Facing inequality, exploitation and isolation, women household workers have united to fight for recognition and labor dignity.

For a few days in 1988, household workers from 11 Latin American countries left behind the houses they clean for other people in exchange for a low wages and disdain. On March 30, as autumn settled in across the south, the workers crossed borders to create a regional organization, the first of its kind in the world.

Today, 36 years later, the organization known as the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Household Workers (Conlactraho, by its Spanish initials) brings together associations and labor unions from throughout the Americas to carry on the decades-old fight for the recognition of household workers and for dignity in their employment. The confederation represents women from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Dominican Republica and Venezuela.

The International Labor 0rganization (IL0) estimates that more than 14.8 million people currently perform paid household labor in Latin America and the Caribbean. That number represents 20 percent of the global population of household workers.

Under a legacy of slavery and colonization, the women who engage in this work continue to be mostly racialized, impoverished, and either internal or international migrants. It is perhaps the most feminized job in existence; in the region, nine out of every 10 people who work cleaning houses and taking care of people and animals are women, according to the ILO.

The Conlactraho launched programs to training household workers’ in their rights and political advocacy, according to Elsa Cheney (U.S., 1930–2000), a feminist anthropologist at the University of Iowa who played a key role in the creation of the confederacy. In the 1990s, Aida Moreno Valenzuela (Chile, 1947-2021), a household worker and social leader, told Cheney, “Working conditions in the household services sector are similar in all our countries, which is to say, a sort of modernized semi-slavery.”

The still-prevailing reality that Moreno pointed out to Cheney some 30 years ago was what led household workers in the region to unite. “We faced very similar conditions in terms of cultural discrimination and in the legal system,” Marcelina Bautista tells Mira. “The few changes that had been made were insufficient. That’s why we had to speak for ourselves.”

In the year 2000, Marcelina Bautista founded the National Center for Professional and Leadership Training of Household Emplyees (Caceh) in Mexico City. That organization’s activism led to the 2015 creation of the National Union of Household Workers, which promoted a series of legal reforms passed in 2019 and 2022 in favor of the workers in the sector.

Bautista points out that the Conlactraho was created to “promote, develop, strengthen and vindicate the struggle and to improve living conditions in the sector.” Although the organizations affiliated in the confederation have made great progress in their countries, only 9.8 percent of household workers in Latin America and the Caribbean have full social security coverage. They continue to experience abuse, and in the confinement of the Covid-19 pandemic many were cut off from the outside world.

Fair compensation continues to be a major problem. In Mexico for example, the Network of Women Household Employees of Guerrero reports that the salaries paid by many families don’t exceed 100 pesos a day (about six dollars). In most countries, they have no right to social security or any other kind of benefit.

“Society does not value this work because it does not consider it to be productive or that it contributes to the development of the nation… What is not recognized is that household workers offer a service that allows others to produce goods and services that society considers important.” Elsa Cheney quoted these words from Moreno in the publication “Neither ‘Girl’ (muchacha) nor ‘Maid’ (criada): Household Workers and Their Struggle to Organize.”

These organizations and unions formed across in other places to accompany and strengthen each other and advance their goals of recognizing household workers’ labor rights and the dignity of their activity.

From Isolation to Union

One of the most significant organizing challenges they have faced is isolation. Their workplace is not a factory, where working together facilitates communication about their problems and the exchange of strategies to solve them. Nor is it an office or any other kind of collective space.

Their workplace is somebody else’s home. A private home is constitutionally protected, but that protection is for the resident family, not for its employees. In what might be a safe space for other people, household workers are exposed to violence in various forms, from economic to sexual.

Despite this obstacle and the the discrepancies in schedules and employment locations inherent in a multinational movement, they have steadily achieved a certain cohesiveness. This has happened at different times and in different ways.

As documented by Goldsmith, many organizations “were promoted by left-wing sectors of the Catholic Church, especially by the Young Christian Workers (YCW). This was the case in Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Peru.”

The YCW, a movement started by the Belgian priest Joseph Cardijn in 1925 to provide education and promote the defense of labor rights, also arrived in Mexico and provided Marcelina Bautista with the support to begin organizing her fellow household workers.

Another barrier to organizing that may be even more challenging than isolation is the individual’s self-identifcation of her worth as a worker. “Even sadder is the mentality of household workers themselves, who feel inferior to people who do other types of work,” Moreno told Elsa Cheney.

