Domestic Worker Rights in Latin America – An Overview of Victories and Challenges
There are 67 million domestic workers, worldwide, reports the International Labour Organzation (ILO), a specialized agency of the United Nations that brings together governments, employers and workers from 187 member states to establish labor standards, formulate policies and develop programs promoting fair labor practices.
In 2011, the organization introduced Convention 189, designed, specifically, to promote protections for domestic workers, worldwide. The goal of the convention was to set global standards for a work industry that remains undervalued, invisible and is mainly fulfilled by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or are part of disadvantaged communities that are vulnerable to human rights abuses.
How are Latin American countries advancing toward domestic worker rights today?
Latina Republic interviewed Carmen Britez, the Vice President of the International Federation of Domestic Workers (FITD) to gain insights into the current state of domestic worker rights in the continent. Britez, has been instrumental in promoting domestic worker rights in Argentina and throughout Latin America. Of Argentinean background, she is the daughter of a domestic worker and a construction worker, Britez joined the field of domestic work after her mother, who was pregnant with her fifth sibling lost her job and her father was laid off. She was 16 at the time, in high school, but felt the need to do something to help her family. She started working as a domestic worker, “a field that has given me so much,” told Britez, and was quickly spotted by domestic worker unions as a leader who could advance domestic worker rights and become an international resource for the cause. For some time she did both, worked as a domestic worker and led in the Union of Auxiliary Personnel of Private Houses (UPACP). An encouraging mentor suggested that she continue her studies. She did, earning a law degree in 2003 that empowered her to advocate for domestic worker rights with a new layer of insight.
Below, Britez shares her analysis on how Latin American countries are doing in promoting human rights for domestic workers.
Domestic workers in Private Residences
Before ratifying Convention 189, which entered into effect in 2013, Argentina improved the legislation, and used Convention 189 as a tool to improve domestic worker rights. The modifications became ley 26844, which launched a program to regularize the employment of domestic workers in private residences. The law outlines rights for employer and employees, such as, hours, vacation, time off, maternity leave, and registration procedures. In Argentina, it is the responsibility of employers to register all domestic workers, even if they work 1 hour per week.
Social Security Benefits
In Argentina, as in most Latin American countries, the issue of social security benefits for domestic workers is a very important one. To access social security benefits in Argentina, the employers must register domestic workers, through AFIP, the Federal Public Revenue Administration Registry, which grants them access to social benefits, including, retirement contributions, work accident insurance, maternity leave, vacation, social services, and fair wages set by the Ministry of Labor.
All domestic workers, regardless of the number of hours of work in a private residence, must be enrolled in AFIP.
Once registered, workers also enjoy significant discounts on public transport through the Sube card.
Child labor is totally prohibited. It is illegal to hire girls, boys or adolescents under 16.
“No domestic workers should be working in an informal system, but it still happens,” asserts Carmen Britez, the Vice President of the International Federation of Domestic Workers (FITD) and leader of the Union of Auxiliary Personnel of Private Houses (UPACP).
Argentina has made great strides in promoting the registration of all domestic workers.
Before 2013, only 45,000 domestic workers had been registered by their employers.
From 2013-2019, after campaigning and based on labor risk statistics, 639,000 domestic workers had been formalized into the system and received social security benefits.
“There are still between 600,000-700,000 workers, not registered,” states Britez. “We are always on the move, carrying out campaigns to inform domestic workers and employers of the registration processes so that no worker remains in the shadows.”
The Immigrant Domestic Worker and National Domestic Worker Enjoy Equal Rights
“Argentina has a 13% immigrant population working in domestic work. We have achieved a great victory here. There is no difference between the migrant and national domestic worker. It doesn’t matter if the domestic worker comes from Brazil, Paraguay, or Colombia. Their rights are equal in the eyes of Argentine law,” explains Britez.
To inform migrants of their rights in Argentina, there is an app, Trabajo Migrante Domestico, an interactive resource, that was designed in collaboration with OIT, specifically for migrant domestic workers (TDM) in Argentina, but it is also relevant for any Spanish-speaking TDM populations.
“Argentina has a fairly good and quite broad immigration law,” adds Britez;” it allows a migrant worker to enter the work environment in a formal way, meaning, that workers are not invisible. Once domestic workers have been registered by their employers (local and immigrant alike), they have access to all their rights and social security benefits.
Outreach, Mobile Workshops Train Employers and Employees on Domestic Worker Rights
We work actively through campaigns.
What we want is for the domestic worker to be trained, and formalized. We operate mobile workshops on legal rights and also on professional training, such as cooking and home care activities.
Professional Training is Promoted and Encouraged
Domestic workers in Argentina have access to free professional training courses.
- Services in private homes
- Attention and care of people
- Services in green spaces
- Institutional cleaning services
- Tourist, gastronomic and lounge services
- Various services (clothing, aesthetics and others)
Domestic Worker Unions partner with the Ministry of Labor
Our work is carried out nationally and in collaboration with the Ministry of Labor which gave us 3 vans for the capital and the interior of the country. These vans take us to churches, schools, villages, places where people cannot reach unions, and we give them all kinds of information, like brochures and guides.
