Mexico’s Congress Votes to Expand Domestic Workers’ Labor Rights

Mexico’s Congress Votes to Expand Domestic Workers’ Labor Rights

Mexico’s Congress voted to grant the country’s cleaners, cooks, babysitters, gardeners, caretakers and other domestic workers basic labor rights like limited work hours and paid vacations on Tuesday, in a momentous victory for a historically disenfranchised part of society.

The new legislation will benefit more than two million people — most of them impoverished women — who until now were not recognized as part of the formal labor market, with its benefits and protections.

The bill was approved unanimously by the Mexican Senate on Tuesday, after the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, also passed it unanimously on April 30.

Congress is controlled by allies of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was elected last year on promises that he would defend workers, combat inequality and lift up the poor.

Mr. López Obrador is expected to sign the measure into law.

“This law will help so many women like me continue to do this work but with awareness, with legal rights and without the shame that usually comes with it,” said Petra Hermillo, 60, a domestic worker who founded a nonprofit that offers counseling to other domestic workers.

“This gives us dignity,” she added.

The law requires anyone hiring a domestic worker to formalize the relationship in a written contract, and specifies that domestic workers have the right to the same minimum benefits as any other formal worker, including a minimum wage, social security, health care, paid bonuses and maternity leave.

It also bans domestic work for people under the age of 15 and limits work hours to six per day for older teenagers. For live-in housekeepers, it establishes an obligatory nine consecutive hours of rest.

A study published this year by the International Labor Organization disclosed that nine of 10 domestic workers in Mexico are women and lack a formal work contract or access to health care.

The same study found that only four in 10 domestic workers earn an average of $156 a month, around the monthly minimum wage.

Many of the workers are of indigenous descent and migrate from poor rural communities to big cities in search of work. In the homes where they work, they are often referred to as “servants” or “muchachas,” the Spanish word for “girls,” despite their age.

Ms. Hermillo remembers the days when her former employers forbade her to eat the same food or use the same restroom as the family for whom she worked. She worked as a live-in housekeeper, and sometimes, she said, her employers refused to pay her salary, claiming the food and shelter they provided during the week was enough compensation.

“This is an act of justice,” said Senator Martha Lucía Micher, one of the lawmakers who sponsored the bill. “We are talking about the people who make it possible for other families to go out and work while these workers stay home taking care of their loved ones, of their houses.”

Many in Mexico agree the legislation’s approval is an essential step to guaranteeing the basic rights of this population, but some argue that in a country where nearly 60 percent of the population has informal jobs, enforcement will prove challenging.

“Many people will likely continue to hire domestic workers without registering or complying with the laws, ” said Maite Azuela, a human rights defender and independent political analyst based in Mexico City. “This will undoubtedly require a gradual cultural shift. It won’t happen overnight.”

If the law is to have real impact, she added, more legislation is needed to establish enforcement procedures and a timeline for implementation.

There are also significant financial deterrents for employers who follow the new rules. Covering the social security contributions of a full-time employee can cost at least $500 a year, which some experts argue could discourage both employers and employees afraid of losing their jobs from registering.

The legislation comes after decades of activism by major figures like Marcelina Bautista, a domestic worker turned advocate who founded the country’s first-ever union of domestic workers in 2015.

“We can only hope it will improve the lives of so many women not only on paper but in reality,” said Ms. Bautista, who has been pressing for better working conditions for more than 30 years.

Recently, she found an unlikely ally in the film “Roma” and in its director, Alfonso Cuarón. The film chronicles the life of an indigenous live-in maid in an affluent household in Mexico City, and won three Academy Awards this year.

In Mexico, it prompted wide debate about the long taboo subjects of class, race and inequality.

Ms. Bautista remembered being stunned by what she called the movie’s “honest and clear” portrayal of domestic workers’ lives.

“I immediately wanted to screen it and show it in our events to raise awareness and end the silent discrimination, classism and the exploitation,” she said. “It was a movie that was undoubtedly part of this change.”

And while the film helped create a cultural moment that was propitious for the bill’s passage, activists argue that the battle against discrimination and the abuse of domestic workers in Mexico is far from over.

“We face the real challenge to destigmatize domestic work, which will be difficult considering how classist we are as a society,” said Tania Turner, a program officer at Semillas, a nonprofit that provides grants and technical assistance to local women’s rights groups.

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