When considering Latin American women’s access to rights, one of the key indicators is, without a doubt, the evolution of working conditions in the domestic service industry. This occupation is almost exclusively a preserve of female workers, which, as is often true in contexts of great inequity, is an extremely important factor in the regional employment structure. In fact, latest available estimates indicate that in Latin America about 15 per cent of employed women and just over 25 per cent of female wage earners are engaged in this activity (ILO 2016a, ILO 2014, ECLAC, 2013).
Working conditions in domestic service have historically been characterised by extreme precariousness. Some of the most significant inequities include long working hours, low pay and the widespread informality of recruitment that excludes these workers from the protection schemes associated with paid work. Another feature of the sector is a greater relative participation of migrant women - in the context of Latin America, migration occurs between countries in the same region, from the lowest income to the relatively better positioned - who tend to experience added obstacles in accessing registered employment relationships.
However, in recent years significant advances have been achieved in public policies aimed at this sector. One of the factors driving the interest of governments in this area can be seen by the adoption in 2011 of Agreement No.189 by the ILO. This Agreement establishes a set of minimum standards in terms of working conditions for the sector and attempts to equalise the working situation of these workers with the rest of formal wage earners of both genders. One encouraging fact is the obviously high degree of adherence to the Agreement in the region: 12 of the 22 countries that have ratified it to date are Latin American (ILO, 2016a).
In this context, there have been a number of policies aimed at the sector - strongly oriented towards promoting the registration of the activity and the subsequent access to social protection - that have resulted in important advances for these workers. The initiatives taken by different governments in the region have been varied and include measures such as equalising rights by modifying previously discriminatory regulatory frameworks, implementing forms of social security affiliation for an important segment of these workers who work part days, carrying out awareness campaigns on the need to formalise labour contracts in the sector, simplifying registration procedures, establishing incentives for employers to formalise this type of employment, and implementing certain creative mechanisms to monitor the occupation which respect the right of inviolability of the home of those contracting these services. In addition, policies have been put in place that aim to strengthen female workers' organisations. Even in countries such as Uruguay and Argentina, initial collective bargaining in the sector has taken place, with strong backing from the governments in question (ILO, 2016b).
Based on these initiatives, the situation of female domestic workers in terms of acquiring formalisation and its associated rights has been markedly improved in several countries. This demonstrates that government attention to the sector is of the utmost importance for achieving progress, especially considering that this is a workforce whose ability to exert political pressure is in its infancy.
Advances to date are obviously still modest, but they are significant when you consider that the starting point was an almost complete absence of registration. In countries that represent the most "successful" cases, such as Uruguay, Chile, Brazil and Ecuador, formalisation levels have hovered around figures of slightly above 40% in recent years. Thereafter, both the political will to undertake initiatives aimed at this occupation and the results achieved, decline in levels of formalisation (in respect to the "ceiling" already stated) throughout different national contexts. Thus, at the extreme of greatest vulnerability, in an important group of countries in the region, levels of registration have not yet exceeded single digits, with extreme cases of informality. Such is the situation of countries with the population density of Mexico, and others like Bolivia or El Salvador, where almost all female workers in the sector are still deprived of access to labour rights and social protection (ILO, 2016b).
Significant challenges thus still remain to be overcome in respect to domestic service in the region. Firstly, countries that have undertaken initiatives in the sector need to continue their efforts to further increase protection levels. And secondly, those countries that have not yet achieved or even begun to implement substantive improvements owe a historical debt to this workforce that demands urgent action.
To this end, certain factors suggest that the incipient process of reinforcing the occupation is deepening and expanding. The international impetus provided by the new Agreement on the activity, combined with the active policies in this field adopted by a significant group of countries in the region, should act as a strong basis for generating sensitivity and formulating an ever wider ranging approach to the problem. There is also a resurgence of interest in the subject within Latin American academia, and the subject is included with increasing frequency on the agendas of social organisations, trade union groups and international organisations operating in the region. What’s more, the cumulative experience of those countries that are adopting actions aimed at improving the situation of the sector presents a valuable opportunity to promote a regional exchange concerning "best practices" in the field.
However, it is also worth asking what consequences the recent political and macroeconomic shift in Latin America will have for this sector. Indeed, uncertainty about the continuity of many progressive governments in the region, as well as the restoration of conservative governments in some countries, suggests the possibility of a general return to a more orthodox economic policy. In this regard, deregulatory measures in a number of areas - including the labour market - as well as adjustment policies that tend to contract economic activity and employment levels, could present a more complex picture for further progress in this area. Domestic service in particular is an occupation that tends to be pro-cyclical, that is, its demand expands and contracts along with general economic activity. Thus, if labour supply pressure exceeds demand in the context of an occupation that is still poorly unionised, it’s relevant to question the effect that the situation will have not only on employment levels, but also on the modest achievements in the labour market which the sector has achieved in recent years.
This shift in Latin American politics also raises doubts regarding the continuity of the incipient process of regional integration noted in recent years. In the particular case of domestic service, the possibility of coordinating policies at a regional level presents an excellent opportunity to insert the problem into the agenda of a larger number of countries, as well as to promote agreements and accords related to the topic. Issues such as technical cooperation and exchanging experiences between different countries, coordinating migration policies and adaptation them to the reality of the activity or establishing regional targets for the inclusion of those workers in social protection schemes, are all strategies which would be approached more profitably from an integrated platform whose future is now highly speculative.
Thus, faced with a still uncertain scenario, it is important to shore up the consensus that has been cemented over the last decade concerning the importance of working towards a formalisation of these labour relations. While the ratification of Agreement 189 is an extremely important international tool, it is still vital for social organisations related to the sector, the political forces behind the achieved gains, academia and international organisations, etc. to continue doing all they can to highlight the critical situation of this sector and keep it on the agenda. Ultimately, the aim is to preserve and, if possible, further enhance, a process of historical reparation that has begun to emerge in the region. These are the first steps towards including a contingent as significant and neglected as female domestic workers in the field of labour law and social protection.
Francisca Pereyra is researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Sciences, Sarmiento National General University in Argentina. She can be reached at fpereyra(at)ungs.edu.ar. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
ECLAC (2013) Decent work and gender equality. Policies to improve employment access and quality for women in Latin America and the Caribbean, Santiago, Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
ILO (2016a) Social protection of domestic work. Key policy trends and statistics, Social Protection Policy Document No.16, Geneva: ILO.
ILO (2016b) Policies to formalize paid domestic work in Latin America and the Caribbean, Lima: ILO.
ILO (2014) Labour Overview of Latin America and the Caribbean, Lima: ILO.
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