Abuse Behind Closed Doors
Published in The Guardian on Nov. 28, 2012.
Victoria Jiménez is one of 10 children. By the age of five, she knew how to wash, cook, clean and look after those younger than her. At 12 her mother, unable to provide for her, left Jiménez and her sister in the house of a seamstress to work in exchange for clothes. It was then, as a domestic worker, that she first encountered abuse.
“When the man started to touch me, I couldn’t sleep. I kept my eyes open throughout to make him understand I knew what was going on. I stayed awake so I could protect my sister,” she explains, crying.
The sequence of violence, violation and exploitation that followed over the next 20 years is hard to believe. When Jiménez, now 39, finally sought the help of the Association of Paid Domestic Workers of Guayaquil, Ecuador, she had spent two weeks in a psychiatric unit. “I had tried to kill myself. I felt depressed, afraid, like I was worthless, completely worthless, and that everything was my fault. I felt as if I couldn’t even raise my voice,” she says.
“Domestic workers are human beings who have a lot of love inside them for the families that they work for. That’s why it’s complex,” explains CARE International program director, Sofia Sprechmann in the capital, Quito. “It’s not the same as working in the garment sector. It’s an emotional job where everything you are as a human being is interconnected in this messy way. That can be easily abused.”
As domestic work happens in the private sphere of the home, it is harder to regulate and easier for abuse to take place. Statistics detailing the abuse received by domestic workers do not even exist.
It is often expected that the boys of the home will have their first sexual experience with the domestic worker. But abuse is not just sexual: workers have been locked up, threatened with violence, given week-old food, have had pay withheld and even been sold like a slave among their employers’ friends.
“They think that we don’t need to eat,” says Angela Reasco Cortez, a 50-year-old domestic. “I am embarrassed to tell my story but the truth is that I’ve been burned, beaten, tied to a tree nearly naked like a dog while my employers left the house. I was threatened with a knife if I told anyone.”
Since 2010 CARE International has been trying to raise awareness of domestic abuse, which affects 14 million women in Latin America, and as many as 100 million workers worldwide. According to Sprechmann: “Culturally, this kind of behaviour is very deeply ingrained. Privately everyone talks about it, but publicly it’s one of those issues that’s completely taboo.”
One of the ways the NGO is tackling the problem is by helping groups, such as the domestic workers’ association in Guayaquil, south-east Ecuador, to organise themselves at grassroots level. The association informs workers of their rights, as well as providing legal, practical and psychosocial support.
CARE’s task is not easy. Historically the issue has been neglected by politicians and employers: women who ordinarily would fight on the workers’ behalf rarely do so.
“This issue touches the very wounds of inequality and discrimination,” says Sprechmann, “because even middle-class women who fight for equality might actually have a domestic worker who they are exploiting. This is not a ‘sexy’ issue in society, actually it’s a very dangerous issue that as far as politicians are concerned could antagonise many voters.”
Unlike Ecuador’s neighbour Peru, which still has a separate labour code for domestic workers, the country adopted fair labour measures as part of its 2010 constitution. These include an eight-hour day, one day off a week, the freedom for workers to choose where they live and spend their holidays, and a fixed minimum wage. With Ecuador’s “fair domestic work” campaign the country passed a law of mandatory affiliation to the social security system for domestic workers.
However, it has been difficult to enforce the law: many workers who demand to be affiliated risk losing their job. Many more do not know their rights and are isolated from or ignorant of the groups that could support them.
“They are not your typical trade unionists,” says Sprechmann. “They are fragmented. The abuse they suffer happens in the privacy of a home and everyone has a different employer, so they can’t unify. How do you work with a community that doesn’t exist and create a network from women scattered all over the country?”
CARE hopes microfinance will provide a way out of domestic labour for some women, allowing them to start up cleaning agencies or home-run enterprises.
“Education and improving workers’ self-esteem are crucial to making women feel able to demand their rights, but until other employment options are made available women will stay trapped in domestic work,” says Luis Palacios Burneas, executive president of microfinance institution Faces, based in Loja.
Few banks in Ecuador lend to domestic workers as they are considered high risk. Ironically Faces, which estimates 15‑18% of its borrowers used to work as domestics, has a 99.2% repayment rate.
“Not all women are entrepreneurs or have the ability to set up their own businesses,” Palacios observes. “But in general many show a great ability to manage finances because they know how to manage a household.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. All workers are different. Many appreciate the stability of a monthly wage. “We do not want to abolish domestic work,” says Jiménez, who now holds a senior position in the domestic workers’ association in Guayaquil. “The economy needs it, we need it but we want to work in better conditions and have respect.”
This is why CARE must continue to work on an international level to influence policy-making. “200 years ago slavery was socially accepted – it was only when it became part of a political agenda that things changed,” Sprechmann says.
Thankfully a political agenda does exist, and, like the issue, it’s global. In 2011 Ecuador was among 183 countries to sign the International Labour Organisation convention 189 on regulating domestic work, which will come into effect in August 2013. “We now have an international platform,” says Sprechmann. “We couldn’t wait 10 years.”
In 10 years Jiménez’s two-year-old daughter will be the same age as her mother when she first began domestic work and, while the fight to improve conditions for domestic workers is complex, the motivation for campaigners such as Jiménez is simple: “I do not want my daughter to become a domestic worker. But, if she does, I promise myself that conditions are going to be different,” she says.