The coronavirus pandemic has imposed a health and economic crisis on the world. The immediate halt in economic activity has severely affected domestic workers in Latin America living them without their livelihood, unable to replace their daily income, and stranded without government assistance as workers in the informal economy. Many have remained trapped in employers’ homes without benefits and with few guarantees. A majority of domestic workers in Latin America are migrants, indigenous, or afro-descendant women. Domestic worker leaders in unions and associations are urgently needed. To overcome the challenges imposed by COVID-19 on the domestic worker population, great leadership will be needed to attain protections and form alliances to improve access to social assistance, labor rights protections, respect and work opportunities.
Latina Republic interviewed Maria del Carmen Cruz Martinez, a migrant domestic worker leader from Nicaragua who has been living in Costa Rica for the past 24 years. As a Nicaraguan migrant in Costa Rica she has been advocating for domestic worker rights in both countries. She is the president of the Association for Domestic Workers (ASTRADOMES) in Costa Rica, as well as the secretary general of the Latin American branch of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation for Home Workers (CONLACTRAHO). In the interview with Alfredo Eladio Moreno, Correspondent with Latina Republic she talked about the effects of COVID-19 on domestic workers in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the importance of working with unions and the value of partnerships at high levels of government to bring about recovery and change.
Latina Republic: Thank you for meeting with us to discuss your story and the case of domestic workers in Latin America. You hold two leadership positions in the field. What is the difference between CONLACTRAHO and ASTRADOMES?
Both organizations advocate for the rights of domestic workers. ASTRADOMES operates in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but CONLACTRAHO has affiliates throughout all of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Latina Republic: Who founded ASTRADOMES?
ASTRADOMES was started by a group of Costa Rican colleagues in 1988. It is already 32 years old. ASTRADOMES started as a union, but in Latin America, political constitutions do not allow migrants to be part of the union. We can be affiliated, but we cannot be part of the secretariat. After some time, the union became an association to allow migrants to be part of the board of directors, even if we are migrants with residence or passport.
Latina Republic: You mention that in Latin America, the constitutions of each country do not allow migrants to be part of a union. Is this in all Latin America and the Caribbean?
At the moment, throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, that is the case. We have asked the International Labor Organization (ILO) to advise governments to change or modify that part of the constitution, because there are many migrants who are members of associations and unions yet cannot be leaders.
Latina Republic: You were a migrant yourself. How did you become a leader within ASTRADOMES?
I traveled from Nicaragua to Costa Rica 24 years ago. When I arrived in Costa Rica I ended up working in houses and I was taking care of a little boy. At the park where I used to take him, I met another Nicaraguan colleague who was taking care of some children. She was part of the association and she invited me to a meeting. She told me that they helped people of many nationalities. So, I went to learn what they were about and to understand my rights as a domestic worker. I liked the organization because as a recent migrant I wanted to find a place where I could meet other colleagues who shared my culture. I kept going back, and always signed up for the training sessions. With time, I became one of the leaders who attended the most and liked to participate the most. Now I am the president of the association.
Latina Republic: Did your experience as a domestic worker help you when representing domestic workers?
In order to be an advocate for domestic workers, we have to have worked in the field for some time. Only a domestic worker can understand the mistreatment and suffering we go through. It is not the same for a person, such as a lawyer or a social worker to come to represent us. At CONLACTRAHO, a background as a domestic worker is one of the requirements to be able to join.
Latina Republic: What are some of the problems that domestic workers face?
In most countries, although some are protected by law, employers do not pay a domestic worker’s overtime, the minimum wage, social security, among other benefits. In countries where the majority of women workers are migrants, they also face xenophobia. There are many problems that we go through as workers in other countries.
Latina Republic: What is the current state of day-to-day living amidst COVID-19 in Costa Rica and in Nicaragua?
In Costa Rica, we have been in quarantine for almost two months. In Nicaragua, they say that COVID-19 does not exist. They say the deceased have died of pneumonia. But there is no test, nor any precaution for people. Those who have been able to buy their gloves, masks, alcohol, have done it individually, because they have relatives elsewhere who urge them to do so, because the government in Nicaragua does not recommend anything to them. Those are the only ones who are taking care of themselves. In Costa Rica, the situation is different. Since they found the first infected people, which was on March 13, Costa Ricans began to take action. Every day they inform us, they tell us how the process is going along, what we have to do, where we cannot go. Bars and canteens, shopping centers, markets were closed from the beginning.
Latina Republic: What is the current situation for domestic workers in Costa Rica?
Some domestic workers continue to work and continue to face problems. Some employers have required women workers to stay on the job throughout the quarantine. They do not let them out for fear that they will become infected and spread the virus. Others have been lucky as their employers drop them off in their homes, and pick them up at their houses so that they do not have to ride buses. Some employers also give them protections: their gloves, their masks, their alcohol, everything they need.
Latina Republic: Are some domestic workers living in the homes where they work?
Yes, for fear of losing their jobs, they prefer to stay there full-time. We tell them, “That isn’t necessary, we are here to defend your rights.” In fact, if they are going to stay there, employers have to pay them overtime because the more they are locked up, the more they have to work. They say they would rather be there than lose all their wages. They prefer to keep their job because it costs more to find a new job. They don’t want to get sick or walk on the streets.
Latina Republic: What laws help domestic workers in Costa Rica?
C: The reform of the Costa Rican labor code that passed in 2009, guarantees formal labor rights for domestic workers, such as a guarantee to social security benefits. Also Convention 189, which was originally passed by the ILO in 2011, was ratified into law by Costa Rica in 2015, which more broadly defines a set of standards for domestic workers such as minimum wage, basic labor rights, and government protections.
