existing structural inequalities in access to employment, education and health for large sectors of the region’s population. Under these conditions, women see their living conditions become poorer and inequalities widen. For women who were already employed in vulnerable scenarios, opportunities to comply with applicable legislation have been reduced, while their occupational health risks have increased.

Although Latin America is the region with the largest number of countries that have ratified the International Labor Organization’s treaty on domestic workers, known as Congress 189, progress has been limited and very slow. It is estimated that there are 18 million paid domestic workers in the region, including 93% women. These women constitute 11.4% of the regional female labor force, according to ECLAC figures. Countries like Argentina and Uruguay have shown substantial progress with legislation to regularize paid domestic work, given that about 80% of this sector is still informal.

Estimates show thatonly 24% of paid domestic workers in Latin America, benefit from health or social security services. In addition, ECLAC pointed to another fundamental disparity, related to access to information and communication technologies. These workers have suffered from highly vulnerable conditions, exacerbated by increased demand for their services, as schools and other daycares have closed during the pandemic. They were also increasingly exposed to the virus as they were considered essential workers who continued to work as normal after the Covid-19 outbreak.

The pandemic has compounded the care crisis, namely the need to think about who cares for those in need and how those responsibilities are distributed within a household and in society at large. The issue had a strong media impact and was a recurring topic in transnational networks and social organizations that strengthened their actions during this period.

More risk, less protection

International organizations and agencies have been very active in producing and disseminating specific information on the situation of domestic workers and have made recommendations for policy intervention. CARE, a US-based organization that supports the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Domestic Workers (Conlactraho), shared awareness campaigns with updated information on conditions for female workers in the region during the pandemic. They reported that the wages of domestic workers have been reduced by an average of 50%, as their working hours have been reduced or they have lost some of their multiple jobs. Intergovernmental agencies such as the ILO, UNDP and ECLAC have also advocated for regularization in national contexts as a way to improve working conditions in addition to promoting the strengthening of domestic workers’ unions.

CARE and Conlactraho worked on a campaign in which union representatives and domestic worker groups from eleven countries received social media training and regional communication campaigns to highlight their own stories. In this context, they launched a illustrated edition of the International Labor Organization’s violence and harassment treaty, known as Convention 190, as a strategy to make it more accessible to working women.

Organizations of domestic workers in the region have actively participated in the denunciation of situations of violation of rights. In Brazilthe first person to die from Covid-19 was Cleonice Gonçalves, a domestic worker who was forced to continue working for her employer. Organizations in Brazil have uncovered situations of forced labor in which employers prevent workers from returning home. Although these extreme situations were not reported in countries like Argentina, it was known that some women preferred to stay in their workplace, fearing losing their jobs if they left. In addition, there have been cases of migrant women who have been forced to continue working without receiving pay during the lockdown.

Organizations have also actively participated in intersectoral spaces, promoted by regional governments. They have launched initiatives and campaigns during the pandemic to help women workers and educate employers.

A domestic worker speaks during a Latin American training initiative of the International Domestic Workers Federation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Coordinated actions to respond to the crisis

2021 marked the tenth anniversary of the signing of Convention 189, and Conlactraho has developed a series of studies and exchange initiatives with organizations, unions and governments to discuss the question of whether alternative reports are useful tools to publicize whether the Convention is applied in the countries that have ratified it. . While these meetings highlighted the political and cultural diversity of the countries gathered in Conlactraho, they also revealed that the vulnerability of women workers, including violations of rights and persistent discriminatory and racist practices, extend to the regional level. Faced with these conditions, the organizations seek to consolidate effective mechanisms for reporting and protecting domestic workers against violations of their fundamental rights.

Coordinated action between different organizations at the national, regional and international levels continues to emerge as a key strategy and a way to ensure an intersectional and diverse approach to the strategies adopted by groups and governments. It also involved involving women’s and migrant organizations, grassroots communities, and indigenous and Afro-descendant groups in designing impact strategies.

Domestic workers find it difficult to organize, and this is linked to the characteristics of their work and a historical undervaluation of their work. However, in the context of the crisis triggered by Covid-19, they have demonstrated their ability to respond to emergency situations and to work with governments (or alone) to provide resources to a section of the population that was experiencing a extreme vulnerability. At the same time, these organizations have persisted in their main objective of making visible the conditions of domestic workers, who still suffer from a clear lack of recognition and rights.

• The opinions expressed here are those of the author rather than those of the Center or the LSE
• This article was part of Jorgelina’s intervention in the LACC Lunchtime Forums, an initiative to the intellectual community of the Center.
• These ideas are part of a book chapter included in the forthcoming book Regional and international cooperation in South America after COVID. Challenges and opportunities after the pandemicedited by Melisa Deciancio and Cintia Quiliconi (Routledge, 2022).
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• Banner image: Antonio Malo Malverde (CC BY-NC 2.0)