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Gabriela De Cicco – WNN Justice

Brazilian domestic worker

A Brazilian domestic worker irons clothes for her employer. Too often conditions for these workers can include discrimination and poor treatment. Image: Universo Produção

(WNN/AWID) Brasília, BRAZIL, SOUTH AMERICA: Long working hours, lack of rest time and poor treatment and compensation, in the absence of national legislation, often turns domestic work into a form of slavery in many countries. Some of the changes taking place in Latin America regarding decent work for domestic workers is now showing greater improvements under new law amendments, but conditions may be slow to improve.

According to the study “Domestic Workers across the World” launched in January 2013 by the ILO – International Labor Organization, there are approximately 52.6 million people – 83 percent of whom are women who work as domestic workers around the world. About 29.9 percent of them are excluded from domestic labour laws and 45 percent have no right to paid weekly rest and/or annual holidays. More than a third of all women domestic workers have no right to maternity protection.

Migrant workers and non-migrant workers who share a home with employers are considered the most vulnerable among domestic workers who often suffer under denial of rights.

While many may lack knowledge of local languages and laws, they are often are unable to defend themselves from abusive and slavery-like practices. There are many cases of sexual and/or physical and emotional violence. Salaries are often fixed amounts that ignore the actual number of hours worked. Some employers fail to pay salaries.

Sharing a home creates a situation of complete servitude to the employer, as domestic workers must be available whenever they are needed.

The number of domestic workers in Latin America and the Caribbean is estimated at 19.6 million, 18 million of which are women, making it the region with one of the highest numbers domestic workers.

In recent months Brazil and Argentina have started to address the legal rights of domestic workers by enacting laws that reflect many of the objectives of the ILO Convention 189. This includes recognizing basic rights and trying to make work in private homes more decent and for those who do it.

Advances for Domestic Workers in Brazil

Seven million people are engaged in domestic work today in Brazil, but only 27 percent of them are formally registered. Until recently domestic workers in Brazil were considered by its Constitution a special category of workers, as many who have worked under ‘slave conditions’. But on March 26, 2013, under pressure from union representatives and domestic workers’ federations, the Senate in Brazil unanimously passed a law expanding domestic workers’ labour rights.

The vote that was 478 to 10 to guarantee those working in private homes unemployment benefits. This includes cooks, gardeners, chauffeurs and caretakers of children and the elderly, among others.  The law also guarantees 50 percent overtime pay for night time work; as well as a work day of eight hours maximum and a working week of no more than 44 hours. It also guarantees a ‘Fund for Time of Service’ for those who suffer under unjustified dismissed. This requires no less than 40 percent of the time at work must be paid upon dismissal.

The PEC – Proposta de Emenda Constitucional (Constitutional Amendment), for domestic workers in Brazil gives them similar rights to other Brazilian workers.

The passing of the PEC constitutes “the second abolition of slavery” in Brazil because women domestic workers sometimes work 18 hour days and are subjected to the rules imposed by their employers in their homes, outlines Eliana Menezes, president of Sindoméstica, the Domestic Employees Union in Brazil.

The amended changes in the law could see the cost of having a domestic worker in Brazil increase. With the recent economic downturn in Brazil, some see this increase resulting in greater unemployment for this sector.

“…everybody said it [the 1998 Constitution law that brought some improvements for labour laws] would cause unemployment, but the number of employees just grew,” said Brazil’s National Domestic Employees Federation President Creuza Oliveira.

As in other countries across the region, the intersection of class and race in Brazil has influenced the lack of regulation for domestic work. Only a few days prior to the PEC vote, human rights organization ACMUN - Associação Cultural de Mulheres Negras  (Cultural Association for Black Women) exposed the often sexist and racist treatment to which Afro-descendant domestic workers are too often subjected to inside Brazil.

New Law Amendments for Domestics in Argentina

On March 13, 2013 legislators in Argentina voted unanimously on a law to regulate working relationships for private home workers. Law 26.844, sections Nº 326/56, were amended to reflect the need for improved conditions for domestics.

Originally passed by dictator Pedro E. Aramburu, the Law has been in force since 1956. It was used to regulate all domestic work inside Argentina.

According to Argentina’s Ministry of Labour, there are now approximately 1.2 million domestic workers in the region. 80 percent work in precarious working conditions where situations of servitude and slavery have been documented.

A majority of these domestic workers are not registered legally in Argentina and because of this have lacked access to basic health benefits and social security. They also have had no protection against dismissal, nor any medical coverage in the event of a workplace accident. By comparison, their monthly wages are only half that of the average informal worker in Argentina.

Expanding domestic workers’ labour rights under the new Law amendment women now have new rights under maternity leave. The new Law amendment also now restricts working hours to 8 hours per day and 48 hours per week. For those sharing a home with their employers, a night of rest is now required to be 8 uninterrupted hours. Day rest of two hours between morning and evening duties is also stipulated. Special work leave for domestic workers for marriage and the death of a spouse, live-in partner, child or parent is now also included.

The new Law amendment also recognizes paid holidays, a yearly bonus and compensation for work dismissal.

The Situation in Mexico

According to an op-ed analysis in Mexico’s leading daily newspaper La Jornada, Mexico is carefully watching what might happen in Brazil following the change in domestic law. Changes in Mexico’s legislation will affect more than 2.3 million domestic workers, most of them women between the ages of 12 and 70.

In June 2011 Mexico supported and was one of the countries that voted in favour of the International Labour Conference ILO Convention 189. For more than a year different working women’s associations and unions have been demanding that a comprehensive amendment to laws for male and female workers with family and maternity responsibilities be ratified.

In early April 2013 domestic workers protested before the Mexican Senate to demand ratification of ILO Convention 189 and its recommendations as a way to respect their labour rights.

Mexico is expected to ratify the ILO Convention 189 as well as Domestic Workers Recommendation 201 this June 2013.

Th lack of a strong political will by Mexico’s Senators, as well as Mexico’s federal government, to legislate better domestic workers rights specifically has contributed to past problems, outlined Marcelina Bautista, director of the Support and Training Centre for Private Homes’ Workers in Mexico (Centro de Apoyo y Capacitación para Empleadas del Hogar).

Fair working hours; recognition of holidays; non-working days; annual bonuses; social security; retirement; respect for mandatory rest days; compensation for unjustified dismissal; and respectful treatment are on the list of needs, outlined Bautista.

Challenges Within the Laws

But while passing laws to regulate domestic work and recognize labour rights for domestic workers is a significant step forward, this will not necessarily guarantee implementation of the Law.

There is no doubt that educating domestic workers about their rights and laws will enable them to expose and defend themselves from injustices that, in the absence of a legal framework, would have gone unpunished.

In Peru in August 2011 the TUCA – Trade Union Confederation of the Americas along with the Americas Working Women Committee (CMTA – Comité de Mujeres Trabajadoras de las Américas) and the ITUC – International Trade Union Confederation launched a campaign for regional ratification of the ILO Convention 189.

The Campaign is designed to put pressure on national members of the ILO to ratify the Convention through national laws; to sensitize all legislators and employers; and to integrate this issue in workers’ labour discussions and struggles, outlined ITUC’s Policy Coordinator Ivan Gonzales.

It is crucial that politicians understand the importance of the Convention and work towards its ratification, continued Gonzales.

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WNN/AWID