Domestic workers in Honduras increasingly are exercising their rights on the job in the country, where they have few labor law protections and so are especially vulnerable to abuse. More than 100 workers recently joined SINTRAHO (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras del Hogar), National Domestic Workers Union, which in October became the first legally registered domestic worker union in Honduras.
Following eight months of outreach, education, training and organizing, domestic workers formed SINTRAHO to address their difficult working conditions. Most domestic workers are women and many live in their employers’ homes, where they often are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. As in many countries worldwide, Honduran law excludes domestic workers from mandated breaks, minimum wages and access to social security.
“In Honduras, there are more than 100,000 domestic workers, and we believe that the best way for us to be heard and recognized is to organize ourselves and fight for our rights as workers in a sector that has been hidden,” says Silma Perez, SINTRAHO president.
Recognizing that most domestic workers in urban centers are internal migrants from rural areas, often from marginalized indigenous communities, leaders of FESTAGRO, the agroindustrial union federation supporting SINTRAHO, say it is especially import to support these workers as they organize for improved conditions. FESTAGRO’s confederation, CUTH, and Solidarity Center, also provide support for the new union.
Global Movement for Domestic Worker Rights
Domestic workers in Honduras are part of a worldwide mobilization of domestic workers seeking their rights, forming unions and associations, and pushing for their governments to ratify International Labor Organization Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189). Convention 189 is a binding standard in which domestic workers are entitled to full labor rights, including those covering work hours, overtime pay, safety and health standards and paid leave.
As tens of thousands domestic workers around the world mobilized around ILO 189, which was adopted in 2011, their efforts led to formation of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Since then, domestic workers have campaigned for their governments to ratify it, and 29 countries have done so, meaning they are bound to its regulations, which include clearly stated work requirements, safe working conditions, paid annual leave and the freedom to form unions.
Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama are the only Central American countries that have ratified Convention 189, and SINTRAHO is planning a ratification campaign in Honduras. SINTRAHO also plans to push for greater protections for domestic workers under Honduran national labor law, including a fair minimum wage and access to social security protections.
SINTRAHO is the first national union in Honduras to specifically mention the rights of LGBTI workers in its statutes, and created an Executive Committee position for Secretary of Gender and Diversity to recognize and value its members’ diverse backgrounds.
“SINTRAHO will take on the challenge of organizing many more workers in the coming year in order to fight for national laws that will directly benefit us as domestic workers,” says Perez.
Legislation requiring written contracts, paid vacation and annual bonuses for domestic workers passed Mexico’s House and Senate and is expected to be signed into law by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The landmark law, which also prohibits employers from hiring domestic workers younger than age 15, requires employers provide at least a day-and-a-half off each week and defined rest periods.
The law comes after domestic workers across Mexico began organizing nearly two decades ago to push for their rights on the job, first forming a Support and Training Center for Domestic Workers (CACEH) and in 2015, launching the country’s first domestic workers’ union, SINACTRAHO. Both CACEH and SINACTRAHO are Solidarity Center partners.
“After 18 years of fighting through the Support and Training Center for Domestic Workers and SINACTRAHO, some of our demands are reflected,” SINACTRAHO said Monday in a Tweet after the Senate approved the bill. “We know that we must continue working, but today we are sure that the voice and demands of domestic workers have been heard.”
Domestic workers are rarely covered by countries’ labor laws, with domestic work often viewed as not “real” work. Yet more than 67.1 million domestic workers, predominately women, care for others’ families and homes invisibly and in private, often required to live on the premises of their employer. Away from the public eye, they frequently are subject to abuse.
Domestic Workers’ Global Fight for Decent Work
In Mexico and around the world, domestic workers are joining together to champion their rights to safe work, decent wages and fair treatment on the job. Domestic workers in Mexico took part in the global campaign spearheaded by the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) and the IUF, the global union federation, to successfully push for the 2011 ratification of the International Labor Organization’s historic Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights. The Domestic Workers Convention went into effect in September 2013 and has been ratified by more than 20 countries.
The obscurity in which domestic workers labor and their daily struggles for respect and fairness were illuminated in this year’s Academy Award-winning film, Roma. The film’s depiction of live-in maid Cleo, working for a family in crisis in turbulent 1970s Mexico City as her own life takes a devastating turn, has widened space for domestic workers to push for their rights and recognition.
Marcelina Bautista, a former domestic worker who founded the Center for Support and Training of Domestic Workers (CACEH) and served as SINACTRAHO co-president, has screened the film widely. She discusses with audiences the real-life challenges Mexican domestic workers confront—and how similar they are to those Cleo faces in the movie.
For Bautista and the 2 million domestic workers across Mexico, the far-reaching legislation defining domestic workers’ rights is a big step after a long struggle.
“We can only hope it will improve the lives of so many women not only on paper but in reality,” Bautista told the New York Times.
The Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) this week celebrated the relaunch of a migrant worker office within its headquarters to help address legal cases related to wage theft or other forms of exploitation brought by migrant workers, including domestic workers, in the country. Two-thirds of Kuwait’s 4.5 million residents are migrant workers, including approximately 660,000 domestic workers.
Domestic worker volunteers from Sandigan-Kuwait, a domestic worker rights organization for Filipino workers, and GEFONT Support Group-Kuwait, an organization for Nepali workers in Kuwait associated with the General Federation of Nepali Trade Unions (GEFONT), will staff the office, encouraging workers to drop in or call to report abuse and request legal assistance from KTUF.
