WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I FIRST MOVED TO PUEBLA, Mexico, his hometown, we lived with his parents. A woman named Doña Gemma was coming to clean the house every Tuesday and Saturday. She entered, greeted, put on her apron and rubber gloves, filled a bucket with water and pine-smelling soap and disappeared. Sometimes she ate with us, but she rarely said a word. After lunch Doña Gemma washed the dishes, put on gloves and disappeared again. She made herself almost invisible but at the end of the day, the place was shiny.
Three months after moving in with my parents-in-law they found themselves another place to live, and left their old house to us. I started to make changes and one of them should have been firing Doña Gemma. I wasn’t comfortable letting a stranger clean up my dirt. The morning of the day that was supposed to be her last, my partner told me: “I will respect your decision but have in mind that dismissing her will make a terrible blow on her economy.” I hesitated but agreed to let her stay. Over the course of our life in Puebla, I spoke with Doña Gemma and other domestic workers in Mexico and came to realize what an ungrateful job these women were doing.
It all began with my inquiry about Doña Gemma’s beginnings as a domestic worker. She responded that one day she found her mother crying in the kitchen.
She pulled her mother’s sleeve and asked: “Why are you crying?” Her mother wouldn’t respond. Gemma repeated the question over and over again until the woman got tired of denying the problem. “Today the table stays empty, there is no food in the house,” she admitted.
Gemma went to the nearest store and asked if she could help in exchange for some cents. The owner gave her a broom and at the end of the day half a dollar and a bag of groceries. Gemma was 6 years old. Two years later she went to knock on doors alone in the quest for a job in the center of Puebla, a city with two million inhabitants.
Doña Gemma is not the only one who learned to use a broom before reading and writing. And she is not the only one who began to work as a child. Although the Mexican constitution prohibits employment of a person younger than 15 years, many women start to employ themselves years before.
According to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography, there are more than 2 million women who change their home daily for another, where they sweep, mop, wash the dishes and clothes, cook and iron.Domestic workers are people who offer cleaning services, assistance or any other services characteristic of one’s home. They are cleaners, cooks, gardeners, personal chauffeurs, babysitters, caregivers, guards and even household pets’ caretakers. They may work on a full-time or part-time basis, and they may be employed by a single household or by multiple employers. Sometimes they reside in their employer’s home.
Domestic workers represent 11 percent of all working women in Mexico and are amongst the workers with the least amount of labor rights. Eighty percent of women don’t have medical insurance, 6 out of 10 women don’t get a vacation and almost half of these women do not receive a Christmas bonus.
Teresa Francisca Galan Morales, a small talkative woman of 45 years, is a typical example of a victim of the chaos that is the system of domestic work. Her labor situation depends totally on the mercy of her employers. Although Mexican laws guarantee a right to vacations, holiday and unemployment subsidy, a Christmas bonus and the payment of salary in case of accident or illness to all workers, the respect of these rights is up to the employers’ goodwill when it comes to Teresa and other domestic workers like her.
For quite some time now Teresa’s biggest challenge has been to get a raise. She has been receiving the same $270 USD (5000 MXN) per month for the last 6 years. For comparison: a gallon of milk in her area costs $3 USD and a pound of beef costs $4 USD — although, according to National Council of Politics and Social Development Evaluation, the price of a basket of goods has increased by almost 25 percent in the same period.
“I’d asked my employers if they could give me at least a dollar more per day but they all rejected my petition. They tell me that what they’re paying me is already a lot,” Teresa said.
Teresa can choose between two options: accept the offer or leave. “I’ve searched in other places but they always tell me that they want an 18-year old girl because I’m too old and too slow.”
When she told me this, her face got red with anger and her moves more theatrical as she started to illustrate the cruelty of one of her potential employers.
“I tried my luck in another house. The owner said: ‘I want a lady that’ll work from 8 in the morning to 6 in the afternoon, a lady who’ll cook, wash, iron and bathe my dogs.’”
Although the owner’s demand violated the law since the legal maximum duration of a daily shift is 8 hours, Teresa was willing to accept it. Until the conversation touched monetary matters. “She asked me how much I wanted and I said 10 dollars per day.”
Teresa’s answer provoked an avalanche of insults: “Are you crazy? Nobody will pay you 10 dollars. I’ll give you 6, if you want the job, take it, if not, go somewhere else, girl, because at this age nobody will want to hire you!”
Little money for a lot of work is the number one complaint of the majority of these women. Nevertheless, the abuse, insults and humiliation are what sometimes hurt more. According to the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination (Conapred), the type of work these women do, their low level of education, difficult socioeconomic situation, gender and on occasion indigenous origin, make them highly vulnerable and an easy target of discrimination. The problem is mainly associated with the isolation and invisibility of domestic work. On the other hand, the cultural context has created a stereotype that it’s normal for women to do domestic work, which doesn’t require formal education or special abilities and therefore it’s not recognized as a real job, explains Conapred.
Many of the women I met described at least one humiliating situation. “They often yelled at me that I hadn’t done enough, that I was leaving the house dirty and that I was finishing my work too early,” shared 16-year old Rosalia Vasquez. Rosalia works 11 hours a day without a recess, 6 days a week and she only earns $215 per month.
Teresa remembered a lady who made her feel inferior by sending her to eat in the kitchen, and worse, “Eat from iron plates. Eat like a dog.”
Doña Gemma said that homeowners have called her a servant and have accused her of stealing food.
Due to a low level of education — the majority of domestic workers in Mexico have only finished elementary school — most of these women lack awareness of their rights. While interviewing, I met Maria del Refugio Flores Gonzales, one of the few domestic workers affiliated with the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS). For 32 years Maria sculpted stones in a marble factory, but four springs ago she resigned to look for easier work. She found another job in a private house where she was hired to care for an older woman.
Although the days are less exhausting than they were before, Maria said she preferred working in a factory because “the shifts were shorter, I worked less days, I had social insurance, holiday subsidy, Christmas bonus, paid vacations and free holidays. Here I have nothing.”
Maria owns an apartment near her workplace, but she still lives in her employer’s house in order to reduce the costs of electricity, gas, telephone and food. She spends her salary on very basic things: clothes, personal hygiene products and social insurance. And it is only because of her own will and money that Maria is aware of IMSS at all.
In the matter of social security, the Mexican legislation is discriminatory because the Social Security Law doesn’t consider domestic workers as subjects of obligatory inscription to IMSS. In exchange, it establishes the possibility of voluntary inscription which means that the payment of monthly installments are solely the woman’s responsibility. Meanwhile, in the case of other workers, the contribution is split between the government, the employer and the employee. Consequentially more than 80 percent of domestic workers don’t have social security, which means that they are not entitled to maternity leave, their children do not have access to public nursery schools, they don’t get occupational injury benefits and they are deprived of the right to get a pension. And those are just some of the benefits they lack.
Women with almost half a century of labor experience are anxiously awaiting the day when their bodies will no longer bear 8 hours of physical work. “I’ll work until God gives me strength,” is a very popular phrase among these women. Without the possibility of receiving a single dollar of pension, God is the only instance from which they can expect help.