Help Wanted: Domestic Workers in Peru

I wasn’t bothered the first time I saw my mother go through the suitcase of a maid that was leaving. “Suitcase” is perhaps an overstatement for the bunch of rags the woman carried in her hand. At eight years old, I peeked at the exchange from behind a couch. The maid slowly took out her belongings one by one: shirts, pajamas, underwear. My mom looked at me, saying, “She could be taking something.” Three women in a small room and an act of humiliation that still weighs on me: my own mother against the weakest person imaginable, a pregnant maid, who was leaving for good.

September 4, 2007

I wasn’t bothered the first time I saw my mother go through the suitcase of a maid that was leaving. “Suitcase” is perhaps an overstatement for the bunch of rags the woman carried in her hand. At eight years old, I peeked at the exchange from behind a couch. The maid slowly took out her belongings one by one: shirts, pajamas, underwear. My mom looked at me, saying, “She could be taking something.” Three women in a small room and an act of humiliation that still weighs on me: my own mother against the weakest person imaginable, a pregnant maid, who was leaving for good.

In a society as terribly unjust as Peru’s, discrimination and segregation are learned form the cradle: racism and exclusion are passed from fathers to sons, and are internalized with alarming spontaneity. Discrimination against household workers recently came to light in the country over the banning of domestic workers from Lima’s ritzy Asia beach resort. The Asia case gave this apparently invisible problem some exposure and made it a point on the agendas of government ministries and surveys.

An artist's depiction of the Asia ban: "Private Beach: Keep Clean."

According to a survey conducted in February by the University of Lima, nearly 88% of Lima residents agreed discrimination existed against household workers. The perception is highest among lower classes, but the numbers show broad agreement among respondents across class and gender. This is welcome news considering that for years racism and segregations were “naturally” considered an inevitable social reality.

But society has made a substantial leap in understanding this problem: there is recognition that it exists. Uniformed household workers walking their bosses’ dogs were once practically invisible. Scholar Marisol de la Cadena sustains that one of the conditions for racial discrimination attaining hegemony is, precisely, negating its existence. Employers deny the obvious and restore feudal relations of servitude, while workers play the role of the submissive servant as a survival tactic. Now, many workers have assumed their own identity and left behind the stigma of being maids or servants.

The Imperial City of Cuzco

“I’m not a ‘domestic worker.’ Dogs or cats are domesticated, we are women who work in homes,” says Natalia Quispe Valeriano, defense secretary of Cuzco’s Union of Household Workers. Although work conditions have improved since the group was founded in1972, the women and, above all, the girls in this line of work continue to be used and abused. The exploitation of child labor under the euphemism “educating the goddaughter” (educar a la ahijada) has become an excuse for modern-day slavery. “I began working when I was five, a baby girl, and I helped cook for 10 people. I started work at 4:30 in the morning,” remembers Natalia. She now has an 11-year-old daughter that lives with her where she works, “but she only studies. The woman (boss) treats us well. I get 150 soles [$50] a month, but the most important thing isn’t the money, it’s the treatment, the consideration they have for me.”

In Cuzco, domestic work begins can begin at an astonishingly young age: for some, at five or six years of age. “But what can a six-year-old girl do?” I asked Vittoria Savio in disbelief. Savio is the director of Yanapanakusun, an organization that runs a school, a refuge house and a series of workshops for young female domestic workers who try to escape. Savio exhales the smoke of her third cigarette and patiently explains, “There is some work that these girls can do: peeling potatoes, more or less sweeping the kitchen, feeding the pets and animals, cleaning after the dogs, playing with the kids, and cleaning their clothes. And they live a life of slavery and have no one they can complain to.”

Anthropologist Carmen Escalante recalls, “A Cuban observer from the ILO (International Labor Organization) couldn’t believe it either… We went to the Vicenta María refuge house. One of the girls there worked at a restaurant of Pomacanchi, her dad left her there because her mother died and he wanted to form another family. She had to peel up to a bucket of potatoes a day, so her little hands were full of scars, and the owner of course didn’t care whether she got cut or not. She was left there and the owners fed her as a ‘favor.’”

Briseida with her boss outside the home where she works. (Credit: Giancarlo Tejeda)

And that is exactly the attitude of the girls’ bosses: that they are actually helping them. Briseida is six years old and speaks no Spanish, only her native Quechua. She has a scar on her forehead, like Harry Potter’s, but unlike that of the boy-magician, hers is a painful reminder of a story she’d rather forget. Indeed, there was no magic involved, just a boss dressed in an apron, who cut off her braids and put her in a hooded sweatshirt so that she could lug tubs of water with out her hair getting in the way. Briseida (a name she shares with Agamemnon’s slave) is from Paucartambo, an area of wretched poverty, and hopes that her boss will stay true to her word and send her to school and teach her to read.

