On March 30, domestic workers marched through the streets of downtown Lima to mark Domestic Worker’s Day and raise awareness of their working conditions, demand the full recognition of basic labor rights and urge the ratification of Convention 189, an international treaty that protects and promotes domestic worker rights. Surely, there are many good reasons why these workers – the vast majority women – took to the streets to make their voices be heard loud and clear.
Abusive situations that include long working hours with no extra pay, no health insurance coverage, no social security benefits, salaries below minimum wage, and discriminatory treatment are only some of the most common complaints.
Although the situation is still far from acceptable, there have been a few positive developments in recent years that have made the situation much better than it was before. Among them is the passing in 2003 of the law on domestic work (law 27986), a law that recognizes a number of rights and duties for both employers and employees. Although far from ideal – the law, for example, only demands 24 hours of continuous rest per week and 15 days paid vacation per year, as opposed to 48 hours and 30 days required in other jobs – it has assisted in creating awareness for domestic worker rights and constitutes an important tool for demanding compliance. Nowadays, employers tend to be more careful in ensuring respect for the law and a limited number of domestic workers are registered in the social security system and/or have health insurance, for example.
On the other hand, domestic workers are certainly more aware of their rights and are, in turn, more adamant in claiming them, which they often do by taking their concerns to one of the specialized institutions or, eventually, to the relevant authorities. There are also, of course, those domestic workers that simply refuse to put up with unfavorable conditions and simply do not take the job or quit while others “have no choice’’ and bear the consequences of working under conditions that are non-compliant with the law. The truth is that unless the domestic worker speaks up against possible abuses and approaches an institution or files a complaint with the authorities, there are few chances the situation will change. Let us not forget that domestic workers remain one the most vulnerable groups in society, in part because their working and living conditions are difficult to monitor because most of the activities take place in a private household, and also because the lack of a written contract, for the most part, does not favor them at all.
In recent years we have also seen increased involvement by civil society, participating in marches, targeted campaigns and monitoring and reporting activities. For example, there were protests about domestic workers being “prohibited” from swimming in the ocean except during nighttime, and the increased attention by the media and authorities of ongoing discriminatory practices by public and private entities. Anti-discrimination laws and sanctions issued in the past, including those that affect domestic workers, are certainly positive steps in the right direction.
Another positive development has been the establishment of a number of institutions and organizations that work for the protection and promotion of domestic worker rights. Trade unions and specialized NGOs may be approached by those in need of legal assistance and counseling. In fact, in several instances such organizations have helped mediate between the employer and the employee and the cases have been resolved without taking the case to authorities. Specialized training and a much-needed space for interaction and socialization are offered to domestic workers that for the most part come to Lima from all over Peru in search of better opportunities and self-development. La Casa de Panchita, for example, is one organization that provides free legal assistance, counseling services and multiple training activities. They also manage an employment agency for domestic workers. The strengthening of such organizations and their outreach programs is of utmost importance if we want to make sure domestic worker rights are protected and promoted across the country.
There is no doubt that the passing of laws and regulations or the ratification of international treaties will not be enough to guarantee a sudden improvement in the working conditions of domestic workers. Their enormous value, however, lies in the fact that these are standards to look up to that impose duties upon the state, concerned institutions and individuals for which compliance can be demanded. It is certainly not only about legal compliance but also about behavioral and attitudinal change, which is not an easy thing to ask for from a society that for decades, if not centuries, has been treating some of its nationals as second-class citizens. It’s not easy, but certainly not impossible as that change is already happening. The signing and ratification of Convention 189 will certainly assist in bringing some much-needed positive change.
Roxana Garmendia is a lawyer specializing in human rights and international relations. She served in high-ranking positions for the United Nations in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, primarily in post-conflict societies. She is currently residing in her native Peru and working as a consultant on human rights issues.