Guatemalan Domestic Workers Normalize Labor Violations in Southeastern Mexico

Many Guatemalan migrants who work as domestic workers in southeastern Mexico suffer poor treatment, racism and aggression by their employers.

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Guatemalan Domestic Workers Normalize Labor Violations in Southeastern Mexico

Publication Date

Los Invisibles: Nuances of Migration Along Mexico’s Southern Border
Part 2 in a Series


TAPACHULA, MEXICO – It is almost 7 p.m. on a Sunday, which is supposed to be domestic worker Carmen Hermelinda López’s only day off. But she still has to work, as she does every night, making “quesadillas” – flatbreads filled with cheese and other ingredients – at her employers’ roadside stand in Tapachula, a city in southeastern Mexico near the border with Guatemala.

When the stand closes, López, a 29-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, will still have to clean and close it for the night, a task that usually takes until 2 a.m.

López will then rise at 7 a.m. to make breakfast for her “patrones,” as domestic workers tend to call their employers. After, she will wash the dishes, sweep and mop the house, clean the bathroom, accompany her boss to the market and cook the noonday meal.

As López completes the household chores, she also cares for her 2-year-old daughter, who lives with her in a room of the house where she works. At 7 p.m., López will return to the quesadilla stand.

Mexican labor laws entitle domestic workers to a day and a half of rest each week. They require employers to let workers rest for nine hours each night and three hours between morning and afternoon shifts, capping the workday at 12 hours and the workweek at 66 hours.

The government also sets a minimum salary in Chiapas, the state where Tapachula is located, of 61.38 Mexican pesos ($4.70) per day. A domestic worker who works the legal maximum number of hours for the legal minimum wage would earn 5.12 Mexican pesos (40 cents) per hour.

López, in contrast, gets no day off and works far more hours than the law stipulates – 121 hours per week. Her monthly salary is 2,000 pesos ($150) – or about 3.90 pesos (30 cents) per hour.

López spends half her wages on her and her daughter’s needs. She sends the remainder to her 10-year-old son, who lives with López’s mother in San Marcos, located directly across the border from Tapachula in Guatemala. López is her children’s sole financial support since her husband was murdered while she was pregnant with their daughter.

In mid-July, López had completed almost three months at her job and had planned to quit at the end of the month because she could no longer stand the late hours, she says.

“The work does not bore me,” she says. “In the country, we love to work because that is how it is there. What I do not like is the sleepiness. I am unable to sleep too much.”

She also felt her job was not allowing her to care for her daughter properly. She planned to visit her son in Guatemala and then to return to Tapachula to find a new job as a domestic worker, as she has done on earlier occasions.

“If I find a nice job where I feel good, I stay three or six months, I just send money [home],” she says. “But when I do not find a good job, I stay for just a month or 15 days to be able to cover my expenses, my transportation costs and things for my little girl, nothing more, and I return home.”

López lives and works in Mexico illegally, without a visa or work permission, she says. But she decided to come to Tapachula because she earns more money here than in her country.

Many Guatemalan women who, like López, illegally migrate to Tapachula in search of jobs as domestic workers suffer mistreatment and abuses at the hands of their employers. Their entrance into Mexico without legal permission, the unregulated nature of domestic work, racism, and the violent contexts some leave behind help to create conditions in which abuse can go unchecked. Since June, a nongovernmental organization has been training some domestic workers to teach their peers about their rights and to encourage them to organize, while the state government is developing a program of services for domestic workers.

Most domestic workers in Mexico work in the informal sector, which means the government does not tax or regulate their labor. They do not receive benefits or pensions since the work is largely unregulated and many of the women who do it have entered the country illegally, according to a report by Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova, a human rights center in Tapachula dedicated to defending the rights of migrants in southern Mexico.

Domestic work is a common option for many Guatemalan women in Tapachula, says Martha Rojas, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur, a public research and higher education institution with campuses in various southern border cities. They accept more precarious working conditions than Mexican women do because they need work and entered the country illegally.

There are no official statistics showing how many Guatemalan women work as domestic workers in Tapachula.

The majority of Guatemalans who work as domestic workers in Mexico are indigenous girls between ages 12 and 17, say Natalia Orozco and Neverilda Cardona, health promoters with Médecins du Monde, an international humanitarian aid organization that has been working with this population since 2010, and according to the Fray Matías de Córdova human rights center report. These women tend to come from the Guatemalan border departments of San Marcos and Huehuetenango and are Ma’am – an indigenous Mayan group.

