She's Bringing Mexico City's Domestic Workers Out of the Shadows

She's Bringing Mexico City's Domestic Workers Out of the Shadows

Like millions of other women around Mexico, Soledad Aragón has compassion for domestic workers as a result of her experience employing them.

SourcePhotographs and Video by Sye Williams for OZY

Why you should care

Because the capital’s home workers have been overlooked, overworked and underpaid for too long.

When Soledad Aragón was offered the job of employment secretary for the recently installed Mexico City government, she was seven months pregnant and about to take maternity leave from the International Labor Organization. But the city’s first female mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, wasn’t put off — au contraire. Her choice of Aragón, she said at the time, made the point that women’s rights and protections were going to be a focus of her administration.

Aragón, who has been in the job since early this year, has taken that pledge to heart. As we talk in her downtown office, a nanny sits in the back room with her infant son. This is her first position in public office; she is not a career politician — her efforts to integrate the demands of mothering with her new responsibilities are genuine. They are also a logical extension of her academic interests since entering university, where she earned an undergraduate degree, followed by a master’s and a Ph.D. in employment-related studies.

Like millions of other women around the country, Aragón has compassion for domestic workers as a result of her experience employing them. Housewives and mothers — which in Spanish are called ama de la casa, or head of the house — are often those who manage the workload and supervise the activities of domestic workers. During meetings with groups that represent domestic workers, she heard her fair share of horror stories: Long hours, no paid holidays and sexual abuse were among them. Now she’s determined to bring these workers basic labor protections for the first time.

“In general, their work situation is very precarious,” says the 42-year-old. “The biggest challenge for Mexico City is to improve the quality of our jobs. At the moment, 5 in 10 jobs are informal and have no social benefits or social security, pensions, mortgages, childcare and so on.”

Anyone who has spent time in Mexico City can testify to the enormity of its informal employment sector. Street stalls and taco stands, shoe-shiners and parking attendants crowd the streets of every neighborhood. But Aragón has zeroed in on one of the least visible sectors within the informal group — domestic workers — as her initial focus.

Riding on the popularity of Roma, the Oscar-winning film by Alfonso Cuarón, Aragón intends to bring this female-dominated sector out of the shadows and onto the city’s books. Roma’s central character, Cleo, is representative of many of the women Aragón hopes to reach: Indigenous and poorly educated, they leave rural homes to work in major cities and live with families of a higher social class. Some 60 percent are between 40 and 60 years old, and many have left behind several children of their own.

Domestic workers in Mexico, as in other countries, do jobs that vary from cleaning and cooking to looking after their employers’ children. A mere 1 percent have a signed contract with their employer, according to Aragón, and only 1 in 10 gets paid holidays. Some two-thirds earn less than double the minimum wage, amounting to just 5,000 pesos ($260) a month.

Of Mexico’s 2 million home workers, some 212,000 are in the capital, according to government figures, and they occupy approximately 10 percent of all informal jobs in Mexico City. The creation of new standards here in the capital could set a powerful example for the rest of the country. Aragón and her team helped create the political will for Mexico to sign onto ILO Convention No. 189 on the rights of domestic workers — a priority of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that the Senate is expected to ratify soon. Signing the convention, which past governments have refused since it was published in 2011, will oblige Mexico to adjust its federal laws pertaining to employment and social security. Currently, both laws exclude domestic workers from protections enjoyed by other sectors; as a result, they’re not legally entitled to pensions, loans or health services — those benefits are purely voluntary and up to the employer to sign up for them or not.

The prevalence of these jobs means employment when there are few alternatives for this marginalized sector of Mexican society.

Marcelina Bautista is a director of Mexico’s union for domestic workers, the Center for Support and Training of Domestic Workers, and a former domestic worker herself. She says that until now Mexico’s government has failed to recognize the rights of one of the country’s most important service sectors, but Aragón’s team is making significant progress.

“For us, this is a huge step forward for the government,” she says. “There is a lack of knowledge about their rights; our work isn’t valued; and people think we should be grateful that people give us work. We have to stand up for that and against the resistance from employers to fulfill our rights.”

But hovering over the legislative hurdle is an even bigger one: changing the culture. Women working in the homes of Mexicans is an established tradition — as is, generally speaking, their submissive nature and subordination. Their invisibility exposes them to abuse, but the prevalence of these jobs means employment when there are few alternatives for this marginalized sector of Mexican society.

“A big challenge is how to make society more sensitive and make them understand — both workers understanding their own rights as well as those who employ them,” says Aragón. The risk she must avoid by pushing to register domestic workers is prompting employers to hide or lie about how many workers they employ or, worse still, fire them. Creating incentives for employers, therefore, is key, and the scheme being launched by Aragón’s team includes worker training in areas such as home safety; baby, child and adult care; and cooking for those wishing to specialize. Arguably the incentive appeals to both sides: Workers can improve their skills and demand better pay, while employers can expect better, more skilled help.

Graciela De La Luna is a doctor in Mexico City who for 14 years has employed the same woman to help with her children and housework. She says she has always paid for her employee’s social security, and welcomed the new rules and pilot project. “Part of what is behind giving them social security [and other benefits] is the intent of building serious work relationships that show commitment and protection for both, especially them.”

After just one week into a pilot project, Aragón counted 300 registered names. In addition to registering their domestic workers, employers can use the website to calculate, according to the hours worked and the range of chores, what contribution they should make to social security payments. Over the coming year, a publicity campaign will aim to boost the number of registrations, getting as many as possible on the city’s books.

For Aragón, what’s most important is planting the seeds of change.

“Registrations and legal changes are just the first steps in a long and complicated journey.”

OZY’s 5 Questions for Soledad Aragón

  • What was the last book you read? The Moons of Jupiter, by Alice Munro.
  • What worries you most about the world? Social, economic and gender inequality; access to rights.
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? The love of my family. (And coffee.)
  • Who is your hero? José Martínez Santiago, my grandfather, now passed away.
  • Name one thing on your bucket list. I want to compete in a triathlon.

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