Domestic Workers
Teresa Ramirez Murillo was born in the Mexican state of Guanajuato in the 1960s. Ramirez grew up on a farm where she helped her family grow and harvest corn and beans. Most of the farm produce was used to feed the family of nine and the little that was left over was sold for minimal profit. Ramirez says life in the countryside was hard and the land “gave you very little for all you put in.”

One Woman’s Quest for Education

Given the lack of opportunity and the preponderance of low-paying jobs in rural Mexico, Ramirez left her hometown when she was 11 to go work in Mexico City as a domestic worker. Ramirez claims this was a very good decision, as it allowed her to send remittances back to her parents that helped them pay for much needed medical services, medicines, clothes and food.

Furthermore, Ramirez believes she would be lost in the world if she had not gotten out of rural Guanajuato, since she would never have attained the standard of living and the skills she has today.

Through her job as a domestic worker, Ramirez was allowed to continue her elementary school education as an adult. During the time she worked for an American family in Mexico City, she was not only allowed but encouraged to go back to school after work. Ramirez was able to complete elementary school up to the third grade before the night school for adults she attended closed. After this, she did not return to school and as time went by, she began to feel that the opportunity had passed.

Ramirez’s deep love of school and passion for mathematics inspired her determination to give her children a full education. She used the money she earned as a domestic worker to give her three sons an education that would let them “do something with their lives.”

Today, Ramirez’ three sons are very accomplished young men. Ricardo Ramirez, the oldest, finished his university degree in accounting and is currently completing his masters in business administration.

Her youngest son follows in Ricardo’s footsteps and the middle son prepares to enter university to become a defense attorney. Ramirez’s sons have accomplished what she could never have dreamed of as a child in Guanajuato, and she is very proud that her domestic worker job could provide and finance her children’s education.

For Ramirez, working as a domestic worker allowed her family to make the transition from poverty to lower middle class and created the groundwork for future generations to begin life in a higher rung of society. As such, every subsequent generation of her family can continue to rise as their parents are given better and better opportunities.

Ramirez was very lucky that the families she worked for were respectful, fair and always paid for the work Ramirez did accordingly. This is not the case for many domestic workers in Mexico.

The Domestic Worker’s Plight

According to Mexico’s national statistics, there are 2.3 million paid domestic workers in Mexico, of which a vast 95% are women. There is also an unknown number of women working as domestic workers in the informal sector.

Whether working in the informal sector or not, many domestic workers in Mexico face sexual and physical abuse and unfair work conditions. The Guardian reports there are usually no employment contracts so domestic workers have no guaranteed fair pay and their employers take advantage by paying very low wages.

For a long time, no domestic workers’ union existed so women had no one to defend their rights or pursue cases of abuse; domestic workers in Mexico were entirely alone.

At the end of 2015 domestic workers decided they were fed up being treated as less than human and formed the first National Union of Domestic Workers (Sinactraho). General secretary of the Union, Marta Leal-Morales, told the BBC, “this union would be to defend the rights of domestic workers, so they could have a better quality of life.” The purpose of the union is to ensure that Ramirez’ positive experience as a domestic worker becomes the rule rather than the exception. Most domestic workers in Mexico want it to be a right, not a matter of luck, to benefit from their work.

Hopefully, the Union will bring the shift to domestic work becoming a transition job that allows families to cross the bridge out of poverty and move forward toward a better life for themselves and future generations.

Christina Egerstrom

Photo: New Statesman

Around the globe, tens of millions of women and young girls are currently employed as domestic workers in private households. In 1999, 98.5% of domestic and migrant workers employed in the United States were women. Their duties consisted of cooking, cleaning, caring for other young children, watching after elderly family members, and other essential chores for their employers. Working 14-18 hours daily with pay well below minimum wage, domestic workers are the most exploited and abused workers in the world.

During the times of their employment, they may be locked within their workplace and made victims of physical or sexual violence. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), children and migrant domestic workers are often the most vulnerable individuals.

In June 2011, an international treaty known as the Domestic Workers Convention (DWC) was adopted as the first global standard to protect domestic workers.

With an estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide, the pressure to protect them has been increasing drastically. In the last two years, over 25 countries have improved legal protections for domestic workers.

Among some of the strongest reforms are those that were created in Latin America. However, the European Union has proven to give the most challenges towards legal reforms.

Due to the growing elderly population in the EU, it has become extremely dependent on the care of domestic workers for these individuals. The Middle East and Asia have also experienced minimal change, with the worst cases of abuse. Regardless of the essential services that the domestic workers provide, the inequality and discrimination they endure is viewed as abhorrent. The influence of domestic workers’ rights movements is emphasized by the International Labour Organization and the DWC.

On September 5, 2013, the DWC was initiated into legal force. This entitles domestic workers to the same rights as those that are guaranteed to other workers. Uruguay, Philippines, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Italy, Bolivia, Paraguay, South Africa, Guyana, and Germany have all put the DWC into effect.

Despite the progress, there are still obstacles to be overcome. Although child labor has declined, child domestic labor increased by 9% between 2008 and 2012. Often times, domestic workers also become victims of forced labor and even trafficking.

Individuals have taken advocacy campaigns for unions into their own hands, however. Through meetings with government officials, social media campaigns, and various alliances, civil society groups promoted the Domestic Workers Convention.

Some countries prevent workers from organizing unions or joining ones already established. Bangladesh, Thailand, and the United States are among the countries that prevent domestic workers from forming unions.

– Samaria Garrett

Sources: Human Rights Watch
Photo: The Guardian