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Mexico Imagines a Union for 2.3 Million Domestic Maids — But Could It Work?

Women across Mexico work in private homes without contracts, paid leave, vacations, or protection against abuses. Less than 200 Mexicans house cleaners have signed on so far to join the new union.
Imagen por Teseo Fournier

Rebeca Quintero missed out on adolescence. She was too busy scrubbing floors.

Quintero's career as a domestic worker in Mexico began when she was 12, after she and her mother left their small town in the state of Puebla and headed for Mexico City, where they both began work cleaning private homes. Today she's 28 and still in the same business — earning $1,600 pesos (about $100) for 60 hours a week of work.


But with the first domestic workers union now forming in Mexico, there's a chance Quintero's measly rate might go up.

"I think a union would be good for us," Quintero said hesitantly. "I hope it will help me make more money, but I'm not sure how."

Mexico has an estimated 2.3 million house cleaners, making them the largest group of informal workers in the country. On September 17, the country's first ever domestic workers union officially applied to register with the government.

While the move is symbolically significant, the union's challenges are formidable.

Organizers admit there's no concrete strategy in place for organizing scores of informal house cleaners across disparate cities and towns, as there is no formal hiring process for domestic workers. House cleaners are typically hired by word-of-mouth, wages are set verbally, and any abusive behavior is concealed behind the closed doors of private homes.

Some maids work in conditions that equate to "modern slavery, and we want to change that," said Sofía Pablo, the union's training coordinator.

The union — known as the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras del Hogar, or the National Union of Domestic Workers — says its mission is to advocate for workers who have been victims of violence and discrimination in the homes where they work. Yet, in an industry where accountability is nonexistent, it's difficult to foresee how the union would be able to bring justice to mistreated members.


Yet the nascent labor group is already recruiting.

Vicki Robles has worked 20 years in Mexico City, six days a week, cleaning homes without a contract. (Photo by Teseo Fournier)

Recruitment tables are being set up at the Tacubaya and Pino Suárez metro stations every other Sunday, according to the union's publicist, Mauricio Patrón. They're also attracting members through a Facebook page.

The Center for Support and Training for Domestic Workers (CACEH), the organization that established the union, recently made an appearance on the telenovela, Lo Que Callamos Las Mujeres ("What Women Silence").

The invitation came to celebrate the group's 15th anniversary. In one scene, a character reaches out to the organization for help in a case of a child domestic worker who suffered abuse. The CACEH logo is visible in the shot.

Related: How Pimps in Mexico's Smallest State Trick Young Girls Into the World of Sex Trafficking

Despite these outreach efforts, according to Patrón, the union currently has between 100 and 200 members.

"[Recruitment] is very complicated," he said. "Because this isn't a culture where domestic workers are seen as real employees."

Raquel Martínez Rodríguez, who has been cleaning houses for 20 years, signed on as the union's press secretary. She said she is currently in a legal battle with a former employer who paid her only $300 pesos ($18) for eight hours of work, demanded that she smile more, told her she looked ugly when she ate, and then fired her.

Like Rodríguez, many house cleaners don't have contracts with their employers. The CACEH says it provides lawyers for workers who are wrongfully fired or abused.


Several countries in Latin America have unions for house cleaners, but results on their effectiveness are mixed.

Despite the Peruvian union's complaints, workers are forced to use old elevators and bathrooms designated for service staff in some buildings in Lima. In Bolivia, where their union has existed since 1993, out of 4,000 domestic workers, only four have established contracts with their employers — an abysmal rate.

Employers call house cleaners 'the cat' or 'the servant'.

Vicki Robles has never had a contract with any of her employers. She has been cleaning houses for the two decades in Mexico City, working six days a week, covering a few of the city's dense boroughs every day on her commute. She believes the union should help workers get paid for medical expenses, sick leave, and holidays — none of which she has ever been compensated for.

The union told VICE News that they haven't thought so far ahead in terms of paid leave. However, they are demanding a minimum daily fee of $450 pesos ($27). They also have plans to conduct workshops on workers' rights, gender discrimination, and self-esteem.

Susana Lucía Rodela, who has been cleaning houses for the past 48 years, said she is looking forward to participating in the workshops. Originally from a small town in the state of Veracruz, she moved to Mexico City when she was 17 to find better-paying work.

"In Veracruz, they pay you 70 pesos ($4.50) for a full day of work. Moving to Mexico City was my only option," she said. In the capital, she charges around 100 pesos ($6) an hour.


Pablo said it is common for indigenous women to move to Mexico City to make money cleaning houses, only to suffer from discrimination and abuse from her employers.

"[These employers] try to take away their identity. They won't let them dress in their traditional clothing, and they make them wear their hair a certain way. They call them 'the cat' 'la gata' or 'the servant' 'la sirvienta'," Pablo said.

"It's like they're saying, 'She's mine. I have the right to do what I want with her.'"

Historically, unions in Mexico have a dark past. Labor leaders have been jailed for money laundering and secretly diverting millions of pesos into political campaigns.

Rodolfo Corcuera, founder of Aliada, a Mexico City-based startup that offers home cleaning services, said his business is trying to eradicate abuse in the domestic worker market in Mexico. His employees decide when and where they want to work. He says a full-time house cleaner with Aliada makes $9,000 pesos ($537) a month.

Like others, Corcuera said he didn't know about the new domestic workers union. Upon hearing about it, he wasn't optimistic.

"In this country, the unions haven't really helped people out," Corcuera said. "I hope they do it for the right reasons, and not for abuse of power."

Related: Murdered in Mexico State: The Silent Epidemic of Women Killings in Mexico

Follow Julie Morse on Twitter: @Juliemmorse