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Ecuador’s Domestic Workers Profiled

Various, Ecuador – 27/11/2013 – as published by The Guardian.

Beyond the domestic stereotype

Domestic workers in Ecuador need to respect their work to change attitudes, according to a long-term live-in help.

Lenny Quirós, 48, has been a domestic worker for more than 20 years but chooses never to work more than two years for the same employer as a puertas a dentro, or “behind-doors”, as a live-in help is called.

Quirós is a former president of the domestic workers’ association in Guayaquil and has seen what can happen when domestic jobs take over women’s lives. “Women need to understand that just because they are domestic workers it doesn’t mean they can’t do other things,” she says.

Quirós has been lucky. When she moved to Guayaquil she started cleaning houses, but really she wanted to study and eventually an employer allowed her to do this. Despite a biochemistry degree and a qualification as an accountant, Quirós has always worked in domestic jobs. 


“Domestic work is not bad. For me looking after a house is an art. It’s a job I can be proud of and enjoy. Women need to learn to value the job in order to force others to value it too,” she affirms.

Quirós would like to continue working but now that she is aware of her rights and demands to be affiliated, employers no longer offer her work.

Instead she volunteers for the association and sells herbal toiletries from a stall near her house.

“I have taught my children to value what appears to be menial work,” she says. “My son washes dishes in a restaurant but wants to be serving tables because it pays better. I tell him to value the job he does and his boss will value him too: if no one washed the dishes there would be nothing for the customers to eat off.” For Quirós the fight is all about changing stereotypes.

‘My domestic workers are like family’ 

Patricia Henríquez de Ugarte treats her domestic workers well – and was shocked to hear how others were treated in Ecuador.

Immaculately dressed in a black and gold suit, Patricia Henríquez de Ugarte, 60, looks as glamorous as the life-size portrait of her younger self that hangs on the living room wall.

Looking good and being successful – she has been the vice-mayor of Machala in south-west Ecuador for five years – seems to come easily to Henríquez de Ugarte, ensconced in her marble-floored, security-gated family condo. But she says she would be nowhere without the help of domestic workers.

“For example, this morning, this room was a complete mess,” she says, gesturing at the spotless space. Henríquez de Ugarte has had about eight domestic


workers in her life, fulfilling roles as diverse as nurse, nanny, cook and gardener. She can remember each one and recount details of their personality and lives.

“All of my domestic workers have been part of the family and they give their opinion whether we like it or not. Often my children and grandchildren will listen more to the help than to us,” she says.

Despite her public office, for years Henríquez de Ugarte knew nothing of the work being done by the local women’s groups. “When I began to talk to the women’s movement here they started to brainwash me,” she laughs. She is still shocked when they tell her of the treatment some workers receive.

Overall Henríquez de Ugarte is optimistic about the changes that are taking place in her country.

“It has taken a long time to realise but slowly we are starting to recognise how important these women are to us. I don’t take my domestic worker for granted because I know I really need her,” she concludes.

The cycle of domestic abuse

A domestic worker in Ecuador explains how commitment to a family can make it difficult to leave an abusive employer

Victoria Jiménez’s fourth job was working for a woman in Guayaquil looking after her nine-month and two-year-old sons.

“This woman’s partner was abusive. I would have to flee with her and the children to the coast for a month. Then we’d come back and the relationship would start up again,” Jiménez explains. Jiménez spent seven years doing this until one day the relationship reached breaking point.

“One time my employer started cutting her legs. Her partner had started to shave her body ‘to make her pure’. When he started to shave her ‘down there’ she just lost it. She said that if he was going to kill her she might as well kill herself. There was blood everywhere.”

Jiménez left – and went to live with her mother. But after a year her former employer, who had just given birth to another child with a new partner, tracked her down. “She called and I went,” says Jiménez.

“This time the new husband wasn’t a psychopath but a sexual freak. He would stand in the living room in front of the television, which the children and I were trying to watch, and start masturbating. He raped another domestic worker in the household and sexually abused me too.”

She wished she had had the strength to leave her abusive employer earlier: “I stayed because I felt like a mother to all of them but now I regret that decision,” she says.

Loans offer way out of domestic work 


Microfinance backed by Care International UK offers gives Ecuadorean domestic workers a chance to start new businesses.

Rosita Sánchez Cumbicus, 48, is proof that there are alternatives to domestic work. She is still employed in a domestic role for a couple of hours every morning, but in the afternoons she returns to her dream job – running her cafe in the centre of a small town near Loja, in southern Ecuador.

She has had the cafe for two years, thanks to Faces, a microfinance organisation handpicked by CARE International UK to participate in its new programme.

“I used to be very shy. At the beginning of my marriage I only worked and didn’t have friends or go out. My husband used to hit me – but not any more. Now I am financially independent, he has learned to respect me and he often comes to help me wash up at the cafe at the end of the day,” says the mother of three.

Unlike a loan from a commercial bank, loans from Faces start small, so borrowers are not overwhelmed, and a husband’s signature is not required.

Luis Palacios Burneas, executive president of Faces, says: “We design products especially for women because they need more advantages and we see it as a way of tackling poverty as a whole. If you improve the woman’s situation, you improve the family’s situation.”

Most importantly, Sánchez Cumbicus’s business allows her to spend time with her children – something difficult to do in domestic work. “They are always telling me to rest but I don’t want to,” she says. “When I’m working at the cafe I can forget everything and be happy. I feel very proud of what I have achieved.”