‘There’s always someone else’: Argentina’s struggle to improve domestic workers’ labour conditions

This screenshot from a commercial ad was part of a campaign to improve communication and information about domestic workers’ labour conditions in Argentina. Afip Cocina

Carmen is 48 years old. She has been a domestic worker since the age of 15, helping her mother, herself a domestic worker. A single migrant worker with three children, her mother left a rural area in north-eastern Argentina in the 1970s for Buenos Aires, in search for a better life.

“I have been in this job ever since. You think it is transitory but once you start it is difficult to move to something else… I have quit when I had my own children, but only for the first six or seven years. When my husband left […] this was the most rapid way to get some cash again.”

Her story confirms those statistics showing that this occupation tends to exclude women of reproductive age: 63% of these workers are over 40, in comparison with 40% among the rest of female workers. This is partly the result of a lack of maternity leave in Argentina till 2013 and partly because a lack of child-care facilities.

“They make me feel like family”

“What I value the most is that where I work now, they (her employers) are very considerate, they make me feel like family. I have been with them for 15 years.”

Carmen’s statement makes clear that personal and affective dimension are a crucial part of working conditions. In this occupation where workers’ weak position – in the context of highly asymmetrical labour relationships – makes them prone to being subject to mistreatment and different types of abuse.

Domestic workers in Argentina often come from poor economic and social backgrounds, including Carmen’s mother who left a rural region to find work in the city (Mendoza, 2014). Nicolas Alejandro/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Finding employers that are “like family” is often the best option for informal workers. Yet Carmen recently experienced significant improvements in her labour conditions. In 2006, after the government announced the availability of fiscal incentives for households who register their workers, she became, for the first time, a formal worker.

“They are so thoughtful, they have even registered me, no one else did that in so many years of work!”

She experienced this change as a personal favour from her employers but also realised the benefits of such formalisation:

“I now have a bank account and a debit card… I don’t have to carry the whole salary in cash at the end of the month, which is too dangerous.”

She has now access to medical insurance, salary receipts that can help her get a house loan or even a pension.

Better workers’ rights, but not for all

Complementing these formalisation efforts, a new and improved legislation for domestic workers was passed in 2013 expanding these workers’ rights. In line with the rights of the rest of private waged workers in the country, Carmen is now entitled to a month of paid holidays as well as pay raises and insurance.

Yet, Carmen’s benefits are still far from being a reality for the whole sector.

“When I travel by train and chat to other women [also domestic workers], I realise that I’m privileged: most of them still work ‘en negro’ [in the black economy] and they have to beg for a pay raise or paid holidays and things like that. They know that is their right to be registered, but that really depends on the employer, that’s why I tell you I’m so lucky to be with these excellent people”.

Women often rely on their employers and their good will to obtain better work conditions (San Isidro, Buenos Aires, 2003). Adam Jones/Flickr, CC BY-ND

One million women are employed as domestic workers

These kinds of policies are particularly important since in Argentina – as it happens in Latin America as a whole – the rate of formal registration of this sector has been historically low.

Until the beginning of the 21st century, the formal rate of domestic service hovered around 5%. The situation is even more problematic given the significant weight of domestic service in the country’s occupational structure (in line with regional trends in general).

In effect, domestic service constitutes an occupation with low barriers to entry that, in unequal societies, tends to absorb significant portions of the female population. In Argentina, almost 1 million women participate in this activity. They represent 7% of all workers in the country, and nearly 13% of all working women and close to 16% of all female salaried workers

Recent decades saw a set of measures of economic and information initiatives to improve the labour conditions of these workers. Not surprisingly, this economic incentive proved highly effective in raising formalisation rates, which rose to nearly 15%.

Spreading awareness and innovation

Additionally, this policy was accompanied by an important awareness-raising campaign that included TV and radio spots, advertisements in the street and in public transportation. Yet the situation and rights of domestic workers remains difficult to monitor as domestic service is an activity that takes place within private households where – due to constitutional protection – labour inspectors cannot enter.

An ad to spread awareness about domestic work.

In this respect, and as a final note in terms of policies applied, the Argentinian experience also shows some innovative practices. For example, in the 2000s the National Tax Office set up stalls in front of private neighbourhoods and high-income residential buildings for labour inspection purposes.

Since both types of residences tend to have special doors for domestic personnel, workers approached at these entrances and asked few questions on their conditions. Tax officers requested employers the exact names and address of their employees, and when there were no records of registered domestic workers, they were called to appear in court.

In 2017, the same governmental agency has sent letters to the richest 10% of households in the country that do not declare hiring a domestic worker. The text asked for sworn statements confirming the situation and warning that there were significant penalties for providing false information. While the direct impact of such initiatives is limited, they act as exemplary measures and show that controls and sanctions exist and reinforce the idea of illegality of informal work in this sector.

Domestic workers organise to fight for their rights with government support. Here in Argentina at a seminar with the International Domestic Workers Federation, 2017. Claire E. Hobden/IDWF, CC BY-NC-ND

“There’s always someone else available”

While modest, the growth of formalisation rates has started to establish new practices, discourses and parameters – where the notions of rights, obligations and commitments start to acquire an increasingly important role.

Registration is still far away from being the norm, however. Despite all efforts and advances, three out of four domestic workers remain unregistered. Helping these workers move forward in the formalisation is particularly difficult in highly unequal societies where the offer of these services tends to saturate its demand. As one worker states:

“There’s always someone else available for doing the job for less, that’s the joke.”

Precisely for this reason, it becomes necessary to keep on establishing new mechanisms – be it economic incentives, campaigns oriented to persuasion, control, sanctions, etc. – to help ensure that more and more workers can leave the cloudy world of informality.

3 questions to Francisca Peyreyra on informal workers in Argentina, AFD.