Social protection to domestic workers in Guatemala

A grantee of UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality is pushing for better income, health insurance, safer working conditions; and helping exploited domestic workers take their cases to the courts.

Date: Thursday, March 7, 2019

Candelaria Jax. Photo: UN Women/ Carlos Rivera
Candelaria Jax. Photo: UN Women/ Carlos Rivera

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At the height of Guatemala’s civil war, 14-year-old Candelaria Jax fled her village after hearing that the army was raping and killing young women in the area. She took up part-time work as a domestic worker in the capital, but after her husband abandoned her and her young children, she took a full-time job offer from a woman from the neighbourhood of Colonia Santa Rita, at the west end of Guatemala City.

“She promised me that she would pay me well and that she would give me all my benefits, my Christmas bonus, paid vacations, overtime bonuses. I believed her. She told me I was going to work from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. I accepted,” said Ms. Jax.

But after a week Candelaria Jax was told to work from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., without food or a higher daily wage.  

“Many times, I would be left alone in the kitchen without lunch and they did not care… The lady always told me that without her, I would have no money.”

Three years later, Jax was fired without a reason and her pleas for her salary, benefits, overtime and compensation were ignored.

“I felt worried and a lot of sadness,” she remembers. “I felt their children were already part of my family. I could not even say goodbye to them.”

Ms. Jax felt helpless and didn’t know whom to turn for help until she heard about the Asociación de Trabajadoras del Hogar, a Domicilio y de Maquila (ATRAHDOM), a civil society organization supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, seeking better conditions for domestic workers. They helped her file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour and took her case to court, and win Yet, the struggle is not over.

After three years, they told me that I had won the trial [in 2017] and that I would receive compensation of 56,000 quetzales (7,200 USD). … However, they have not paid me yet,” says Ms. Jax, now a 55-year-old mother of eight.

ATRAHDOM’s Coordinator, Maritza Velásquez, explains that there is no way to force employers to comply with sentences.

“We have to raise the case to another level, so that it will be the State that pays Candelaria her benefits,” she says, adding that enforcement and new laws are needed to improve the situation of domestic workers. Ms. Velásquez points out that the Labour Code decree on domestic work is more than 73 years old and it has never been reformed.

Maritza Velásquez. Photo: UN Women/Carlos Rivera
Maritza Velásquez. Photo: UN Women/Carlos Rivera

“The law for domestic workers is discriminatory, following cultural patterns of a patriarchal system. Since domestic work is not considered skilled labour, it’s not recognized as other branches of labour,” explains Ms. Velásquez. ATRAHDOM has been lobbying for change.

THE SITUATION NOW

According to the national authorities, of the 246,579 domestic workers in Guatemala, over 96 per cent are women. The Draft Law 4981 seeks to improve conditions in the labour sector, in terms of salary, benefits, days off, breaks, social insurance, treatment, and the protection of minors, migrants and immigrants, among other benefits. With support from UN Women and the Fund for Gender Equality (FGE), it reached ‘second reading’ in Congress in 2016. However, it has been stuck there ever since.

“Those who make the laws think of their [own] homes, so they do not want to pay a better salary and provide better conditions [for domestic workers]. They want to have more than 18-hour day of service,” says Ms. Velásquez, adding that 90 per cent of domestic workers earn less than minimum wage, have no vacations or overtime, and don’t receive any social security benefits.

A trade unionist herself for more than 35 years, Ms. Velásquez and some fellow women unionists founded ATRAHDOM in 2009 to provide training, mentoring and legal accompaniment for domestic workers. They created two new trade unions—one for domestic workers and another for women working in maquilas (sweat-shop-like factories). They have been advocating for Guatemala’s ratification of ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers and as part of the FGE project, have provided legal assistance to 22 domestic workers. Out of the 22 cases, 17 so far have won their legal claims against labour violations.

“Workers must have access to social security, to meet their health needs, in anticipation of accidents, to be able to retire, to have more defined work and rest hours, and time to study and be able to train, among other benefits detailed in Convention 189,” says Ms. Velásquez.

WINDS OF CHANGE

Another ATRAHDOM beneficiary, Suleima Ojer, has become an outspoken advocate for Convention 189, often speaking about her own experiences working from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. for less than USD 9 dollars a month, and about how her employer tried to rape her.

“I had no one to tell me how to report abuse and sexual harassment, or anyone who taught me that I could claim my rights,” she says. She received labour rights training at ATRAHDOM, where she was later hired as a technician.

Suleima Ojer. Photos: UN Women/Carlos Rivera
Suleima Ojer. Photos: UN Women/Carlos Rivera

ATRAHDOM’s advocacy efforts, involving strategic alliances and campaigns, have contributed to 75 Members of Parliament supporting the legislative initiative to ratify Convention 189 during the second reading of the Draft Law 4981. The organization also developed a policy proposal to guarantee a minimum wage for domestic workers, after extensive studies and consultations.

“The collaboration with ATRAHDOM is part of FGE’s global efforts to address the invisibility of domestic work and to ensure decent work and social protection for domestic workers,” explains FGE Manager Nancy Khweiss. Since its creation in 2009, the FGE has supported 14 projects with a focus on domestic workers. With FGE support since January 2016, ATRAHDOM has reached more than 3,000 women in Guatemala.