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Domestic workers and their Right to the City in Latin America

An urgent claim this International Women’s Day

By Prof Valentina Montoya Robledo

Assistant Professor at Universidad de los Andes (Colombia). Director of the Transmedia project Invisible Commutes. S.J.D. and LL.M. at Harvard Law School. M.A., LL.B., B.A. at Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, Colombia). Researcher, advocate, and consultant on public transportation, women’s rights, human rights, and rights of people with disabilities.


March 8 marks International Women's Day. In essence, it is a socialist day, celebrated for the first time in 1909 in the United States. Some versions of the commemoration speak to the repression of female textile workers in New York in the XIX century. Others, to diverse left-wing and suffragist female movements in the United States, Europe, and China at the beginning of the twentieth century. Little has been told about the connection between women's socialist claims and the Right to the City -a bundle of human rights in the urban fabric-. It is precisely the subtext of this post, in which Latin American female domestic workers are the protagonists.

Domestic workers in Latin America: numbers, relevance and rights

In Latin America, the International Labour Organization estimates that domestic workers toil 14.8 million, 91.1% of which are women. Together, these women make up approximately the entire population of countries like Ecuador or Bolivia. In Latin America, they add up to one in every five wage-working women, compared to other regions where domestic workers account for one in every twenty-five. Many of these women are indigenous, Afro-descendants or peasants, coming into the city searching for economic opportunities. Nevertheless, they linger at the lowest level of the economic ladder, as domestic work remains a highly informal occupation. For instance, according to the Ministry of Health, approximately 85% of the domestic workers were informal workers before the pandemic in Colombia.

Domestic workers support the whole society, especially in Latin America. The work they perform in our homes allows us to have higher-paying jobs. Their care work is vital to raise our kids, to care for our elders, our sick, and people with disabilities. Many of us would not enjoy free time, a clean and tidy house, and a freshly cooked meal if not for these women. In a groundbreaking decision mirroring socialist feminist ideas, the Colombian Constitutional Court granted domestic workers the Right to a prima de servicios -an employment benefit from which they had previously been excluded because the home was not considered a productive economic unit-. Justices decided that domestic workers should receive this employment benefit, among others, as retribution for the economic and social benefits that employers receive from their work. This decision preceded Law 1788 of 2016 that granted domestic workers the prima de servicios.

Photo taken by Daniel Gómez Restrepo, Project 'Invisible Commutes'

Domestic workers’ labor and employment situations remain highly invisible, both to governments and society—the high rates of labor informality evidence this invisibility. Yet, as in the case of female textile workers, suffragists, and other left-wing activists whose struggles gave birth to the commemoration of International Women's Day, domestic workers have increasingly mobilized in Latin America to fight for their labor rights. The Afro-Colombian domestic workers’ union UTRASD, founded in 2013 in Medellín, Colombia, is one of these groups. Others, such as the Asociación de Mujeres Negras Trabajadoras (AMUNETRAP) in Perú, the Centro de Apoyo y Capacitación para Trabajadoras del Hogar (CACEH) in Mexico, and the International Domestic Workers Federation are also part of this struggle.

Most of these organizations’ work focuses on employment and labor rights, geographically situated within the household where domestic workers work. Yet, little has been explored regarding the connection between these women's employment and the urban fabric. It is a crucial point when considering that in 2014, Latin America was the most urbanized region in the world. With the rapid urbanization, domestic workers increasingly started living in their own homes, no longer sleeping in their employers’ households. Their own families came to live in the cities. Increasing housing prices caused higher and middle-income house sizes to shrink and eliminate the undignified domestic worker’s room, driving them to inhabit their own homes. For example, in 2017, 83% of Colombian domestic workers lived in their houses. This shift from living in their employers' homes to living in their own homes increased these women's interaction with the cities. Nevertheless, these urban spaces do not respond to their needs while limiting their access to the Right to the City, as will be described below.

Domestic workers’ limited access to the Right to the City in Latin America

French philosopher and sociologist Henry Lefebvre initially coined The Right to the City. It has later developed to refer to a bundle of human rights in the urban fabric. These rights preserved in the World Charter on the Right to the City (2004) are “…based on an integral view, which includes civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights enshrined in the International Human Rights Treaties.”

Domestic workers traverse Latin American cities every day for work. Their informal and low-paid job tethers them to live in the urban periphery, very far away from their jobs. As a result, domestic workers experience highly long commutes. The Invisible Commutes project has documented that domestic workers can spend seven hours traversing Bogotá, six hours roundtrip in Lima, five hours back and forth in Sao Paulo, and four hours commuting in a smaller city like Medellín. In fact, according to data from Bogotá’s mobility survey (2015), domestic work is the occupation where people spend the longest time commuting among all professions in the city.

But why are these commutes so long? Well, first, because these women can barely pay for cheap and precarious housing in the cities’ periphery, which implies a violation of their Right to proper housing. Second, because they are captive commuters of public transit, this transit lacks proper connections for their trips. And third, and more importantly, the residential places where they work are not well connected to public transit and lack adequate pedestrian infrastructure. These last two factors manifest their limited access to their Right to transport and public mobility.

