Guatemala City, Guatemala – At the age of 8, Fidelia Castellanos had just landed her first job as a domestic worker in Guatemala City and her tiny hands were already dry and chapped from washing, cooking and cleaning.
Castellanos had been raised on a coffee and sugar plantation in the municipality of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, in the southwestern department of Escuintla, and she had never seen a TV before.
One day, as she cleared the table after dinner, she momentarily gazed up at the TV screen in amazement. Suddenly, a burning pain in her cheek brought her back to reality and tears began streaming down her face. Her employer’s husband had slapped her so that she would never again forget that she was there to work from dawn to dusk and could not remain idle even for a few seconds.
That would be the first of many humiliations that Castellanos would face as a domestic worker.
Her last employer instructed another domestic worker to search her handbag before leaving the house at the end of the day. When she dared to complain, she was fired. Ironically, her employer worked for a well-known human rights organization.
Women’s eNews interviewed Castellanos in her home in Guatemala City. Despite the hardship she has endured, her tone is upbeat.
Hers is the story of thousands of Guatemalan women.
Centracap, a local advocacy group, estimates 186,000 domestic workers are in Guatemala and more than 50 percent have emigrated to Guatemala City from impoverished rural areas. Some earn an hourly wage; others live with their employers. The latter often work up to 14 hours a day and are usually paid $150 a month, half of the national minimum monthly wage, which is currently $304.68.
What makes Castellanos unique is her determination to fight for better working conditions in Guatemala, where labor unionism is weak after the repression of workers’ movements under the country’s recent history of military dictatorships.
Trying to Unionize
At the age of 49, Castellanos decided to follow her father’s footsteps – he had been a labor organizer on the plantation on which she grew up – and began to seek support from other domestic workers to set up the Domestic and Independent Workers’ Union (Sitradomsa) in 2011. “I don’t want other women to suffer the way I did,” she says.
But it’s been slow going. After four years, Sitradomsa has 55 members who pay a monthly quota of $1.20 and almost 100 attend its awareness raising events. “It’s been hard because the women are afraid and they have been told that if you’re a labor organizer you’re going to get killed. But that was before; now we have the right to organize,” says Castellanos.
The shocking case of Candelaria Acabal, a 24-year-old Mayan woman from the town of San Pedro Jocopilas, in the highland municipality of Quiché, reveals the particularly sadistic forms of abuse that indigenous women can suffer at the hands of their employers. Her case was widely reported by the Guatemalan press.
Since the age of 14, according to media reports, Acabal had lived with her employer, Olga Marisol Natareno Taracena, the wife of former Congressman Adolfo Manuel Rodríguez Recinos. She was forbidden to leave the house. She was routinely beaten and verbally abused. On one occasion, she was forced to have sex with two men. She was also forced to eat dog feces as a punishment for allegedly not keeping the house clean.
In 2010, she managed to escape from her employer’s home and sought help from another domestic worker who persuaded her to seek help from the police.
Natareno was prosecuted for racial discrimination, bodily harm and subjecting Acabal to conditions of slavery. However, the case was closed after Acabal and her family were threatened and she dropped the charges.
In 2009, after intense lobbying from a number of local advocacies, the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security launched Precapi, a program to enroll domestic workers. The program offers accident coverage, maternity pay and medical check-ups for domestic workers’ children. Employers are required to pay $5 a month to enroll their workers and workers pay $2.50.
To date, however, Precapi has enrolled fewer than 1,000 domestic workers and has only executed 3 percent of its budget because no sanctions are imposed on employers who fail to enroll their domestic workers and the authorities haven’t reached out to domestic workers to make them aware of their rights.
The coverage offered is also limited because the program doesn’t include sick leave or treatment for sick children, only vaccinations and routine check-ups to monitor growth.
“We need a law that makes social security coverage compulsory for all domestic workers,” Maritza Velásquez, a spokesperson for the Association of Domestic and Garment Factory Workers (Atrahdom), said in a telephone interview. That will only happen, Velásquez says, if Guatemala ratifies International Labor Organization Convention 189, concerning decent work for domestic workers.
The convention guarantees domestic workers’ right to daily and weekly rest hours, entitlement to a minimum wage and the right to choose the place where they live and spend their leave, which means employers can no longer force them to reside in their homes. Ratifying states also have the obligation to protect domestic workers from violence.
Guatemalan advocates attended the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which took place in March this year at U.N. headquarters in New York City, and were inspired by the example of other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, that have already ratified the convention.
Bolivia and Guatemala have the largest indigenous populations in Latin America and a similar history of racism and discrimination against indigenous women. However, unlike Guatemala, Bolivia has ratified the convention and in 2012 the Evo Morales administration approved a law to ensure its implementation.
Many of Guatemala’s regional neighbors, including El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, have also ratified the convention.
Guatemala’s current labor minister, Carlos Contreras, has shown no interest in the issue even though a pledge to improve conditions for domestic workers was included in the 1996 peace agreement.
“Look at the type of government that Bolivia has and look at the type of governments that we’ve had, which have been right wing and pro business,” says Velásquez. “They don’t care about improving our conditions.”
With an eye on elections in September, advocates are focusing their efforts on raising awareness of the convention among domestic workers throughout the country in the hope that they will lobby presidential candidates and force them to take a stance on the issue.
“Our employers leave us in charge of their house, their children, their elderly father,” says Castellanos. “If we’re the main pillar of the domestic economy, why don’t they value our work?”