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LATIN AMERICA: Strides and Setbacks for Domestic and Rural Workers

SANTIAGO, Sep 27 2009 (IPS) - In the last few years, several Latin American countries have attempted to improve labour conditions for rural workers and domestics, whose labour rights have long been ignored. But the new laws, even those with limited scope, are not always enforced.

Farmworker in Sinaloa, Mexico. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

Farmworker in Sinaloa, Mexico. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

The work of domestics and rural labourers is poorly paid and less visible than many other jobs, as it is done in the privacy of the home or the solitude of the countryside.

“Domestic service is the gateway to the labour market for the poorest women, especially indigenous and black women,” María Elena Valenzuela, a regional expert on gender issues and employment at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), told IPS.

In Latin America, paid domestic labour is basically done by women, who number 14 million and represent 14 percent of the region’s female workers, said Valenzuela.

The countries with the largest proportions of women in domestic service are Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

While the number of domestic workers has grown since 1990, the number of live-in maids has shrunk, as hiring “daily help” has become more common. But alongside this trend, unacceptable forms of semi-slavery and child labour persist. Lack of regulation of domestic workers’ rights has also traditionally been widespread in the region.

In nearly every Latin American country there is a minimum wage for paid domestic workers, but it tends to be lower than the minimum wage for other workers, Valenzuela said. Domestic employees also lose out on coverage for health, retirement and unemployment benefits, owing to gaps or loopholes in the law or non-compliance by employers.

Domestics tend to work longer hours than other workers. Some countries only stipulate minimum rest periods, while others do not regulate annual vacations or maternity leave.

According to Valenzuela, Uruguay currently has the most advanced legislation on domestic employment in Latin America. The law, passed in 2006, puts domestic workers’ rights on an equal footing with those of the rest of the country’s labour force.

Thanks to the new law and the revival of their union, which had basically stopped functioning for years, Uruguayan domestics were able to negotiate wage increases and improvements in working conditions and rights at the tripartite wage councils, made up of the government, employers and unions.

In Paraguay, meanwhile, a regulation that came into force on Sept. 14 extends social security health coverage to domestic employees around the nation, a benefit that previously applied only in the capital, Asunción. The measure will potentially benefit some 290,000 domestic workers (93 percent of whom are women), although most employers have not registered their employees with the social security system.

The package includes insurance coverage for sickness (whether work-related or not), maternity, accidents at work, medical, surgical and dental care, medicines, hospitalisation and a cash grant to compensate for lost wages.

In July, Guatemala created a special programme (PRECAPI) to protect women employed in private homes, providing maternity services, health care for children up to the age of five, and hospital care in the case of accidents.

But domestic workers in that Central American country are still not eligible for invalidity, old age and widows’ pensions, nor ordinary health insurance covering routine visits to the doctor.

In Chile a law was approved last year stipulating that domestic workers’ wages must be gradually increased to equal the national minimum wage. In 2008 their pay rose to 75 percent of the national minimum wage; this year it increased to 83 percent; and it is due to rise again in 2010 and 2011 to 92 percent and 100 percent of the minimum wage, respectively.

An additional law passed this year requires that domestics be given the day off on national holidays.

A Peruvian law in force since March forbids requiring a domestic worker to wear a uniform, or any other apparel identifying her as such, in public areas. The intention is to prevent discrimination.

Valenzuela also highlighted campaigns by the Argentine and Brazilian governments to encourage formal registration of domestic employees. Argentina even offered tax breaks to employers who fulfil this legal obligation.

But many legal and cultural challenges still remain. “As well as ensuring that domestics have equal rights to those of other workers, their occupation needs to be more highly valued,” said Valenzuela.

Sandra Castilla, head of the Fundación Ciudad Colombia-Ama de Llaves a Domicilio, a company providing housekeeping services, told IPS “there are still many people in this country who think that by employing a woman for domestic work, they are doing her a big favour.”

“And if they pay her what the law requires, it’s out of the goodness of their hearts,” according to domestics in Colombia, where there is no special legislation on domestic work.

In March 2008, the ILO agreed to develop an international convention on decent work for domestic workers that would establish minimum standards for this type of employment.

Governments, unions and employers’ organisations had until Aug. 31, 2009 to answer an ILO questionnaire. The issue is on the agenda of the ILO’s next International Labour Conference in June 2010, where a decision is expected to be taken.

Marginalised workers in rural areas

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 120 million people, or 22 percent of the regional population, live in the countryside, where poverty and extreme poverty rates are higher than in urban areas.

Agriculture is the main source of employment, in spite of the growth of other paid occupations among the rural population.

In a study published this year on labour conditions and rural poverty in Latin America (Condicionantes laborales de la pobreza rural en América Latina), United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) consultant Emilio Klein warns there is a general tendency in the region to pay informal sector workers less than the national minimum wage.

He also reported that the proportion of unionised workers in rural areas is low, and that child labour continues to be seen. In addition, a lower percentage of rural workers are registered in social security systems.

In Argentina, a country of 40 million, there are around 1.5 million rural workers, whose main achievement was a 2001 law that created a register of rural employers and workers.

Now all rural workers must be registered, which gives them a booklet containing his or her personal details: wages, family members, deductions for retirement pensions, health insurance and family allowances. Nevertheless, rural workers still have the highest rates of informal employment without social security coverage.

Only in January was an eight-hour working day established in the countryside, when a law passed in 2008 came into force. “Previously it was customary to work from sun-up to sun-down,” Carlos Figueroa, national secretary for institutional relations for the Argentine Union of Rural Workers and Stevedores (UATRE), told IPS.

Now the legal workday is eight hours from Monday to Friday and half a day on Saturday, and if an employer wants a worker to work extra hours, or on Sundays or holidays, he or she must pay overtime.

A law was also passed in Uruguay late last year, stipulating an eight-hour workday – and 48-hour week – for agricultural labourers, with a rest period in the middle of the day. Anything beyond that requires overtime pay at twice the normal rate.

However, rural workers’ organisations, which represent 180,000 members, say that it will be difficult to apply the new legislation, as some agricultural labourers have not even heard of the law, and have even less idea of what it says and how it will be enforced.

In Chile, the Mesa Laboral Agrícola, the rural labour negotiating body made up of the government, union organisations and employers’ associations, signed an agreement in August to draw up a labour code for seasonal workers, and implement other benefits, like vouchers for crêches for the children of women seasonal labourers. The government promised to coordinate oversight of its provisions.

The preliminary draft of the code, which should be completed in October, will recognise the special nature of seasonal agricultural work and regulate contracts, daily working hours and overtime, and rights such as collective bargaining and unionisation.

In Brazil, a national commitment to better labour practices in the sugarcane sector was signed in June. Antonio Lucas of the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG) told IPS it was “a moral commitment” to “more humane labour relations.”

According to CONTAG, the 18-point tripartite agreement between the government, agricultural unions and agribusiness will benefit some 600,000 sugarcane cutters who work in precarious conditions, sometimes in semi-slavery.

Lucas highlighted the commitment for direct hiring of workers by agribusiness companies, thus avoiding sub-contracting through intermediaries, which lends itself to countless abuses and illegal manoeuvres, especially in the case of foreign migrant workers.

Advances have also been made in terms of wage negotiations and job security. Among the challenges for farmworkers, Lucas mentioned the low levels of unionisation and collective bargaining, the lack of childcare facilities, and inadequate oversight of compliance with regulations.

*With additional reporting by Marcela Valente (Buenos Aires), Helda Martínez (Bogotá). Fabiana Frayssinet (Rio de Janeiro) and Raúl Pierri (Montevideo).

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