Transportation and urban planners often ignore that care work is actual work and do not plan nor create proper routes and infrastructure to high and middle-income residential areas. A case in point is Bogotá's recent Territorial Ordering Plan (POT for its name in Spanish) which, despite being marketed as a care work plan, expressly excludes paid domestic work from any planning scheme. The POT contains explicit language only referring to unpaid care work, it lacks transportation planning to respond to their needs, and reinstates the idea that residential neighborhoods are sites where paid care work is not performed. This decision goes against Article 5 on the sustainable and equitable urban development part of the World Charter on the Right to the City. Likewise, high and middle-income residents often chose their homes tied to the idea of exclusivity. This idea implies that areas distant from public services such as transportation provide them with more social status and increase their property value. It can be better understood when reading Teresa Caldeira’s "City of Walls," referring to these classed dynamics in Sao Paulo.

During these very long commutes, domestic workers often face various sources of violence and financial struggles. For instance, domestic worker Maria Rocío explained that once:

"I took the bus, as usual, to go to work […] There was a woman in the seat that I used. I felt it was normal to sit beside her. When I sat, the woman stood up and went to the back of the bus. And another woman who was there asked her: "why did you leave your seat?" She answered: "Because that Negra sat beside me and I hate black people, they disgust me ."I felt that was a racist act because I think we are all sons of God. And that is not the first episode; it is very common for me" (Personal translation).

Domestic worker Elena also recounted:

"I experienced a case of [sexual] harassment in a bus […]. I came out late from work, around eight or nine in the night, and I took the bus. Basically, the only one that comes to this part of town in Neiva. Well […] the bus was super full, but anyways I took it because it was the last one […]. More or less in Timanco a guy took the bus. He was drunk. He went up and started touching me. When he touched me, I thought it was because we were very overcrowded, normal. I accommodated myself, and the man was rubbing my ass, and so I told him: "Hey sir, what is wrong with you?" […] He told me: "Oh, it must be because of your beauty that I am touching you." I told him: "Well, I might not be beautiful, but I deserve respect; you are touching me." And well, I discussed with that guy for a while, telling him to respect me and threatening to hit him. But the bus was completely overcrowded. There were ladies, sirs, youngsters, everyone was there, and absolutely no one dared to tell him: "hey, respect the lady […]". Well, I practically felt alone there […] with that guy, although I was surrounded by so many people […]." (Personal translation)

Elena's testimony shreds evidence on gender-based violence, violating Article 1 from the Charter.

Other domestic workers have explained their financial struggles. For example, Maria Ernestina is a domestic worker who lives in Lima, Peru. She spends around six hours commuting. Here is her story:

"In total, in my commute, I spent one sol 50 to go to the station, in the station I spent three soles, up to that point is four soles 50, to get to Angamos I spent two soles 50, so far that is 4,50 plus 2,50 that is 5, 6, 7 soles. When I get to Angamos, I have to catch a small bus that is one sol 50, 7, 8, 8 soles 50. So daily, when you add up eight soles 50 one way, plus the eight soles 50 back, daily I spend 17 soles commuting, and the lady does not give me money to pay for my commutes. So, this is what we spend commuting, and what I spend commuting in Perú, and this impacts my economy, and affects my income because I spend a lot of money commuting”. (Personal translation)

The minimum wage in Perú is around 930 soles. Following Maria Ernestina’s story, if she works about 20 days per month, she is spending close to 36% of her income in her commute. In cities like Bogotá and Medellín, domestic workers can spend more than 25% of their income to their commute. During the pandemic, limited access to public transportation forced many to pay for costly taxis. Likewise, informal transit lacking governmental control also increased its price during this time. The whole situation constitutes severe financial poverty, which violates these women’s Right to justice that is part of the Right to the City (Article 10 of the Charter).

Finally, the immensely long commutes derive from health hazards for domestic workers. According to findings from the paper "Breathing in and out: Domestic workers high exposure to air pollution in Bogotá's public transportation system” (in press), “[…] in their long trips (70 minutes on average per trip based on data from Bogotá's Mobility Survey- 2015), […] on average, they inhale 179 µg of particulate matter (PM) 2.5, which is 67% more than the average daily dose that men inhale (107 µg) during their commutes.” This constant inhalation of toxic particles affects their cardiovascular and respiratory health and can lead to death. In addition, it violates their Right to the environment, which is also part of their Right to the City.

In the end, domestic workers' access to the Right to the City is hugely deficient in Latin American urban areas. Although their fight for more employment and labor rights remains relevant, if the time they spend in the public space represents a constant violation of the individual human rights that constitute their Right to the City, then we must start to connect both. Commemorating International Women's Day entails going beyond the original socialist struggles of women for better working conditions and linking it to the vibrant urban reality that marks our day-to-day experience in the city. In particular, if we want to improve domestic workers’ rights and commemorate their contribution, especially to Latin American society, States must ensure every Human Right that composes their Right to the City.

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