Maria looks for the last time into the mirror, smears the red lipstick, combs her hair with fingertips, straightens the black uniform, grabs a cleaning cloth, and proudly steps in front of the camera. “I’m ready,” she announces with a huge smile.
Twenty-year-old Maria de Aquino is one of the 2.4 million Mexican domestic workers who sweep, mop, wash, cook, iron, and babysit in foreign homes daily. In the mornings, she works as a chef in a boutique hotel in the city of Puebla, while in the afternoons she’s in charge of preparing food and cleaning the department of a hotel’s owner. For her 7 am to 7 pm workday, six days a week, she receives a mere 5000 pesos per month, the equivalent of $265 USD.
Domestic workers represent 11 percent of all working women in Mexico and are amongst the workers with the least amount of labor rights: 80 percent of women don’t have medical insurance, 6 out of 10 don’t have vacation and almost half of them don’t receive a Christmas bonus. They’re also among the worst paid female workers in the country – every third receives less than a legally stipulated minimum wage. Maria is one of the few lucky ones. Having found an employer who respects her labor rights to some degree, she receives an end-of-year bonus and gets vacations according to legal norms.
When Maria was just 13-years-old, she had to say goodbye to her schooling and swap notebooks and pencils for gloves, brooms and chlorine-based cleaning agents that would burn her eyes and make her cough. Because there wasn’t enough work offered in her small indigenous community, her family sent Maria to Puebla, a city with two million inhabitants. She resided with her employers in the house where she worked, which gave ground to 16-hour workday and no weekly recess. Maria’s fear of getting lost in an unfamiliar city made her spend the supposed work-free Sundays in the house, and the employers used her presence to load her with unpaid work.
Today, Maria’s situation—and that of other domestic workers’ situation in Mexico— is far from perfect. In recent years, increased awareness of workers like Maria has given way to a call for change. The shift in Mexico’s approach to labor is thanks to a small, energetic Mixtec woman by the name of Marcelina Bautista Marcelina Bautista Bautista © | Suprema Corte de Justicia de la NaciónBautista. Marcelina is a former domestic worker and a restless activist who has been pushing the problem of systematic violations of labor rights onto political and media agendas for the last 18 years.
Marcelina’s story is not so different than Maria’s. Marcelina moved from her hometown in the state of Oaxaca to the overwhelming and chaotic Mexico City more than 30 years ago to improve her stake in life and become financially independent. At 14-years-old with only an elementary level of education, Marcelina found work as a domestic worker in a home of a wealthy couple that regularly scolded her. In the course of her employment, Marcelina worked in several houses, always confronted by long hours of heavy work, miserable pay, abuses, violence, and discrimination.
To overcome the loneliness and the negative influence of her daily environment, Marcelina took sewing classes, hairdressing, weaving, and guitar, and started to get involved in the nearby church activities. At church, she met other domestic workers who were similarly tired of constant exploitation and began to explore the idea of being an activist for labor, health and reproduction rights. When she was only 17, Marcelina created a group that would eventually become known as the Center of Support and Training for Female Domestic Workers (CACEH), with a mission to educate local women about their human rights and form a labor union.
CACEH provides education, training, legal counseling and support services to domestic employees in Mexico City and other states near the capital. Due to women’s business during the week, the organization often holds group meetings in local parks on Sunday afternoons when the workers tend to congregate. Its main objective is to help women become effective promoters of their own rights, by leveraging workshops on legal rights, public policy, and advocacy.
In collaboration with a small group of employers who joined the battle for improving domestic workers’ situation, Marcelina started a job placement service for new arrivals to Mexico city, always keen on placing women with employers who are proven to respect women’s rights and sign a formal contract. The signing of a work contract may seem obvious but in Mexico, 96 percent of women are employed without a legal document detailing their rights, obligations, work hours, salary, and tasks.
Empowering domestic workers has been hard work, admits Marcelina. The majority of working women in Mexico are oblivious to their labor rights or are reluctant to confront employers for fear of losing their jobs. With many domestic workers coming from impoverished communities around Mexico, there is a widespread worry that asking for basic working rights will cost them their job. In response, CACEH aims to teach these women negotiation techniques to help guide their discussions with their employers.
Changing Mexico’s approach to domestic workers and their rights will take decades, which is why Marcelina’s work has been largely focused on increasing women’s ability to improve their current situation, rather than on changing an employers’ will to respect the law. Despite several promises made to Marcelina and her co-workers, Mexico’s federal government refuses to ratify the Convention 189, an International Labour Organization treaty that guarantees domestic workers’ rights. Until that happens, Marcelina and other domestic workers will continue fighting for the women in the shadows.