It was only ten years ago, in June 2011, that the International Labour Organization (ILO) passed Convention 189 on Domestic Work, after more than 60 years of debate. Two years later, Argentina passed the Special Employment Contract Regime for Private Household Staff (Law 26.844 from 2013). These two regulations represented advances for the sector, which came to be considered work, instead of the stigmatized (and stigmatizing) notion of service.
Consequently, expectations arose for improvements in working conditions for these workers and the valorization of their work. It was expected that the importance of this labour for life and well-being, as well as for the reproduction of the labour force and economy in general, would be recognized. In other words, it was expected that the historical devaluation to which this work has been subjected would give way to the recognition of, as Pascale Molinier puts it, the intelligence, professional awareness, attention, and psychological skills that it requires.
Verónica Jaramillo Fonnegra is the academic coordinator of the Master’s Degree in Human Rights and a teacher in the Program on Migration and Asylum at the National University of Lanús (UNLa), Argentina.
Carolina Rosas is a researcher at the Gino Germani Research Institute, University of Buenos Aires, a researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) and a professor and researcher at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (UNLaM).
Perhaps not enough time has passed for these expectations to have been met and, to make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. In Latin America, the conquest of rights is a slow process, but they can be lost with enormous virulence and speed. The depths of the setback in terms of rights and labour and living conditions is still not known, but it is clear that paid domestic workers are facing the brunt of it.
This text describes the working conditions of those workers during the first year of the pandemic (2020) based on statistics data and qualitative accounts. In turn, it analyses features of international (Convention 189) and national (Law 26844) regulations that can explain their weaknesses for protecting the sector in the current context. At the same time, it also discusses some of the collective initiatives that are being carried out to render visible the sector’s demands and push for better labour protections in international and national bodies.
This article especially draws on the authors’ knowledge and experience of militant-research in relation to the domestic labour sector in Argentina. Militant research is that which takes a stand on the social phenomenon that it analyses, understanding itself as one more social factor within the social orbit and seeking not only to inquire into a situation, but also to transform it. In that regard, Verónica Jaramillo has studied and accompanied migrant women in the struggle for the Private Households Labour Law in Buenos Aires since 2010, working with grassroots organizations to plan intervention activities and parliamentary lobbying. Additionally, she led training activities on Law 26.844 for migrant domestic workers after the law’s approval and accompanied those workers in filing complaints with judicial bodies. For her part, Carolina Rosas has also studied the sector, using both sociodemographic, as well as qualitative, methodological designs. In 2020, Carolina Rosas participated in diverse collective meetings in which academics, women workers, and movement leaders discussed the problems faced by the sector during the pandemic, as well as its organizing potential.
It is worth pointing out that, while the content of this text refers to domestic workers in general, we pay special attention to those from migrant backgrounds. In Argentina, the relationship between women’s immigration and care work was woven early on, before the so-called “global care circuits” would be recognized in countries of the Global North. In fact, there is a historical relation between migration and paid domestic work in Argentina: already in 1914, 30 percent of migrant women worked as “domestic employees” or “maids”, while only 17 percent of Argentine women worked in those types of jobs.
Among paid domestic workers, international migrants tend to face the most disadvantages due to their condition of foreigners. For some of them, domestic work serves as “refuge activity” that they participate in at the beginning of their migratory trajectory; for others, it is a structural form of labour insertion. Even so, unlike what occurs in the Global North, currently in Argentina we cannot speak of a “foreignization” of paid domestic work, since the majority of women who carry out activities in this sector were born in Argentina, many of them internal migrants.
Advances and Limitations of ILO Convention 189
Broad segments of the population, especially leaders in the sector, the academic community, and feminist organizations have recognized the notable advances for the labour paradigm introduced by Convention 189. In fact, in its first article, it defines the “domestic worker” as “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship”. By locating domestic work within an “employment relation”, this article demonstrates an intention to consider this occupation as real work, thus motivating states to regulate it as such. Convention 189 was thus designed to restructure the conception of that labour, which previously regarded those women as “servants” and now includes them as workers in a dependent relation, classifying them in a way so that equal rights would be established for workers in that sector.
Convention 189 also established the need to regulate a minimal working day of eight hours like other workers, that the weekly rest period be at least 24 consecutive hours, the possibility to take vacations and paid sick leave, freedom of association and to unionize, effective recognition of the right to collectively bargain, the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour, the effective abolition of child labour, the elimination of discrimination regarding employment and occupation, and effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment, and violence. Additionally, it established the requirement to create written labour contracts or contracts as part of a sectoral agreement and established a minimum wage without discrimination due to sex.
