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'Roma' casts spotlight on Latin America's domestic workers

Lujan Scarpinelli, with AFP bureaux in Latin America

Agence France-Presse

Montevideo, Uruguay  /  Wed, February 20, 2019  /  11:45 am
'Roma' casts spotlight on Latin America's domestic workers

A still from 'Roma.' ( Esperanto Filmoj/Carlos Somonte)

She scrubs plates, mops floors and washes clothes with vigor. She works when others relax. And she plays games with children who are not hers, even though they might feel a bit like family by now. 

Just like Cleo, the live-in nanny in Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar-nominated film "Roma," Ignacia Ponciano represents millions of women working in domestic service across Latin America for want of a better opportunity.

"Nacha," as she is known, started working at the Rodriguez household in Mexico City 30 years ago, when she was in her late teens. She left her rural village for the capital looking for a break 

Once she found both a job and a home, she never left.

Ponciano's story is hardly uncommon for women in Latin America, where the work and personal lives of so many domestic employees are closely intertwined.

"Roma" is Cuaron's tribute to his childhood nanny Libo and women like her across the region -- forever in the background yet an integral part of the families that they serve.

In recent years, several countries have established laws to formalize what tend to be very ad hoc employment contracts for maids and nannies.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) enshrined job security and benefits in a convention in 2013 -- so far, more than a dozen countries in the region have ratified it.

But other regional economic and migration crises have made its lofty goals difficult to achieve.

- 18 million workers -

In the home where she says she landed "without knowing how to do anything," Ponciano worked cleaning, cooking and looking after Penelope, the daughter of her boss, who was divorced and living with her sister.

She quickly became a confidante to everyone in the house.

But while it was a close-knit, family-like community, it was also the source of her livelihood -- and she had no formal contract to protect her from the whims of fate.

According to the ILO, there are 18 million domestic workers in Latin America, 93 percent of them women, making it "one of the most important occupations for women in the region."

But it is almost 80 percent informal employment, meaning workers have trouble accessing social security, lack opportunities for advancement and have no recourse for workplace inspections, the ILO says.

There is also no collective bargaining to lobby for better work conditions.

Domestic worker Fabiana Barbosa de Souza, 36, irons at the house where she works twice a week at Laranjeiras neighborhood, southern Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on January 11, 2019. The working conditions of domestics in Latin America, to whom director Alfonso Cuaron pays homage in his recent movie 'Roma', is slowly reaching a legal framework. Whilst several countries in the region have established laws for the sector in the last decade, other simultaneous realities such as economic crises and migration, are hampering those conquests and ambitions of formality.Domestic worker Fabiana Barbosa de Souza, 36, irons at the house where she works twice a week at Laranjeiras neighborhood, southern Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on January 11, 2019. The working conditions of domestics in Latin America, to whom director Alfonso Cuaron pays homage in his recent movie 'Roma', is slowly reaching a legal framework. Whilst several countries in the region have established laws for the sector in the last decade, other simultaneous realities such as economic crises and migration, are hampering those conquests and ambitions of formality. (AFP/Mauro Pimentel)

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- Impersonal relations -

With new lifestyles and new regulations, workers who live with their employers have become the exception, not the rule, and this change is having an impact on how the homes themselves are designed.  

Lourdes Cruz Gonzalez Franco, a researcher from the National University of Mexico, said it is unusual now for architects to plan for servants' quarters in new houses.

"Although you can't generalize, because the upper classes still plan for servants' quarters, there is a tendency to get rid of them or convert them into guest rooms or studios," she said.

That means that domestic servants have to commute to work, often for hours, which in turn leads to more superficial relations with their employers than the close ties portrayed in "Roma," set in the 1970s.

Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, among others, have introduced rules that establish base salaries and other benefits.

In December, Mexico's Supreme Court ordered that some two million domestic workers be enrolled in the social security system within three years to guarantee their access to public health care and other benefits.

Nevertheless, countries that have made progress in the sector, like Argentina, have discovered that the challenge does not end with writing new laws.

Since 2013, domestic workers there have had the right to overtime, paid holidays and maternity leave. Yet still some 57 percent of the work in private homes is on an informal basis. 

Workers are also very vulnerable to economic and social unrest, as has been the case in Brazil. 

Despite a 2013 law to benefit domestic workers, the economic crash two years later dealt a serious blow to the country's safety net.

Now, around a third of Brazil's 6.2 million domestic workers are employed on an off-the-books basis.

- Half a kilo of meat -

The situation is even worse in crisis-torn Venezuela, where 41-year-old Marbelis Martínez cleans apartments. 

Despite a 2012 law protecting domestic workers, she is lucky if she can afford half a kilo (one pound) of meat a week.

"It won't even get me a dozen eggs," she said of her pay.

Even in the United States, seen by some in the region as a promised land, a survey by the National Union of Domestic Employees found that "workers are exposed to the whims of their employers."

According to the study, 23 percent of dismissals were because people complained about their working conditions. In many cases, the workers' immigration status obliges them to suffer in silence.

But that helplessness is often experienced by Latin American workers in their home countries.

In Guatemala, Maritza Velasquez, president of the Association of Domestic Workers, said the majority of maids come from indigenous communities, and few make even the minimum wage of $384 a month. 

"The monthly wage can go from $90 a $320, but there are almost no complaints for fear of reprisals," she said.