Encouragement to complete High School, Trade School and University Studies
We want our domestic workers to work in the industry out of choice, not necessity. For the domestic worker who wants to advance, we offer opportunities to continue their studies.
Violence Reporting Systems in Place
The domestic work sector is one of the sectors that suffers from all kinds of violence. They are at risk, especially when working for an employer, “under the table,” and there is also the risk of violence in their own families.
In Argentina there are many avenues to file complains. We have women’s centers and we are in the process of taking on a large project to launch a women’s center to provide psychological support for domestic workers who suffer from these types of problems.
If a domestic worker is fired, and her employer never registered her, meaning that no social security contributions were made, Article 50 of Argentine law calls for double compensation. The employer will not only have to pay for the dismissal, but also for all social security contributions missed.
Tribunal de Trabajo para Personal de Casas Particulares
Argentina has a unique court, a Domestic Labor Court, designed specifically to legally address domestic worker grievances in private residences.
Part of a Care Economy with various duties and pay levels
What is progressing rapidly in Argentina is the issue of caring for older adults.
For many Argentinian families, hiring a domestic worker to care of an aging adult is more affordable than sending the elder to a senior care facility. This is why we have 5 different levels of domestic employment and various categories of pay.
We encourage domestic workers to complete elder care training and become professionalized so that they can increase their earnings.
A worker who is trained can earn more.
The domestic sector in the past was not considered as part of the care sector, but it is now. “We take care of children, adults, a house. We move the care economy,” elaborates Britez.
Historically, there has always been an invisibility connected to domestic work; an unrecognized form of labor. Today, the employer in Argentina is becoming aware that at home, her domestic worker is not a friend or a family member (aside from the affectionate ties that develop), but an employee hired to provide a care service and who should be compensated fairly for it.
A Guide That Outlines Duties, Roles, Responsibilities and Resources for Employer/Employee
In collaboration with the OIT, Argentina has designed an instrumental guide for employers and domestic workers.
After Convention 189 launched worldwide in 2011, Latin American countries mobilized at different speeds toward improving domestic workers rights. Many countries ratified the convention, participated in international exchange experiences, and added local laws to protect their workers. Others, have lagged behind.
During Latina Republic’s interview with the advocate, Carmen Britez, the Vice President of the International Federation of Domestic Workers (FITD) provided an overview of some the key advances and challenges in domestic worker rights in Latin American. Below, Britez outlines summaries of main events:
Paraguay: Domestic workers used to earn 60% of the minimum wage and now earn 100 percent of the minimum wage. Domestic worker employment in Paraguay achieved a historic victory: The government enacted a law that establishes a minimum wage for their profession, which guarantees them a minimum income of 2,192,839 Guaranis, monthly ($353).
The challenge for Paraguay is to continue working with employers to ensure social security access for all domestic workers. Part of the problem is that the employer fine for failing to register the domestic worker in Paraguay, is cheaper than paying the social security contribution, so some employers prefer to pay the fine than to contribute.
Mexico: After many years, Mexico has achieved social security benefits for domestic workers. The United Nations Organization (UN) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) celebrated the ratification by the Mexican Senate of Convention 189, this past December, 2019, recognizing the rights of domestic workers.
“Congratulations to the people and the Government of Mexico for ratifying ILO Convention 189, which extends labor protections to more than 2.2 million domestic workers,” the ILO wrote on Twitter. The UN thanked the Mexican State for taking steps to address the historical inequality. By ratifying the agreement Mexico compromises itself to eliminate all forms of forced labor and child labor and to implement measures so that domestic workers can access social security services.
Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and now Brazil These countries have managed to raise wages for domestic workers, and have made important advances in domestic worker rights.
Chile, domestic worker union, Sintracap Concepción is actively promoting worker benefits: “We continue fighting to get our labor rights. We want fair contracts, and to be treated like every worker, with our 8 hours a day, eliminating all semi-slavery labor conditions. We are currently campaigning to get more members of our union,” stated, Sintracap Concepción .
Guatemala has not made any progress either in social security access or in improving rights for domestic workers. Guatemala has not ratified Convention 189. According to official figures, in Guatemala, some 250,000 women work as domestic workers. The majority are indigenous youth and girls of rural origin who move to the city, in search of opportunities.
Honduras: Similar position to Guatemala. Very recently, the Honduran union, Red de Trabajadoras Domesticas (RTD) was formed; an organization that strives to improve living conditions, and to guarantee the rights of domestic workers. According to RTD, the average salary for a domestic worker in Honduras is 3,277 lempiras ($133 dollars per month), less than half of the minimum national salary. “We are trying to affiliate them with the World Federation, since it will be very productive to work as a team and have global support so that they can continue advancing in the rights of women workers, there,” added Britez.
Costa Rica is making progress. They have ratified Convention 189 and are working on security benefits through local unions. In Costa Rica there are more than 170,000 domestic workers; 57 out of 100 domestic workers are from Costa Rica, according to official statistics.