“I didn’t know that my work had rights, that I myself had rights,” recalls Sara Alonso, a 62-year-old household worker in Mexico City. “I remember that in the first house where I was, the lady called me ‘the servant’ and I accepted it that way because I didn’t know. That’s what her family and the people who came to see her called me.”

On an off day, Alonso saw an interview with Bautista on television. “She said that we are workers and I believed it because, of course–doing this is hard work.” Although she has not joined Caceh or Sinatraho, she now, after 45 years of employment in the sector (starting at age 17), calls herself a worker.

Aída Moreno also began working in a private home as a teenager. During the Chilean military dictatorship, she practiced resistance from inside the labor organization and led groups of household workers. She became the first general secretary of Conlactraho in 1988.

The confederation was born with the motto “It is not enough to have rights, you must have the consciousness to defend them.” But that’s no easy task when for centuries the work and those who do it have been disparaged, often even by the workers themselves.

The contempt has been social, economic and legal. In many countries, such as Brazil, household workers were prohibited from unionizing. In Mexico, until as recently as 2019, labor law allowed them to be required to work 12-hour days.

In some countries, civil authorities harass them. In a recent case related by Elsa Cheney in “Nether ‘Girl’ nor ‘Maid,’” women attending the 11th Congress of the Conlactraho were interrogated by the police. “For several months they had to change their meeting place, from one public park to another,” Cheney notes.

That story illustrates the usual settings of their meetings: public parks. Household workers have always lacked the financial means to rent a convention room in a hotel, access exclusive centers or set up an official headquarters, resources that many other union groups have access to.

Regional Victories

The Conlactraho has participated in meetings of the UN, the feminist movement, labor centers and civil organizations, positioning itself on international political agendas, Goldsmith, a professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM) points out in her study “Disputing Borders: The Mobilization of Household Workers in Latin America.”

In 2011, the organizers got the ILO to adopt Convention 189 on decent working conditions for household workers. So far, 36 countries have ratified the convention, with 160 to go. Thanks to international mobilization, Conlactraho began adding allies to its cause, and unions and organizations achieved legislative changes in Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and Peru.

A 2013 law in Argentina recognizes their rights to social security, bonuses, vacations, sick leave and severance pay, among others. In Bolivia, the struggle of the National Federation of Salaried Household Workers of Bolivia (Fenatrahob) began to pay off in 2003 with the creation of Law 2450 for the Regulation of Salaried Household Work. After more than 18 years of ongoing efforts, the Labor Ministry issued a statement in September of 2021 that “household workers in Bolivia have health insurance that will protect them and their family members up to the third degree of kinship.”

In Brazil, the minimum age allowed to work in this occupation is 18 years old, unlike other countries where Young people can work from age 15. Payment of at least the minimum wage, a maximum work week of 44 hours, bonus and vacations are recognized. However, they still lack social security. Household workers in Peru managed to get incorporated into the mandatory pension system as of 2020. In Colombia they achieved social security in 2013.

But finding support, even in feminist movements, has been a challenge. As Cheney noted in 1998, “there is little contact with feminist groups, almost all of which maintain their distance from the household workers movement.”

“We never talk about the fact that those other people — professionals, government employees, businessmen, and, yes, even activists in feminist movements — could not carry out their activities if we were not in their homes, taking care of their children and carrying out the essential household tasks that allow their homes to function properly,” Moreno noted in 1993.

In Mexico, they broke through in 2019, when a reform to the Federal Labor Law recognized their basic labor rights for the first time, including a maximum workday of eight hours, with a day and a half off each week, vacations and a living wage, among other basic conditions. That same year, the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) began a pilot program to incorporate them into the social security system, in response to a 2018 Supreme Court order. As of 2022, employers of household workers are obligated to register them in the IMSS.

In their limited free time, between paid and unpaid household work, the workers continue to meet to discuss their needs and strategies. In February 2024 they held the virtual forum “Sharing Experiences in Household Work and Social Security.” In the coming days, Conlatraho will announce the results of a study on racism and discrimination against household workers in the region.

The road to full recognition of household workers’ rights and the real possibility of exercising them is still long. But it is paved by the achievements and the determination of organized household workers who no longer have to face the challenges alone.



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