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New law leads to new life for migrant domestic workers

After decades of labor organizing and with the support of the ILO, Argentina has passed a new migration policy to make life better for domestic workers.

News | 16 December 2014
BUENOS AIRES (ILO News) -- “Why do other workers have rights but not us?” Maria Perez remembers asking over and over again when she first arrived in Argentina from Paraguay for a job as a domestic worker.

Today, after decades of labor organizing and with the support of the ILO, Argentina has given her an answer -- with the passage of a new migration policy, a new law on domestic workers and a strong commitment to regularize and formalize all domestic workers -- nationals and migrants alike.

"I'm very optimistic. I always believed things could be better. Many people thought it was our destiny to be exploited, but I never lost faith things could improve for us workers," she said as we met her in Buenos Aires, where she now works as a domestic worker.

"I'm excited about the future," says the 24-year old native of Itá, Paraguay. She now works with a contract and can claim social protection benefits. “Now I feel I can give my daughter a decent life.”

I always believed things could be better..... Now I feel I can give my daughter a decent life.”

Perez is one of the many women every year who leave everything behind in search of a job in Argentina. “It was not an easy decision but Argentina provided me with more opportunities.”

According to Argentina’s official data, there are approximately 1.2 million domestic workers in the country. Around 100,000 are from Paraguay. The Paraguayan migration constitutes the largest group of foreign residents in Argentina.

New law, new life

The last decade has witnessed a momentous paradigm shift with regard to immigration policy in Argentina, which enacted a new Migration Law in 2004. The law significantly advanced the promotion of migrant workers’ human rights. It also allowed for the regularization of many Paraguayan domestic workers.

The law’s principles of equality, non-discrimination, and due process bring Argentine norms in line with both ILO migrant rights standards and Argentine constitutional law. The current immigration law gives Paraguayan migrants and other migrants within Mecosur countries parity with Argentine nationals in terms of labour and social rights.

In March 2013, the government passed yet another progressive law to regulate employment relationships for private home workers. Law No. 26,844 constitutes a significant advance in the framework of the principles established by Convention No. 189 in terms of complete equality between the rights of domestic workers and other workers.

This law updates and expands domestic workers’ labour rights by recognizing maternity leave, paid holidays, special family and personal leave, a yearly bonus and compensation in case of layoffs or firing. It restricts working hours to eight per day and 48 per week.

The legislation sets a minimum age of 16 for domestic work, limits the working hours of those between the ages of 16 and 18 to 36 hours a week, and prohibits domestic workers below the age of 18 from living in their employer’s home. Live-in domestic workers now get eight hours of sleep at night and two hours of daily break.

The ILO has actively supported domestic workers having access to not only fundamental rights at work but also to the full range of labour rights.

In 2011, the International Labour Conference adopted Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers, which also covers migrant workers. Argentina has ratified C 189.

ILO partnerships

In 2013, the ILO partnered with OHCHR, UN Women, ITUC and the IDWF to promote the human and labour rights of migrant domestic workers worldwide. The EU-funded Global Action Project on Migrant Domestic Workers expands knowledge on the challenges that domestic workers face, advocates for their rights, encourages policy and legislative reform, and supports organization and advocacy through pilot interventions in five migration corridors in different regions. Paraguay-Argentina is one of those corridors.

One of the main outcomes of the programme in the region is the signing of a bi-national agreement to promote decent work for migrant domestic workers coming from Paraguay to Argentina. The agreement will strengthen domestic workers’ organizations and will build tighter alliances with labour union confederations through training, bi-national meetings, and exchanges of good practices.

The agreement is developed in coordination with the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas and the International Federation of Domestic Workers, with the support of the ILO Global Action Project.

The project has also supported the development and revision of domestic workers’ vocational training program that now incorporates the new provisions of the law, information about C189, and highlights the importance of advocacy, worker-organizing, and mobilizing for the promotion of decent work for domestic workers.

Making sure laws are applied

The new laws that protect domestic workers and the signing of a bi-national agreement are important steps towards righting legal and social wrongs. However, getting these new regulations applied in everyday life is still a challenge, since many migrant domestic workers from Paraguay work in the informal economy.

“It is crucial to raise awareness among domestic workers about their rights and laws so that they can defend themselves from injustices that have for a long time been associated with the informality of domestic work and their immigration status,” warned ILO project coordinator Maria Elena Valenzuela.

“Since the passing of the laws, I have made sure to tell all my friends from Paraguay who also work as domestic workers to request a work contract from their employers and claim the new benefits. Most of them are now part of the formal economy,” said Maria Perez.

It is crucial to raise awareness among domestic workers about their rights and laws so that they can defend themselves from injustices.” 

ILO project coordinator Maria Elena Valenzuela
Argentina can be seen as an example of a win-win situation based on an open immigration policy and widespread recognition of migrant domestic workers’ labour rights -- and without any observed adverse effects on the functioning of labor markets.

Future progress will depend on the effective coordination between ILO constituents, with a particularly significant promotional role by the domestic workers’ organizations and trade unions that were instrumental in the adoption of the Convention. “We have to keep demanding respect and make sure all domestic workers have a contract,” said Perez. “It is about our future and the future of our children.”