Individual bosses – rather than labor laws – dictate domestic workers’ hours and conditions as well as their salaries, which range between 1,000 pesos ($75) and 2,200 pesos ($170) monthly, Orozco and Cardona say and the human rights center report confirms. Most domestic workers work more than eight hours daily, according to the human rights center report.

Additionally, employers often pay domestic workers late or use it to control them, according to the health promoters and human rights center report. Sometimes, employers accuse the workers of damaging or stealing things in the homes where they work in order to fire them without paying them.

Some employers give their workers leftover food and force them to eat standing up or outside the house, Orozco and Cardona say. There are also those who “pay” their workers with food and lodging or subtract these services from their salaries.

On top of poor treatment, some employers threaten, verbally and physically assault, and sexually harass and abuse domestic workers, Orozco and Cardona say and the human rights center report confirms. Cardona has seen 11 cases of sexual abuse against domestic workers during nearly three years of working with these women.

Women looking for work head to Parque Central Miguel Hidalgo, a park in downtown Tapachula where domestic workers often spend their Sundays off. There, they meet potential employers and make informal work agreements with them, often with little information about what lies ahead.

“Almost the majority of us who are here as migrants and as domestic workers go by pure trial and error because we sit in the park with our bag, our backpack of clothing, risking everything,” López says. “You do not know if you are going to arrive at a house, a ranch. You do not know if you are going toward something good or bad.”

The city’s tropical climate greens the park’s trees and forces passersby to seek shade on benches and the edges of planters. Here, starting at noon, it is common to see domestic workers waiting for their friends who are also domestic workers. Some sit and chat, while others stroll around the park.

The easiest to spot are those who wear a “corte,” a traditional Ma’am dress consisting of a silky blouse and an enveloping, brightly colored skirt. But many women, particularly the youngest, have traded the corte for modern wear, such as jeans, T-shirts and dresses.

Wearing traditional dress can provoke discrimination, López says. In the past, employers have called her clothing disgusting. Employers have also insulted her by calling her “india” or “chacha,” both pejorative terms for domestic workers in Mexico.

“There is discrimination – too much,” she says. “Sometimes [employers] do not like how you are, or how you talk or your way of dressing.”

She has endured many offensive comments and other injustices from her employers in order to keep her job, especially since she knows that having a daughter makes it harder for her to get work, she says.

Many domestic workers do not report mistreatment and abuse because they fear that if they approach Mexican authorities, they will deport them, Orozco and Cardona say and the human rights center report confirms. Many do not know that migrants who entered the country illegally have the legal right to file a complaint.

Workers and employers normalize acts of discrimination and violence because of the informality of domestic work, according to the human rights center report.

Lorena Noemí Isidro, 14, left Guatemala two years ago in order to help her mother, also a domestic worker in Tapachula, to support her four siblings. After arriving in Mexico illegally in 2011, she worked as a house cleaner in various cities throughout Chiapas before arriving in Tapachula eight months ago.

Lorena sleeps on the floor because the house where she works is small and there is no bed for her. Her patrones told her that they would move to a new house in September where she would have a bedroom with a bed.

“The house is going to be bigger, I am going to have my own room, and they are going to raise my salary,” she says, trustingly.

She currently earns 1,500 Mexican pesos ($115) monthly.

Lorena starts her workday at 6 a.m., when she gets up to make coffee for her boss, she says. She spends the morning caring for her employers’ 2-year-old son. In the afternoon, she cleans the house. Her shift ends after she puts the child to sleep, which sometimes does not happen until 11 p.m.

Before going to the park on Sundays, her only day “off,” Lorena has to make coffee for her employers, sweep and mop the house and wash the dishes.

Despite her young age, Lorena has had previous jobs as a domestic worker. She started working at age 12, even though Mexican law forbids children to work before age 14.

She recalls one employer who used to reprimand her while holding her hand to Lorena’s face as if she were going to hit her. Another employer accused her of stealing money and made fun of the way she dressed and ate. The employer even forbade Lorena to touch her son, even though it was Lorena’s job to care for him.

That is why Lorena says she feels good at her current job and thinks that her employers treat her well and respect her.

Many domestic workers normalize mistreatment because they come from situations in which violence is common, Cardona says.

“There are some who from their own homes are victims [of violence] and come here to put an end [to it],” she says, “to whom the patrón can be the worst, but they put up with it because they think that it is normal.”

Girls who have suffered violence at home view coming to Tapachula as a way to escape, and they treat the house where they arrive as a safe haven, Cardona says.

