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URUGUAY: ‘Just Like a Daughter’ – Until You Exert Your Rights

Silvana Silveira

MONTEVIDEO, Jun 8 2009 (IPS) - “If you protest or stand up for your rights, they start playing little psychological games with you. You immediately go from being the darling of the household, ‘just like a daughter,’ to being treated rudely, and sometimes they even accuse you of stealing.”

This situation is all-too familiar to many domestic employees in Uruguay, says Cristina Otero.

Like many other Uruguayan women, Otero began to work as a domestic in 2002 when this small South American country sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina suffered a severe economic collapse and many factory workers lost their jobs – in her case, in the garment industry.

Today Otero is head of the Sindicato Único de las Trabajadoras Domésticas (SUTD), the domestic workers union.

After years of inactivity, the union was rebuilt by 400 women in 2005, a year before a law on domestic labour was passed, which the union’s leaders described as a major stride for the country and for Latin America.

The law that went into effect in early 2006 protects domestics by creating a series of mechanisms to ensure that their work and rights are respected.

One of the most significant aspects of the law is that the eight-hour workday/44-hour work week now applies to domestic employees in Uruguay. However, that provision is often violated in the case of live-in maids, as their work in private homes presents special difficulties when it comes to enforcing their rights, and makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse.

The situation is even more complex for live-in domestics outside of the capital – which is home to nearly half of Uruguay’s 3.3 million people – because the families that employ them often take advantage of the fact that they have no other job options and nowhere else to live.

Nilda Cejas has worked her whole adult life as a live-in domestic. At her present employers’ home, she has a “very nice” room in the back of the house, with her own bathroom, she says. But she complains that her employers do not always respect her right to an eight-hour workday, that she is not paid overtime, and that since she asked for the raises to which she is entitled, the lady of the house no longer talks to her.

“I cook, clean, do everything, but we don’t get along,” Cejas told IPS.

Otero knows what Cejas is talking about. “It’s hard to get your boss to understand that you have an eight-hour workday and that the rest of the hours you work are overtime and are to be paid double, like in the case of any other worker,” she remarked to IPS.

“Not all employers seem to understand that a domestic employee is a worker, not a slave,” she said. “And what generally happens is that when a domestic goes to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security to file a complaint, she ends up getting fired.”

Recognising rights

Although the new law is still not widely enforced, as Otero pointed out, it introduced a cultural change. Under the old mindset, it was just accepted that maids worked from dawn to nightfall.

In addition, they are now eligible for social security coverage like any other worker in the formal economy; they have the right to severance pay when they are sacked; and they have the right to six months unemployment insurance as well as sick leave.

Senator Susana Dalmás, who formed part of the team that drafted the law, told IPS that it “obligatorily formalises domestic labour, regulates it in every aspect, and makes it possible to set wages through collective bargaining.”

Tripartite wage boards – made up of representatives of government, employers and unions – were revived in 2005 after nearly two decades of failure to comply with the law that created them.

The law on domestic labour also ensures that live-in maids have the right to an adequate diet and clean, private living quarters, said Dalmás of the left-wing Broad Front, the coalition headed by socialist President Tabaré Vázquez that began to push through the law after it was elected to the national government in 2005.

The legislation provides safeguards to protect domestics from being sacked if they become pregnant. If they are fired while pregnant, they have a right to not only their regular severance pay but also an extra six months worth of wages.

But as the popular saying goes, the law was made to be broken: “We have discovered that employers often pay into the social security system based on the minimum wage instead of the real wages that the domestics earn,” which means their retirement pensions will be smaller, said Otero.

Some 90,000 people in Uruguay say they work in domestic service, equivalent to 6.5 percent of the workforce, according to the latest census by the National Institute of Statistics, from 2006. But more recent figures provided by Otero indicate that the number has climbed to 110,000, while only 1,000 belong to the union.

Of that total, 99.9 percent are women, and one out of every three are the head of their household, while two out of three are not registered formal sector workers, which means they do not have labour rights or social security coverage.

Domestic service and the construction industry are the most precarious segments of the labour market in Uruguay in terms of social protection, job stability and workday length, economist Alma Espino, a researcher at the public University of the Republic, told IPS.

In terms of their hourly wage, domestics are not that poorly-paid when compared to some other jobs in Uruguay, but the problem (for those who are not live-in workers) is that they rarely manage to work full-time hours, which means their monthly income tends to be low, said Espino, who along with Verónica Amarante wrote a 2008 report on “The Situation of Domestic Service in Uruguay”.

Although the number of domestic workers has remained more or stable in the last few decades, more women have been forced to seek remunerated work outside of the home since the late 1990s, when the country fell into recession and poverty climbed from 15 percent to 34 percent in 2003. (By 2008 it had dropped to just under 22 percent.)

“Precise figures are hard to come by, but there are two factors that have fuelled domestic employment: women’s need to go out and find work, and the number of homes where, because the mother is out working, someone else has to take care of the household work,” said Espino.

She added that a majority of domestics have never had any other kind of job.

The new law, which was negotiated by the government, employers and trade unions, represents a major advance, not only in the country but in the region as a whole, said Alma Fernández, in charge of the gender and equity department in the Plenario Intersindical de Trabajadores-Central Nacional de Trabajadores (PIT-CNT), the central union that represents all unionised workers in Uruguay.

“Domestics have been the most neglected workers in the country,” Fernández told IPS.

She said, however, that “the law will not enforce itself; the SUTD exists to make sure that happens.”

Fernández underlined the importance of having achieved the right to collective bargaining” in the 21st century. “They are no longer second-class workers; they now have the same rights as any other worker,” she said.

“The law is absolutely innovative,” said Espino. “It has significantly improved conditions for women in the sense of affording them social protection and pulling them out of a discriminatory situation.”

Thousands of domestics now have rights, and are no longer working on the black market, she added.

The number of domestic workers affiliated with the Banco de Previsión Social (BPS) – the social security institute – rose from 39,806 in March 2005 to 46,982 in 2007, 50,444 in 2008 and 55,078 in March 2009.

That means that the proportion who have social security coverage rose from one-third to over half in just three years, according to the BPS.

The establishment of wage boards was another important achievement for the SUTD. At the Labour Ministry’s request, the Liga de Amas de Casa, Consumidores y Usuarios del Uruguay (LACCUU – the league of homemakers and consumers) represented employers, who had never before been interested in participating in such negotiations.

The negotiating table “met for the first time in 2008; it couldn’t function before because there was no one who fit the requirements for representing the employers,” the president of LACCUU, Mabel Lorenzo de Mattos, told IPS.

There is no specific organisation of employers of domestics comparable to the chambers of commerce or industry. The League’s challenging new role representing employers paved the way for a series of negotiations that had previously been frustrated for that reason.

“It’s not that we are defending the position of employers of domestic workers; we are representing them with respect to the SUTD’s proposals and demands, in order for things to be put in their rightful place,” said Lorenzo de Mattos.

Otero said employers do not always respect the minimum wage of 4,562 pesos a month (just under 200 dollars) set by the wage board. But at least the raises are decreed by the government, and do not have to be negotiated, she added.

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