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Inside the fight for Mexico's home workers

January 03, 2023
topics: Women's rights
by: Magdalena Rojo
located in: Mexico
tags: domestic workers, home workers, labor rights, Mexico, poverty, women's rights

The prevalent mistreatment of home workers in Mexico betrays larger issues of classicism, toxic masculinity and economic inequities. And as advances are made on the policy front, certain cultural frames prove harder to shift.

She was 14 when she arrived in Mexico City from Oaxaca to work as a home worker. There, Marcelina Bautista suffered abuse, violence and discrimination at the hand of her employer. 

Her experience ultimately led her to establish an organisation called Centro de Apoyo y Capacitación para Empleadas del Hogar A. C (Center for Support and Training of Home Workers). 

In Mexico, one of every ten women works as a home worker. They usually earn about one third less than workers in other sectors, and many of them work overtime without holidays or social security coverage. Many experience various forms of violence.  

In more than twenty years of activism work, Bautista was able to secure changes in laws, and her organisation has trained thousands of women who work at Mexican homes to know and demand their rights. 

FairPlanet spoke to Bautista about the inspiration behind her work, the achievements of her NGO and the challenges ahead in the fight to secure home workers' rights. 

FairPlanet: You say that semantics matter, and that this is why we should refrain from saying ‘domestic workers.’ Instead, you use ‘home workers’ or trabajadoras del hogar in Spanish. Can you explain why? 

Marcelina Bautista: If you look in the dictionary, it says that we domesticate animals to live with us. But we are not animals. However, it also depends on the context. If you call somebody a domestic worker in Spain, it is different from calling somebody this name in Latin America. Here, calling women domestic workers or maids is derogatory. Calling us this way means devaluing our work. 

The employers have still not understood that having a person to do this job is valuable because thanks to it they can do many things that they would not be able to do if they dedicated their time to cleaning their houses or taking care of sick kids. 

Employers and women themselves, they both benefit from this work. Giving these names also means discriminating against women. We have been fighting against racism, classism, and the discrimination that surrounds this kind of work. 

When we started the fight 22 years ago, the first thing we did was to demand that these women were called by dignified names.

Who are the women who work at people's homes in Mexico?

The majority of them are women from a low economic background, many of them come from extreme poverty and that is why they move from rural areas to the city. They start working in people's homes and face a lot of injustice. 

What are the biggest challenges women who work in homes face in Mexico?

There are many forms of violence present [...] for example, the lack of a [signed] contract. Women listen to derogatory names and racist jokes; sometimes they undergo manipulation. Or the employers sometimes blame the workers for what they do, they ridicule or humiliate them. 

The workers in some families are not allowed to eat the same food even if they cooked it themselves. All these are different kinds of violence.

Another challenge is unemployment due to the fact that many want a fair salary for the work they do. In this regard, the change in the laws has been very interesting, because there is a basis for the value of this work. Women know how much they should be asking for and even where to go if they face violence or the lack of fulfillment of their rights.

Policy changes

You work at various levels; one of them is advocating for changes in the law. Thanks to your advocacy various laws were passed in Mexico to protect the rights of women who work at homes, including Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. What are the rights that workers at homes have nowadays in Mexico?

There was a minimum wage established - in 2023 it will be 225 Mexican pesos per day. But for us it is important to talk about the fact that for this basic salary established by law, only the basic housework should be done. If we speak about cooking, washing clothes, ironing, caring for the sick adults, seniors or children - this work should already have a different cost. 

Also, apart from the salary, social security and other legal benefits such as vacations, mandatory breaks and the right to healthy nutritious food are other rights that have already been included in the laws.

Are these laws implemented properly? If not, what do you think needs to be done?

We have to keep on talking about it and disseminate information about what these laws regulate. It is difficult to implement the law if there are no sanctions in place. 

So now that the law is in place, we are going to fight so that homes are inspected and those who do not comply with it are punished. The employers' culture in their homes has to change. 

The role of cultural norms

How should it change and how could such a cultural shift impact the situation for workers?

The work at home usually has a lot to do with how families function, which varies across cultures. In Mexico, there is a strong culture of hiring someone or even going to the villages for someone who can help you at home. 

Once this happens, people start ordering their employees just like their grandmothers used to. But during those times, there were no laws in place. We were used to the fact that slavery was normal. You worked extensive hours and slept wherever you ate what was left. 

The cultural change also has to do with the fact that once you hire somebody to work at your home, your home is not a private space anymore. It is a workplace in which you have to comply with the law and avoid violence. Work at home is a job and people who do this job cannot be exploited. 

Does the attitude towards home workers that you just described have anything to do with classism in Mexico?

Yes, of course. I also think that machismo in homes has led one to think that women were born knowing how to do house chores. But that is not the case. The idea also is that men provide for the family and women have to be there doing care work. But the economy has changed so much and it has affected families [to such a degree] that women have also had to go out to work. 

Devaluation of home workers also has to do with distribution of work at home. The work should be distributed equally between men and women.

I imagine that since a lot of women are in a difficult economic situation, instead of demanding their rights they continue working because they need the money. Does this happen often?

Yes, it does. They often live day to day. So, if the employer tells them that they will pay them less so that they can provide social security or they can leave if they do not like the conditions, a lot of women still stay quiet to keep the job. 

This is the reason why we continue raising awareness and training our fellow workers to demand their rights. It does not matter that they only work two-three days a week. The important thing is that they do well in their job and that they have all the rights established by the law fulfilled.

If there is a woman who, after your training, realises that her rights are not being fulfilled in the place where she works, what options does she have?

If their rights are not respected, they have places where they can go and announce how their rights are being violated. There are organisations or institutions to which they can turn. The government institutions have also joined forces to pay attention to the workers. 

Apart from their rights, you also teach women about how to perform their jobs safely.

We have created the first training school for home workers. It's not that they don't know how to work - but sometimes they lack tools and techniques on how to perform their jobs. As a result, they suffer accidents, sometimes they are sick because, for example, they did not know how to carry heavy furniture or use liquids. 

We have created the first cooperative for the comprehensive development of workers at homes. 

Do you derive inspiration for your activism from other Latin American countries where the context is similar?

Yes. Most Latin American countries have ratified Convention 189. Mexico, in fact, was amongst the last ones. In other countries, mostly in South America, they have had their unions for a long time. 

In 1988, we created the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Domestic Workers. But our work in Mexico started only in 2000. 

However, Mexico is a country that advanced very fast in changing the laws. On the other hand, there are countries, mostly in Central America, where there is no progress.

Article written by:
Magdalena
Magdalena Rojo
Author
Mexico
FairPlanet spoke to Bautista about the inspiration behind her work, the achievements of her NGO and the challenges ahead in the fight to secure home workers\' rights.
FairPlanet spoke to Bautista about the inspiration behind her work, the achievements of her NGO and the challenges ahead in the fight to secure home workers' rights.
© Marcelina Bautista
Bautista\'s experience ultimately led her to establish an organisation called Centro de Apoyo y Capacitación para Empleadas del Hogar A. C (Center for Support and Training of Home Workers).
Bautista's experience ultimately led her to establish an organisation called Centro de Apoyo y Capacitación para Empleadas del Hogar A. C (Center for Support and Training of Home Workers).
© Marcelina Bautista
In more than twenty years of activism work, Bautista was able to secure changes in laws, and her organisation has trained thousands of women who work at Mexican homes to know and demand their rights.
In more than twenty years of activism work, Bautista was able to secure changes in laws, and her organisation has trained thousands of women who work at Mexican homes to know and demand their rights.
© Marcelina Bautista
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