On the other hand, the Convention recognizes that migrant women are exposed to situations of particular violence and therefore specifies a few situations that, strictly speaking, do not help contain the labour exploitation of immigrants from poor countries. This is the case for the contracts made from the countries of origin. Such an article cannot always be considered a protective clause, as it excludes those who do not get jobs from the country of origin or because recruitment agencies for that workforce are scarcely monitoredand appropriate a portion of the workers’ earnings.
Argentina is a high contracting party in the sphere where this international convention was developed. In fact, it was established as an ILO member state in 1919, and since then has ratified 82 conventions and two protocols, of which 61 are still in effect. The ILO’s role in the world, besides promoting the codification of labour regulations, consists of recommending certain measures to states. Its agreements, made by a tripartite entity made up of workers, unions, and states, forms part of what is known as “soft law” that makes recommendations to states but does not impose coercive measures on them. This is a major difference in comparison, for example, to the contentious cases that occur in other human rights systems, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or the UN Commission on Human Rights.
In other words, the ILO is largely unable to impose economic sanctions, by mode of indemnification for non-compliance with the regulations, as other systems for protecting human rights do. Therefore, the rights of workers in general, and female domestic workers in particular, can be ignored by states without major legal consequences.
Argentinean Regulations on Domestic Work and Migration
To understand the framework that protects migrant domestic workers in Argentina, it is necessary to think about at least two types of regulatory developments: one in the area of labour relations and the other in immigration law. On one hand, the Domestic Service Regime was issued in 1956 during Pedro Eugenio Aramburu’s dictatorship and was in effect until March 2013, when the current Special Employment Contract Regime for Private Household Staff (Law 26.844) was sanctioned. On the other hand, we should take into account that the second immigration law in Argentina’s history was sanctioned during Argentina’s last dictatorship and remained in effect until 2004 when the current Law on Immigration, no. 25.871, took effect.
Thus, the early years of the twenty-first century saw an end to the legislation sanctioned in Argentina during different dictatorships. However, the long period in which they were in effect left serious economic marks on the living conditions of those women since, under the previous laws-decrees, the labour rights of women domestic workers were systematically violated. When their migratory status is added to this, the violations are even more notable.
In comparison with earlier legislation, the main advances established by Law 26.844 have to do with establishing an eight-hour workday with breaks when one is a live-in employee, paid vacations, sick leave, maternity leave, and the definition as a labour relation as of the first hour of work, among others.
However, we must remember that this legislation was fixed outside of the Labour Contracting Law that regulates Argentina’s workers as a whole. As seen in its name (Special Regime), it referred to the idea of “specialness” (of that labour, of the worker and the person employing her, as well as the sphere in which that work takes place) to not give those women equal rights as the rest of the country’s workers. Thus, they were excluded from the possibility of obtaining a legal minimum wage like other workers, from being able to rely on unemployment benefits or labour justice that would give them equal guarantees, since this continued with an independent jurisdiction to resolve conflicts. In this way, it institutionalized an inequality, which in the context of the pandemic has had a crucial and unfortunate importance, as will be shown in the following section.
This national law incorporated many of the standards established by ILO Convention 189, but not all of them. While Convention 189 recommended giving domestic workers equal rights as all other workers, the Argentinian law sanctions their differentiation and inequality by classifying them as special. More specifically, equalizing the maximum work hours with the rest of workers is one of its most important advances, and in this both regulations are the same. But as was stated previously, in Argentina the sector continues having a special minimum wage that is the lowest in the labour market and it does not have access to unemployment benefits. Nor is there legislation about household inspections to regulate abuse, and the employment agencies that contract workers for private households are still unregulated. Furthermore, this legislation did not recognize migrant workers in the sector, or include any mention of them, as the international convention does.
On the other hand, in terms of the immigration law, since 2004 Argentina has a framework that guarantees rights and consecrates that “the right to migration is essential and inalienable to the person and the Republic of Argentina guarantees it based on principles of equality and universality”. This law recognizes migration as a human right and goes above the standards of protection established by international instruments. Even so, in practice, there is still notorious discrimination and obstacles to migratory regularization.
Despite the major advances registered in both legal plexuses, the possibility of materializing those rights depends on broader social change and the political will to promote it, given that many government and societal entities continue repeating discriminatory practices and limiting full access to rights. A good example of an active public policy that helped spread the idea of these women as workers, while also encouraging their registration, was carried out in the first years following the approval of the Private Households Labour Law. However, it ceased to be carried out and the issue gradually disappeared from the public agenda. In short, favourable legislation regarding work in private households and migration is a great first step, but is not enough to guarantee the materialization of the rights enshrined in those laws.