Latina Republic: What resources are offered to domestic workers through ASTRADOMES?
We offer training on understanding labor and immigration rights. We also have psychodrama courses, which are programs that intend to heal some wounds that one brings through one’s migrant experience, having left one’s family, or any other violence that they may have undergone. Coincidentally, before this pandemic began, the President of Costa Rica had approved courses in food handling, cooking, English, etc. Our domestic worker colleagues go to the National Institute of Learning (INA), and get scholarships for what they want to study according to their academic level. They can learn sewing, patisserie, cooking, and others. In order to access the courses and scholarship, there are two requirements: they have to be affiliated with ASTRADOMES and be affiliated with Costa Rican social security.
Latina Republic: Besides approving the aforementioned food courses, have you had a challenge in which national leaders have helped you?
Yes, for example, right now with the pandemic, there are several bonuses for assistance, but there are many requirements that must be met to qualify. Many colleagues were fired, and the employers did not give them any card showing proof of work. One of the requirements to access that bonus is you need to have that card. Therefore, many domestic workers could not claim the bonus. So, I had researched the National Women’s Institute, the Ministry of Labor, the Costa Rican social security fund and made and shared a list of workers who needed help accessing a food basket. It was not possible. Then, Mrs. Epsy Campbell, whom I met at a forum for feminist leaders before she became vice president, called me and asked, “Carmen, what have you tried so far?” And I said to her, “The truth is a lot of different things. I have sent the list of workers to three ministries without response.” Mrs. Campbell said, “Send the list to me and I am going to send it directly to the national emergency commission so they can solve it.” Thanks to her efforts we were able to resolve the problem quickly. I only filled out a last name form, telephone number, identification number, and exact address of each one. Eventually, we were able to help out 60 domestic workers secure funds for a food basket.
Latina Republic: What was the nature of your meeting with the previous President of Costa Rica, Don Luis Guillermo?
I interviewed the previous president, Don Luis Guillermo as he was leaving office. He had not helped us with benefits for domestic workers, such as social security. Then, representatives of Channel 13, a television channel that also supports social organizations and frequently hosts interviews with decision makers, told me that they were going to contact me for an interview with the president. During my interview with the former president I publicly asked him to commit to leave something in writing benefiting domestic workers before leaving office. “Yes,” he promised, and he did. In fact, the photo on my WhatsApp right now is with the current president, Don Carlos.
Latina Republic: You have important personal connections with decision makers in Costa Rica. How much have these connections helped?
Yes, very much. Let’s say we need a course for the domestic workers or any legislative support — who better to support us than the current president and vice president? It is better than asking peers, because it will never reach the president. And it is not the same when domestic workers ask for support, than when requests come from the president’s adviser.
Latina Republic: Some final questions. What do you like most about your current job? What inspires you to continue in the fight for the rights of domestic workers? What is a stereotype about your field you want to see changed?
What inspires me the most is that many colleagues feel supported by us. There are many who are afraid to claim their rights. Many colleagues will not file their complaints with the Ministry of Labor because they worry about going to the wrong window and requesting support from someone who will dismiss them and not treat them well. We receive many complaints of our colleagues who come crying to us, telling us they were treated badly. Therefore, we accompany them and that no longer happens. Rather what happens now is this conversation:
“Hello, I am Carmen Cruz, I am the representative of domestic workers in Costa Rica and I need an appointment for my colleague here.”
Upon hearing this introduction, the face of that person who is there behind that window changes. This is something that inspires me to do what I do. It is a way of helping our colleagues and to be able to continue fighting on behalf of other domestic workers. Our work is far from done. We have already been in the association for 30 years, and we have many achievements. We hope that other colleagues can continue to make new labor rights advances in our field as well, that they can continue to fight. Nationality, age, does not matter. What matters is wanting to learn about our rights and to fight for our colleagues.
One of the stereotypes that we want to change is the notion that domestic workers who are Nicaraguan migrants, by virtue of their nationality, have to endure and accept any mistreatment. Regardless of our country of birth, we are human beings and the work we do is worth as much as any other work. What I do, and what I say many times, in many places to many decision makers is:
“If you did not have a domestic worker in your house taking care of the treasures in your house, you would not be working with peace of mind behind that desk. For you to be behind that desk, at a bank, or at a school teaching, a domestic worker has to stay at home and take care of your little ones.”
Unfortunately, many view domestic workers with contempt.
Another stereotype that people have about us, is that we are illiterate, that we know nothing, and that we have no one to represent us. It is quite the opposite. In Costa Rica, for example, a great number of domestic workers continue with their profession and training. There are accountants, teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, journalists, etc. Many have taken on jobs out of necessity, and many can do many jobs in addition to housework, security, construction, or field work. Nonetheless, many had to leave behind previous professions and lives. There are many people who believe that domestic workers do not know how to do anything else, or work in the industry because they are illiterate, or never went to school, but these are stereotypes that people make up in their minds.
Alfredo Eladio Moreno | Pomona College
Alfredo is a second year student at Pomona College studying Latin American Studies. Although he has a profound background in medicine and chemistry, Alfredo hopes to nurture his knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean, and possibly mix both disciplines. He seeks to combine his passion for history and advocacy by drawing on his natural talents of storytelling and helping people realize their full potential. As a Latin American Correspondent, Alfredo is not only excited to write compelling narratives and forge long-lasting friendships, but also inspired to create actionable change through non-profit work.