Speaking in labored Spanish, a 16-year-old Ma’am girl who migrated illegally to Tapachula to find a job as a domestic worker says that her mother and aunt have hit her since she was a girl. Her uncle tried to rape her in June when she was in Guatemala.

The girl, who declined to publish her name because of the stigma associated with attempted rape and her profession, says she told her mother what her uncle had tried to do and her mother replied that she should have hit him.

“But I could not because he covered my mouth, my hands behind [me], his foot was raising my corte,” she says. “I could not do anything because men have a strength that women [do not].”

Even though the teenager does not work right now as she looks for a new domestic worker post in Tapachula, she says she does not want to return to Guatemala because she is afraid of encountering her uncle.

Domestic workers are also at greater risk of abuse because they are largely invisible as they try to pass unseen for fear of deportation.

“The strategy is to not talk, to have as little contact as possible with other people, to not go to the doctor, to not ask for anything, to not demand anything,” Rojas says. “So, the survival strategy is silence.”

On top of this is the stigma attached to domestic work in Mexico as well as the layers of discrimination many Guatemalan domestic workers face for being foreign and indigenous for living in the country illegally.

Some members of the middle and upper classes in Tapachula, which are the same demographic that employs Guatemalan domestic workers, have xenophobic and classist attitudes, says Diego Lorente Pérez de Eulate, director of the human rights center. These attitudes can foster abuse.

Médecins du Monde, where Cardona and Orozco work, is one of the only organizations in Tapachula offering services specifically to domestic workers. The organization, which offers health education, has served about 2,300 domestic workers during the last three years, Cardona says. Cardona and Orozco both give talks that focus on health but also tackle issues of human rights, self-esteem and violence.

The health promoters’ work has helped domestic workers to change their ideas and to start defending themselves against their employers, says Lorena, who once had a boss who told her that she was ugly and worthless.

She turned to Médecins du Monde and began to see herself differently.

“I began to understand that it is not true, that, here, nobody is ugly and that one has to value herself,” Lorena says. “When I came here, they lifted my spirits. Because when I first came, I let it happen to me. But coming here, the girls told me: ‘No. Because you, too, have rights, just like those from here. Because you are Guatemalan, but you have the same rights.’”

The Mexican and Guatemalan governments do not have programs specifically for domestic workers or programs to inform them of their rights, say Sergio Aquino, the undersecretary for migrant services for Chiapas’ Ministry for the Development of the Southern Border and Liaison for International Cooperation, and Héctor Sipac, the Guatemalan consul in Tapachula.

Both officials say they will help migrants who come to their offices by telling them how to file criminal complaints, informing them about their rights and giving them immigration information. But they can help only those migrants who come to them, since they do not have outreach teams to meet migrants where they live and work.

Aquino’s agency began a project in May related to domestic worker issues, he says. But he did not provide further information about the activities and goals of the project, saying that his agency was still assessing the situation.

Aquino, who also employs domestic workers in his home, encourages domestic workers who suffer mistreatment to report it in order to sensitize employers.

“[So that] we [who] contract this type of services because we need them are conscious that we have to respect them, that we have to give them a fair contract, a fair salary, and to give them their rights that belong to them like any person,” he says.

Rojas and Lorente both say that domestic workers need to organize themselves in order to become more visible and to defend their rights.

In June, the Fray Matías de Córdova human rights center formed a program that aims to train domestic workers to promote human and labor rights among their peers.

The training program’s members include those who have shown the most leadership in the talks that Cardona and Orozco give. The project is a joint effort between Médecins du Monde and the human rights center.

The classes occur on Sundays, the day most workers are free. This way, while most domestic workers are passing the day at the park, a handful of others have begun to learn more about their rights.

López is one of the most enthusiastic members.

“This school is making me open my eyes,” she says. “There are many questions that I feel have not been answered yet, and I believe, think and hope that they help us to respond to these questions.”

Lorente hopes that when the course ends in October, the workers will form a community group and begin to gain visibility, he says.

Although the struggles of migration have frequented the media, coverage has been shallow about the diverse issues that Central American migrants who enter Mexico illegally face as they try to settle in the country or travel north. Mayela Sánchez, senior reporter for GPJ’s Mexico News Desk, spent one month along Mexico’s southern border delving into the nuances of employment, health, violence, gender justice and various human rights issues that push people to migrate and confront them along their journeys. GPJ will feature this series on the first Wednesday of October, November and December. 


This article was translated from Spanish.