Domestic Workers during the Pandemic
Natsumi Shokida indicates that in the year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 900,000 people were employed in the domestic work sector in large Argentinian cities, 98 percent of which were women, according to data from the second trimester of 2019 from the Permanent Household Survey. These workers represented 17 percent of the total female workforce, meaning one in every six women employed in Argentina participated in that economic sector. Of them, 74 percent did not receive a retirement discount, 69 percent did not have paid vacations, 68 percent did not receive bonuses, 72 percent did not receive pay in the case of illness, and 73 percent did not have health insurance. It is also worth pointing out that almost 20 percent were internal migrants, and about 10 percent were migrants from countries bordering Argentina. This means that international migrants were overrepresented in that economic sector since migrant persons only account for approximately 5 percent of the country’s total population.
Despite the fact that high rates of informality were recorded in 2019, those numbers had been even higher in previous years. Fernando Groisman and María Eugenia Sconfienza highlight the fact that informality in the sector reached 93 percent in 2004. However, by 2012 it had fallen to 81.5 percent. That decrease was largely due to tax benefits that were implemented to encourage employees to register their employees. Later, with the passing of Law 26844/2013, informality continued decreasing slightly until it reached about 75 percent. In short, up until 2019, the formalization of the sector was slowly increasing, although approximately three out of every four domestic workers were still unregistered.
In 2019, the Argentinian economy was in a critical situation, as president Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos alliance had imposed a neoliberal conception of the relation between the state, the market, and society. The policies implemented by the government led to inflation rising faster than wages, as well as an increase in unemployment, underemployment, labour informality, and precarization of the wage relation. The economic crisis intensified in 2020 due to the pandemic and the subsequent measure of “social, preventive, and obligatory isolation” which had a profound impact on the Argentine labour market. According to data published by the National Statistics Bureau INDEC, the rates of employment and unemployment reached their worst levels in the second trimester of 2020: employment declined to 33.4 percent and unemployment rose to 13 percent. A slight recovery was seen in those indexes in the fourth quarter of 2020, but they still did not reach the levels seen prior to the pandemic. Workers who were not engaged in essential work and those with less legal and union protections were those most affected by layoffs and precarization in their labour conditions. This occurred despite a rigid prohibition on layoffs imposed by the government.
Regarding domestic workers, comparing the fourth quarter of 2019 and 2020 shows that their weight among the employed population decreased from 7.6 percent to 6.3 percent of the total number of employed people. In turn, their weight among the unemployed population increased, from 12.8 percent to 16.9 percent of the total unemployed population. That means that their importance within the employed population decreased 17 percent and increased 32 percent among the unemployed population.
These alarming statistics were reflected in different virtual forums, in which representatives of unions and social organizations exposed the difficulties facing the sector. In those spaces, participants shared stories of workers who had been fired or whose wages had been compulsorily decreased. Those who suffered the most were the live-out part time (“by the hour”) employees, who make up the most precarious group within the sector. The lack of income and savings have placed all these workers and their families in a very delicate situation, especially in a context in which the prices of basic goods have increased considerably. Specifically, during 2020, the consumer price index increased by 36.1 percent.
Other workers found themselves obligated to continue going to their workplaces despite the health risks and rules prohibiting it, because their employers threatened to fire them if they did not. In other cases, they were required to stay at their workplaces indefinitely. Other employers misrepresented national regulations in their favour; for example, they told their workers that state subsidies would replace wages, that the quarantine should be considered a vacation period, or modified their employee’s category to enable her to travel in public transportation (which was restricted to certain categories of workers).
Those international migrant workers who were forced to violate the isolation decree risked administrative sanctions. Due to this, they also risked being deported, since during 2020 Decree 70/2017 was in effect, which established a summary expulsion process without the right to a legitimate defence. Another issue that has affected both internal and international migrants was the suspension of remittance payments, whether because they stopped receiving wages or because they could not find a way to send payments, leaving their families without that income.
Aid policies, and the way in which these were contemplated for domestic workers, were also a matter of debate. Argentina was the only country in South America that included registered and unregistered domestic workers in the exceptional non-contributory monetary benefit, called the Family Emergency Income (IFE). While this is positive, there were failures in its implementation since many of these women workers did not have the technological knowledge or internet access needed to sign up, or they could not communicate by telephone to learn what they needed to know. In the case of migrant workers, those who had arrived to Argentina within the last two years, or those who had arrived earlier but had not managed to regularize their migratory status, were excluded from the IFE.
Both the statistics shared at the beginning of this section as well as the experiences recounted are nothing more than the consequence of long term economic, sociocultural, and legal inequalities. Despite the fact that there had been a slight decrease in informality in the sector in the years prior to the pandemic, it was not enough. The enormous majority of domestic workers were unprotected and were forced to confront the pandemic situation without unemployment security or indemnification, without coverage for work accidents, without sick leave or health insurance.
