MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — Rosario Zapata, affectionately called Chayito by her employers and family, climbs a small ladder to reach the figurines on shelves above her head. As she meticulously cleans each one, she recalls how she got her start cleaning houses.
“Because of a financial need, my mother sent me to work at the age of 15,” Zapata says.
Zapata is unfazed by her education being cut short to clean homes, insisting her older sister would always accompany her if she had to walk home in the dark. She considered her path in life normal; she was surrounded by girls doing the same thing.
The mother of three has been a domestic worker for nearly 35 years. Two of the homes she travels to each week are 40 minutes north of her home in southern Mexico City, and the third home requires a two-hour commute to the State of Mexico, all by public transport. The physical work has kept her fit and in good health. Zapata considers herself one of the lucky ones, working for a family that treats her well.
Mexico has one of the highest numbers of paid domestic workers in the Americas. It’s a job that often extends beyond cleaning to cooking, gardening and even babysitting. Many start in this industry as children, forced to leave school and support their families. Their limited education means they can’t leave domestic work and must resign themselves to low pay, poor work conditions and sometimes abuse.
Zapata belongs to the 98% of domestic workers who don’t have a proper contract. Until 2019, domestic workers were excluded from the social security that every other worker in Mexico is entitled to, which affords health care, sick pay, maternity pay and a retirement fund. But in 2018, the Supreme Court of Mexico extended this protection to domestic workers, declaring the exclusion unconstitutional. While social security became available to domestic workers in 2019, the requirement for their employers to register them for this benefit was optional. Of the 2.3 million people, mostly women, who do this work in Mexico, only 43,823 were signed up for social security as of March 2022, more than three years after the ruling.
Aline Suárez del Real , GPJ Mexico
In November 2022, this registration became mandatory, with employers facing fines should they not comply. But Marcelina Bautista, an activist and former domestic worker for 22 years, says the reform is still not enough to ensure the rights of domestic workers.
Bautista, who in 2000 founded Centro Nacional para la Capacitación Profesional y Liderazgo de las Empleadas del Hogar, an organization that advocates for domestic workers and offers support and training, says there is still a long way to go.
“The fact that laws have been passed, the fact that the law is in existence today — these rights aren’t necessarily being respected by employers,” she says.
For Mexico City-based domestic worker Edith Rosas, benefits would help, but it’s not the only issue she faces. As a single mother in her 50s without many employment qualifications, the industry presents the highest-paid work option for her. She has been cleaning and cooking for different families since she was 19 years old, all while raising her three children. She recalls how she didn’t eat well when she started, pushing herself to please her employer, but it made her sick. She tried to leave domestic work and took a job as a cashier, only to return to the industry some years later to earn more money. Sadly, she says, conditions had not improved.
“Not all bosses are bad, but many of them treat you worse than a dog,” Rosas says. “They’re rude, overbearing and classist.”
Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico
During the decades she’s been looking after other people’s homes, she’s been exposed to all manners of mistreatment: accused of stealing without any proof, expected to work overtime without additional pay or notice, subjected to yelling and derogatory language, and charged for using her employers’ cleaning supplies.
Rosas has experienced the challenge to obtain social security. One employer registered her, but Rosas says she was fired a few months later for not meeting their expectations — the ability to carry heavy furniture during a move, she says.
“They only gave me social security one time,” she says, referring to the family who fired her. “But not even three months later, the woman who employed me fired me very rudely. I told her that since she was firing me, she had to pay me three months’ worth of salary. No one’s going to give it to you. You have to jump through hoops.”
Bautista says attitudes toward domestic work need to change and both employer and employee have to be trained to manage social security.
“The work we are doing is for the workers to understand this is one of their rights,” she says. “They are unaware of their rights, and the employers don’t always have it on their radar either. This means that neither party knows what to do, how to do it, where to go and whether it’s mandatory or not.”
Bautista says her organization plans to train domestic workers to help “professionalize our colleagues’ work,” then place them in jobs that ensure they receive a signed contract, guaranteeing benefits.