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LABOUR-GUATEMALA: Domestics Finally Gain (Limited) Rights

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 12 2009 (IPS) - “What really hurt was that they refused me my right to rest before and after I had my baby. Even when my contractions started, they wouldn’t let me go to the hospital,” said Mildred Díaz, a Guatemalan domestic employee, talking about the worst aspects of her job.

Díaz’s story is typical of thousands of mainly indigenous women in Guatemala who suffer discrimination and ill-treatment on a daily basis because there are no laws to protect the rights of domestic employees, although they contribute to higher standards of living for the families that employ them.

According to the 2006 Survey of Living Conditions, there are close to 183,000 women working as domestics in family homes, 72 percent of whom are paid an average of 75 dollars a month, when the minimum wage is 170 dollars a month.

Díaz, who is now head of the Support Centre for Domestic Workers (CENTRACAP), says their greatest achievement was winning affiliation to the social security system. “After 12 years of struggle, we are finally taking this step which makes us very happy, although there is a lot that still needs to be done,” she said.

The Secretariat for Social Welfare (SOSEP), run by the president’s wife, and the Guatemalan Institute for Social Security (IGSS) signed an agreement in July under which domestic workers will have access to some social security services starting Wednesday, Aug. 12.

The agreement established a Special Programme for Protection of Domestic Employees (PRECAPI), which makes them eligible for maternity services, medical care for their children under five, and hospital services in the event of accidents, none of which they previously enjoyed.

Domestic workers are still not eligible for invalidity, old age and widows’ pensions, nor for ordinary sickness benefits arising from routine medical visits, but Díaz says “a first step” has been taken.

Not everyone is entirely happy, however. Hortencia Gómez, the coordinator of the women’s office at the Guatemalan Workers Union Federation (UNSITRAGUA), told IPS that “the agreement does not live up to our expectations.”

Not offering health insurance for ordinary illnesses “is deeply regrettable,” said Gómez, because “it is the service most frequently needed by domestic workers who, just like other human beings, have heart problems, hypertension, diabetes and other ailments.”

Another topic arousing controversy is the structure of payments for the PRECAPI programme. The cost is 12 dollars per month, of which 40 percent is payable by the employer, 40 percent by SOSEP and 20 percent by the domestic worker.

“The state has accumulated a debt of some 1.8 billion dollars that it owes to the IGSS, which it hasn’t been able to pay off, so how on earth is it going to fund this new programme?” asked Gómez, referring to the 40 percent contribution payable by SOSEP.

In the view of Marco Vinicio Hernández, a labour lawyer with the Ombudsman’s Office, the structure of the contributions “is in complete contrast with the proportional mechanism for calculating social security contributions payable by workers in the formal sector, who pay 4.83 percent of their monthly wages.”

Hernández said he thinks the new PRECAPI programme represents “progress,” although “it appears to be a short-term measure that is not based on a sound actuarial study.” He pointed out that domestic employees are not included in the social security pensions system, and that their situation as a whole has not been addressed in a comprehensive fashion.

There has been no visible coordination between institutions to improve the design of the PRECAPI programme, in spite of the fact that in the first half of this year a multi-sector group met to discuss a draft law to protect domestic workers.

“But we were never told about PRECAPI, and as a result the issues have not been addressed comprehensively, to include essential matters like child labour,” Hernández said.

The reason for that is simple. Guatemala is the Latin American country with the highest proportion of under-age girls working as domestics, who make up 14.4 percent of the total number of these workers, followed by Honduras with 10.3 percent, Nicaragua with 9.8 percent and El Salvador with 6.7 percent.

These figures are from a report published in early 2009 by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) regional office.

Delia Back, a lawmaker for the centre-left National Union for Hope (UNE) party of President Álvaro Colom and chair of the parliamentary Commission on Women, told IPS that the multi-sector group mentioned by Hernández had worked on several reforms to the Labour Code aimed at protecting domestic workers.

“What we did was to look at previous initiatives that had been shelved, and we worked on several reforms to protect vulnerable workers such as domestic employees, agricultural labourers and those who work in the ‘maquilas’ (export assembly plants), the transport sector and others,” Back said.

Worst of all, the current Labour Code, instead of protecting domestic workers, actually undermines their rights. Article 164, for instance, states that “domestic work is not subject to regular hours or to limits on the working day,” which is used to justify working days longer than 12 hours for many employees.

The proposed reforms to the code would include regulations on daily working hours, a minimum wage, holidays and all the benefits that legally recognised workers enjoy.

Back said the reforms will be presented for debate in parliament during its second legislative session, which began Aug. 1.

Meanwhile, the PRECAPI programme is under way. For the first year it will operate only in the department (province) of Guatemala, which includes Guatemala City and has the highest concentration of domestic workers. According to IGSS authorities, it will later be extended to the rest of the country.

The country’s main radio stations are already broadcasting an information campaign calling on domestic workers to register with the PRECAPI programme, and raising awareness among employers. Díaz is not completely satisfied with what has been achieved, but she hopes that the union’s demands will be fully met in future.

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