This also suggests that in the years preceding the pandemic, there had been little progress in transforming the social representations that burden this sector. In other words, neither the state nor employers had started to understand them as workers in the full sense of the term, nor to recognize this as a labour relation that had to be formalized.
As the “special character” of Law 26844 conditions access to rights, it is worth asking: what would have changed if workers in private households had been included in the Labour Contract Law, like the rest of workers? One of the aspects that would undoubtedly have been different is access to the justice system under the same conditions as other workers and the access to unemployment benefits, which would have been immensely useful in an emergency situation such as that of COVID-19. However, those women were left to the mercy of the “good will” of their employers, who did not risk any legal sanctions for not fulfilling their duties given that they had not registered the employment relation. Additionally, the special character granted to this work by the legislation has also had effects at the level of wages, as its legal minimum has always been lower than that of other workers.
Workers’ Collective Action: A Silver Lining
We are going through a historical moment with considerable uncertainty at the global level, yet it is certain that inequality and exclusion are deepening, as is the social control by state security forces. At the same time, setbacks are being seen in terms of social, economic, and cultural rights. It is not difficult to see that women, gender dissidents, and migrant persons, especially the racialized and poor, are those most severely harmed. In several forums, it has been recognized that the struggle to defend rights that have been acquired will be increasingly necessary.
Faced with the limitations of the national law on domestic work and ILO Convention 189, we could predict that the associative fabric would play a fundamental role as a channel of mobilization and demand for recognition of rights for workers in the sector. While recognizing their limitations in terms of political and legal resources, Carolina Rosas documented that paid domestic workers are “ready to fight”. It is a struggle that crosses borders, that is concerned with the present and also projects toward the future in the region. It is, perhaps, in workers’ collective action where we can find a silver lining of optimism in the context of the current panorama.
In fact, despite major labour difficulties indicated in the previous section, over the course of 2020 diverse spaces continued to be very active. Among these, the party and feminist spaces of the Frente de Izquierda y de Trabajadores-Unidad [Workers’ Left Front-Unity] stand out, many of which also participate in the Ni Una Menos [Not One Woman Less] campaign. Women workers directly participated in these spaces, taking a leading role in activities. For example, there were demonstrations led by groups of workers on public roads, particularly in streets near the slums and informal settlements where many of them live in precarious conditions.
On the other hand, the importance of organizations of migrant women has also been documented, especially the Asociación de Mujeres Unidas, Migrantes y Refugiadas en Argentina [Association of United Women, Migrants, and Refugees in Argentina] that maintains strong ties with unions and civil society collectives in the region, as well as with national and international organizations.
Other activism in favour of the workers in private households has been carried out by the Unión Personal Auxiliar de Casas Particulares [Union of Auxiliary Personnel in Private Households]. In this case, it is the delegates who have represented the workers in different virtual meetings, in some cases with national authorities and ILO representatives present, where the main claims were focused on the need to enforce international regulations and Convention 189, and especially to increase the rate of registration of these workers.
Additionally, we can confirm a growing presence of domestic workers on social media, often building on feminist or leftist organizations, taking advantage of WhatsApp, Facebook, or Instagram to communicate, learn, make complaints, and organize their demands. In many of these forums, participants emphasize that their labour situation is not only associated with the class dimension, but also profoundly rooted in ethno-racial and gender constructions, as Louisa Acciari has expressed, those workers face a combination of multiple vectors of oppression and exploitation. While it is not possible to dig deeper into the role of social media in social movements, it is important to point out that, while many of those virtual spaces were created to denounce those women’s labour situations, they also started sharing other interests connected to gender-based violence, the law for voluntary interruption of pregnancy, police abuses against trans people and sex workers, among others. In other words, during the first year of the pandemic, social media was used to disseminate information about the historical foundations of the labour exploitation that traverses these workers, while also enabling them to address other sensitive topics and learn about new and old forms of resistance.
In short, while virtuality imposed limits on activism during the first year of the pandemic, it also enabled people, groups, and movements marked by different dimensions of oppression to connect from around the world. For example, an Instagram page called trabajadoras indomésticas [undomestic workers] started to question media discourses and, after obtaining visibility on social media, began to participate in international meetings about feminisms, labour, and migration. A network called planeta ella [her planet] was also created in which migrant women built an online transnational movement denouncing their working conditions. This has a power to question and bring people together that should be a topic of future analysis.
As the intersectional dimension of exclusion cannot be separated from the intersectional dimension of antagonisms and resistance, it is worth asking, to what extent domestic workers in Argentina will be able to strategically use their multiple social identities to construct alliances with feminist, migrant, and unemployed peoples’ movements, among others.
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