Domestic work in Latin America and the Caribbean

This article is a short summary of a chapter I wrote for my MA thesis. With it, I attempt to shed light on the importance of paid domestic work, an occupation that is largely forgotten.

Since pre-industrial Latin America, domestic work has been an important source of employment for women due to traditional gender roles that placed women in areas related to the house while men participated in the public sphere. This division of labour was a product of the patriarchal hierarchy in which men were in charge of possessions, household employees, and property. With this division of labour, women would take a passive role in the domestic sphere. Colonial institutions further maintained this division of labour by prioritizing men’s role in the public sphere over women’s. The female members of the household would be considered inferior, with domestic servants fulfilling the lowest position in the hierarchy of a house. The living and working conditions of domestic servants in colonial Latin America further devalued this occupation, as servants would be limited to live and work within the four walls of the master’s property. Therefore, domestic servants would not have much exposure to activities outside of their workplace due to the traditional notion that women belonged in the house.

The importance of traditional gender roles continued in the nineteenth century with the start of industrialization in Latin America and the Caribbean. Women and men were still divided between the private and public sphere. Young girls were taught the necessary skills to remain working in the household and were limited from the opportunities of finding employment in other sectors. Furthermore, many young women who took up work in domestic service ended up unmarried and childless for the rest of their lives because it was difficult to find employment in this job sector if they had their own families to take care of. Many women left their rural communities and moved to the city to find work in a household. During this period of industrialization, the rural-urban migration of young women reinforced the traditional notion that domestic work was associated with poor women of indigenous origin.

Towards the twentieth century, there were social structural changes in the region. Although there were advances in many social aspects, the colonial patriarchal system in the household persisted. Having more access to education led to the increase of women taking up white-collared jobs. However, domestic work was still an important aspect in the household and a source of income for women of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. With the presence of domestic workers in upper and middle-class households, there was still a female figure that perpetuated the job divisions between men and women in society at large. Additionally, hiring a domestic worker would maintain the traditional household organization of women carrying out the cleaning and childrearing duties. Due to the decline of unskilled work in other sectors, more poor women turned to domestic work as a form of employment. Nevertheless, the process of formalizing work began to coexist with the traditional informality of domestic work. Within this coexistence, domestic workers found opportunities to negotiate better working conditions. Consequently, this change in the labour sector led to the founding of domestic workers’ unions and organizations with the purpose of advocating for more labour rights.

Although domestic workers started to mobilize in the middle of the twentieth century, the patriarchal structure of colonial Latin America continued. Domestic workers were still exploited: they worked for long and unregulated hours, and had limited lives outside of the employer’s household. Until recently, this exploitation was not contested by state institutions because domestic work was not considered part of the public sphere. When state institutions started to pay attention to the demands of domestic workers’ unions, the occupation was still not considered “real work”.

Organizations in Latin American and Caribbean countries and international treaties continued to advocate for a change of the traditionally vulnerable position of household workers. The birth of CONLACTRAHO in the 1980s demonstrates that established social movements in Latin American countries hold similar interests and want to collaborate in their fights for better rights. This confederation promotes the solidarity among domestic workers’ unions in Latin America, and provides a space in which activists can share their stories and create a social movement that goes across borders. On a regional level, the fight for better rights is far from over for domestic workers. Although several countries have granted domestic workers equal rights to those of other manual workers, there an ineffective law implementation and inspection. As a result, it is necessary for domestic workers’ activists to keep state institutions in check to ensure that their rights are not violated. More importantly, CONLACTRAHO and country-specific domestic workers’ unions can further gain momentum with the help of international treaties that protect the job sector.

The ILO Convention on Domestic Work n.189 that occurred in 2011 has contested the exploitation of domestic workers across the globe.This convention recognized the devaluation and the highly feminized aspects of domestic work. The ILO convention acknowledged the contributions of migrant domestic workers to the global economy, the occupation’s particular characteristics, and the need to have special conditions that address the needs of domestic workers around the world. This development demonstrates that the issues put forth by domestic workers’ unions and organizations are being acknowledged by well-resourced institutions and that, at least on paper, powerful players are willing to dismantle the traditional vulnerability of domestic work. Out of the 25 countries that have ratified this convention, 13 of them are from the Latin American and Caribbean region: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guyana, Jamaica (will enter into force in October 2017), Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay. The strong presence of Latin American and Caribbean countries in the ratification of the ILO’s convention demonstrates that domestic work is a significant aspect of the history and culture of this region. Furthermore, the ratification of the ILO convention demonstrates that, at least on paper, the traditional patriarchal hierarchy that has persisted since colonial times in Latin America and the Caribbean is beginning to change.

Sources:

C189-Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). International Labour Organization. Available at http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f? p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:2551460

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