Panama: Ratified Convention 189 and is fighting to increase the visibility of the unionized domestic worker. In Panama, the Ministry of Labor plans to meet with the Instituto Nacional de la Mujer to discuss training opportunities and professional development for domestic workers. During the previous government, cooking lessons were offered outside the capital of Panama in churches, where rural domestic workers who work on weekends, attended cooking workshops during the week.
El Salvador: Voted against Convention 190 and did not ratify Convention 189. Domestic workers are campaigning to have benefits, such as social security, vacations, better salaries, and regulated schedules.
While El Salvador has not ratified the conventions, the exchange of experiences program that took place between El Salvador and Argentina made an impact and increased visibility for the domestic worker sector. Carmen Britez requested that the Salvadoran state take steps to ratify Convention 189 or consider designing their own laws to ensure protections for domestic workers. “It was a wonderful experience for the domestic worker union in El Salvador. They were able to relay their needs to the Ministry of Labor. The exchange experience opened a path for the state to make interventions on behalf the domestic worker sector,” stated Britez.
Nicaragua: is making progress in promoting the rights of women workers, and their unions are strengthening. Nicaragua has ratified Convention 189 and is working with Andrea Morales, the coordinator of the Secretaria de La Mujer, to promote the ratification of Convention 190: “For us the issue of violence and harassment in the world of work is a priority as we want to restore the rights of workers; nobody can live in a violent world; violence is not part of our work, ”said Andrea Morales.
Nicaragua is also the first in the world to launch a union to protect the rights of domestic workers who are trans.
Colombia: has several unions. One of them has been very influential in working with the government to advance domestic worker rights. UTRASD, the Union of Afro-Colombian Workers of Domestic Service counts with more than 300 women and has been fighting against gender and ethnic-racial discrimination in the domestic employment sector.
Ecuador: has ratified Convention 189 and has 2 visible unions, each of them is in the process of strengthening as a union and face similar challenges to other domestic worker unions, the problem of sustainability of their organizations.
Peru: a few months ago ratified Convention 189 and is fighting for a bill to recognize the rights of the domestic worker.
Republica Dominicana: Has made advances in the collective organization of 3 domestic worker unions. They are discussing wages and making progress. To reach and train domestic workers that live in rural areas, they have adopted a similar type of teaching system as Argentina, using a mobile office to bring training to domestic workers who live in remote communities. This is a very important achievement. The Asociación de Trabajadoras del Hogar (ATH) and the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras Domésticas (Sintradomes) seek to set minimum wages, and achieve compensation in case of unjustified dismissals, among other labor rights.
Bolivia is moving forward. They have a domestic workers union with a lot of empowerment. In Bolivia, there are more than 77 thousand domestic workers. According to data provided by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), 91.2% of domestic workers are women. Domestic workers include nannies, cooks, butlers and gardeners with a fixed contract. According to a survey conducted by Fenatrahob, a majority of domestic workers come from rural areas (79% of respondents). The survey revealed that half the women started working from 5 to 15 years of age. 44% of respondents said they started working between the ages of 16 and 25; and only 7% began their working life from 26 years onward.
Final Thoughts from Carmen Britez,
To the Domestic Workers in Latin America: :”To be a registered domestic worker means to have rights, to come out of the shadows and to have an organized system with protections in place. The OIT drafted an important agreement with Convention 189. Use this agreement that details human rights protections for domestic workers to speak among you, to strengthen domestic worker unions, and to seek dialogue with members of your state for how to use this international agreement within your unique national circumstances, to draft protections and rights.”
The International Federation of Domestic Workers (FITD)’s, Vice President, Carmen Britez is a tremendous resource in Latin America. Growing up with a mother who was a domestic worker; working in the field of domestic work herself; leading in domestic worker unions; partnering with the OIT; and earning a law degree to better advance the rights of domestic workers in Argentina and in Latin America, Britez knows, firsthand, the challenges affecting domestic workers who remain in informal work systems, and how to create a system for visibility and rights.
Beyond fundamental human rights, Britez promotes the formalization of the industry and the professionalization of the domestic worker. She is extremely knowledgeable of the process from invisibility to formalization for the field, because she has helped lead the way. Britez has traveled throughout Latin America to lead in experience-exchange-workshops, participated in international conferences, and shares all she knows to help domestic worker unions and state officials in Latin America take the important steps to formalize protections for their domestic workers.
“To the domestic worker in Latin America, I tell them that they are not alone. There is a world federation supporting them. This is an organization with a vice president from Argentina, that understands and supports them,” emphasized Britez.
To state governments in Latin America, Britez cheers: “Open your mind. This is a labor sector that is providing a service in your societies and like other workers they deserve to work with protections, in safety and with dignity.”
The Vice-President of the International Federation of Domestic Workers (FITD), Carmen Britez, seeks the formalization of all domestic workers across the continent, “We would like to have all domestic employees formalized within the rights of each country.”
She is happy to travel where she is needed in Latin America to facilitate information and contribute to the advancement of domestic worker rights. She does not request an honorarium, just airfare, lodging and meals.
This is her passion.