Flor Maria Cuesta got her first job as a maid at age 15, and she says she is used to hearing excuses. Sometimes when it was time to collect her salary, her employers would check their wallets, act surprised, and apologize for not having enough cash on hand to pay her in full. Another time she was fired for calling in sick, which was viewed as "unreliable." She was rarely paid for working overtime, even if that meant an 18-hour work day -- washing windows, mopping floors, folding shirts. "The worst is when you've laid down, put your feet up, and think you've finally gotten some peace, then someone comes along and asks you to make them a juice or something," she says.
Cuesta is among 40 Afro-Colombian women who have joined a union meant to win greater rights for maids working in Colombia's second-largest city, Medellin. Known as UTRASD, the union's aims are basic: ensure that those who hire maids in Medellin are paying them a legal salary, including social security, transport, and other benefits guaranteed under the law. "There are too many abuses going on," says union leader Maria Roa Porja, who worked as a domestic servant until March 2013, when UTRASD was officially established.
UTRASD has become active in Colombia just as domestic workers in other parts of Latin America are enjoying greater access to labor rights than ever before. In early April, Brazil approved a landmark constitutional amendment that granted maids the legal right to an eight-hour work day, overtime and severance pay. Previous reforms in Brazil entitled domestic workers to health and retirement funds. But throughout much of the region, maids have little access to such benefits. A column that recently ran in a Mexican magazine calling maids "ungrateful, whining, abusive thieves" was one indication that it isn't just labor laws that have to change -- it's attitudes.
As made clear in a study by Medellin-based labor rights organization the National Union School, the city's domestic workers have had a hard time convincing some employers that they are entitled to fair pay. The study cites one anecdote in which a woman called her black maid "uppity" for demanding a salary for three weeks of work, adding, "Didn't you use to be a slave?"
Under Colombian law, domestic servants have the right to earn Colombia's minimum monthly wage -- which amounts to about $333 -- while their employers are required to pay for their benefits. Basically, this just doesn't happen. According to the National Union School study, about 62 percent of those surveyed reported earning less than the minimum, even though the majority worked over the legal limit of 10 hours per day.
One problem is that many domestic servants in Colombia -- and other Latin American countries -- work at several households and are paid a daily rate. Someone who cleans five different houses a week for, say, 30,000 pesos (about $16) per household would bring home a monthly salary that's just over Colombia's minimum. Because so many domestic workers rely on a ever-changing roster of households, this means that few employers are aware that they are legally obligated to collectively pay for their maid's Social Security, health care, transport costs, and vacation. And few maids are willing to pressure their multiple employers to chip in and pay for these rights.
Cultural attitudes have discouraged domestic workers from standing up for themselves, says Sandra Muñoz, who helped author the National Union School study. "Unfortunately a lot of employers see it as, I'm doing you a favor, I'm giving you a job, you should be grateful." And since household chores are seen as "women's" work -- "work that you grew up seeing your mother do" -- this means some Colombians don't view it as "a real job."
Colombia does have a national union for domestic workers, SINTRASEDON, active for over 30 years. The Medellin-based union, while open for domestic workers from all backgrounds to join, focuses on lobbying for Afro-Colombians, who make up the majority of the city's domestic labor force.
Because these domestic workers are paid under-the-table and have little idea of their legal rights, they end up stuck in a cycle of poverty, says Muñoz. "For many women that we interviewed, their dream was to someday end up with a restaurant job where at least they would get paid a Christmas bonus," she says. "That was as far as they could imagine themselves going in life."
One risk is that as the Medellin union continues to grow, employers could simply refuse to hire maids who demand benefits. Roa Porja, the union leader, says the only way around this is to educate employees and employers alike. "One of my old employers who heard about the union called me up and said, 'send me over a girl! So I can pay her with all of her rights,'" she says. "The news is getting around."