“Nepali laborers abroad have been facing constant suffering, while legal and social rights are not implemented,” says GEFONT Support Group-Kuwait President Ganesh Rawat.
This is the first time that migrant organization volunteers have been invited to participate in the operations of KTUF’s migrant worker office. With support from the Solidarity Center, KTUF will be able to increase its assistance with migrant worker-initiated legal cases.
“The migrant workers’ office opens its doors to all representatives of migrant worker communities, in all categories, to receive complaints,” says KTUF Assistant Secretary General Obeid Menahi Al Ajmi. The federation, he continues, will devote all its resources and tools to support migrant workers, in coordination with the country’s domestic worker department.
The project can be “the avenue on helping each other for the betterment of everyone,” says Sandigan-Kuwait, volunteer organizer, Chito Neri.
Kuwait has been recognized for some important progress on migrant worker issues. A new domestic worker law adopted in 2015, the first in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, brought the country closer to compliance with internationally recognized labor standards and included a minimum wage and a maximum 12-hour workday, with one day off per week, for migrant workers such as maids, babysitters, cooks and drivers. Kuwait and the Philippines last year signed a new deal that prohibits common employment practices for migrant workers in the Gulf region, including confiscation of passports by employers.
Given ongoing challenges, unions say that protection of migrant worker rights requires cross-border, collective action. KTUF last month signed a cooperative agreement in Kuwait City with the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K), formalizing the federations’ effort to jointly address issues affecting workers who migrate from Kenya to Kuwait. KTUF signed a cooperation agreement with the Nepalese Workers’ Union in April last year, committing to joint action in support of worker rights.
The KTUF is an important actor at the national policy level, maintaining a vigorous presence in deliberations on proposed labor law reform, economic restructuring, trade union rights and democratic freedoms. The Solidarity Center supports Kuwaiti unions’ active role in cross-regional collaborations, as well as capacity building programs for Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) affiliates in the civil service and oil sectors.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) and the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) signed a cooperative agreement last week in Kuwait City, formalizing the federations’ effort to jointly address issues affecting workers who migrate from Kenya to Kuwait for employment.
“It is crucial to bring together unions from countries on both ends of the migration spectrum to promote a deeper understanding of the challenges workers face along their journey and into the workplace,” said Solidarity Center Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs Hind Cherrouk. “This agreement, which affirms the rights of migrant workers from Kenya in Kuwait, is an important step forward in that regard.”
The majority of some 34 million Africans are migrants move across borders in search of decent work—jobs that pay a living wage, offer safe working conditions and fair treatment. Often they find employers who seek to exploit them—refusing to pay their wages, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay, and even physically abusing them. Kenyan women signing on for domestic work in Saudi Arabia, for example, were told they would receive 23,000 Kenya shillings ($221) a month, only to find upon their arrival that the pay was significantly less and the working and living conditions inhumane. Through the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), COTU-K is supporting a multi-year effort to protect domestic workers migrating from the coastal area surrounding the city of Mombasa to homes in the Middle East.
Unions around the globe are increasingly taking joint action to create community and workplace-based safe migration and counter-trafficking strategies that emphasize prevention, protection and the rule of law. KTUF spearheaded a groundbreaking 2015 domestic worker law that granted enforceable legal rights to 660,000 mostly migrant workers from Asia and Africa working in Kuwait as domestic workers, nannies, cooks and drivers, and urged further protection for migrant workers in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. That same year, unions in Asia and the Gulf signed a landmark memorandum of understanding (MOU) that promoted and outlined steps for coordination among unions in organizing and supporting migrant workers in those regions. The Solidarity Center and its partners in the Americas in 2017 crafted a worker rights agenda for inclusion in the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration.
“There is a potentially powerful role for union-to-union, cross-national and, in this case, cross-regional solidarity in protecting the dignity of migrant workers traveling from Africa to the Middle East. The Solidarity Center is proud to be a partner in this process and trade union-centered approach between the trade union movements of Kuwait and Kenya,” said Solidarity Center Director of Africa Programs, Hanad Mohamud.
Seeking a job to support her family but lacking opportunity in her native Bangladesh, Shahida became a domestic worker far from her home. Beyond duties in her employer’s home, she was forced to work at the houses of several of his relatives, giving her little time to sleep. Shahida was provided stale leftovers for her meals. She faced harassment and abuse from many quarters.
“They misbehaved with me a lot… This was often accompanied by physical abuse,” says Shahida. (See video.)
More than 50 percent of female migrant workers in Bangladesh are employed as domestic workers. Isolated in private homes, they often are targets of violence and abuse because they are women. And as migrant workers, they often face exploitation across the migration experience—from labor recruiters, transport workers, border guards, employers and legal systems that protect employers over workers.
Yet joining with other migrant domestic workers through the Bangladesh Obivashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA), Shahida is now among women demanding gender justice on their jobs, in their communities and at the global level, where they are championing an International Labor Organization standard on gender-based violence at work.
The Solidarity Center is partnering with BOMSA to promote fair migration through awareness-raising, policy reform and improved access to justice under the global labor program supported by the USAID.
By engaging in collective action, Shahida says, “now, we feel empowered.
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