“Generally, that’s impossible,” says Escalante, “because, to do so, a girl needs to be taken to and from school, or have someone who will. Also, the schools are in Spanish and since these girls speak Quechua, their employers say, ‘first, she’ll have to learn Spanish’ and they don’t educate them.” The vicious cycle has seemingly no end.

The abject poverty of Briseida’s parents and those of similar girls are the main reason these girls end up in Cuzco or other cities of the province. The girls are “entrusted” by their parents to policemen, rural teachers, engineers or whoever else tends to travel often between the city and the countryside. “A Q’ero indigenous man once brought us his daughter, and we told him that he shouldn’t leave her here,” recounts Escalante .“‘Take her,’ we told him, ‘don’t come here treating her like a slave. Treat her like a daughter.’ But he was really desperate.”

Cuzco’s low-income families, without enough money to pay a monthly salary—not even of 50 soles ($17)—are the ones that tend to have five- to 12-year-old girls working in their homes. The terrifying work history of Sarita Montiel [see sidebar below] is a case in point. She’s not sure at what age she began working. All she remembers is being picked up in a stranger’s arms and being left in Quillabamba.

The tourists from Cuzco that visit the Sunday market in Pisac have no clue about the grinding poverty of the women craft-makers. Raimunda Colloqui can’t help crying while telling me her story. When she was seven, one of her father’s cousins took her to Lima to work in “someone’s house.” Four years later, she ran away from her job in the slums of San Juan de Miraflores and went back to her home in Pisac, but her family took her back to Lima, where she stayed until she was 15, working and not studying. She escaped once again and went to Cuzco, where she finished high school. Now she heads a radio program for household workers: “Our listeners are in large part [domestic] workers. The issues we take on, though, are about everything, we not only talk about household workers, but, yes, they are our base,” says Raimunda. She insists that it is important to broadcast about the suffering, because “it’s true, as a girl I suffered a lot, I’ve cried, but I also learned a lot of things. And we have to talk about that so that the others know, and the little boys, too.”

Story of a Union

Cristina Goutet explains that the Union of Household Workers presented a proposal to the municipality of Cuzco to form part of the participatory budgeting process. Through this they hope to have a greater say over the regulation of labor laws that are working against them. “The current law states that we have a right to 15-days vacation. Why, if all other workers have the right to a month of vacation? The law has no minimum wage requirements, so the boss-lady will say, ‘I can’t pay you because you’re like my daughter, and here at home you have everything.’ And then she gives you some second-hand clothes,” she says. Goutet is an advisor to the union and authored the book Se necesita muchacha (A Woman’s Help Wanted) under the pseudonym Ana Gutiérrez more than 20 years ago. The first edition carried the title Basta (Enough).

Egidia Laime started the union in Cuzco—though she died shortly after—and at one point it had many members, but it has since declined like the rest of the Peruvian labor movement. At the moment, membership to the union hovers around 120. “The union is sacred because it was borne out of our tears and the beatings we received,” says Egidia in the book published by Goutet. In neighboring Bolivia, the rise of Casimira Rodríguez as President Evo Morales’ Minister of Justice—albeit briefly—has shown that household workers have a dynamic organizing capacity. “I know that a lot of you might be angry that someone like me, dressed in my skirts, is here as minister. But that’s what we need to fight against: discrimination,” said Rodríguez in an interview.

“We shouldn’t just inform the workers about their rights, we should also work to sensitize the women employers,” says Carmen Escalante, pointing out a two-pronged strategy. “Since the workers are just young girls, a lot of times they don’t even know they don’t have to accept the scraps off the table,” adds Marleni Palomino of Bartolome de las Casas Center, a human rights group. “The proper government authorities should assume responsibility and the police and legal institutions should be taking this on. We work well with the child welfare branch of the government in Cuzco (DEMUNA), but there are others that don’t even bother themselves to make a site visit when we file a complaint about abuse,” says Palomino.

The ILO has an office in Cuzco and is wrapping up the second stage of a project in a campaign against child labor, but in a few months the children will once again be without this help. “Some NGOs have us like little flags that they can parade around. They do projects but in reality and in practice they marginalize us quite a bit,” laments Natalia Quispe Victoriano.

More Abuses

A child worker peeling beans. (Credit: Giancarlo Tejeda)

According to one anonymous source, a network of traffickers exists that seeks children for domestic work right under the nose of police and the local ombudsman. The trafficking ring is reportedly made up of some rural teachers and police. “They bring the kids from different places and trick them, they’re told they’ll get money and a chance to study. I don’t know if there are intermediate, backroom deals, or if shady money is involved. It could just be that this all happens due to the indifference of the authorities.” The source adds, “The problem is that we don’t have concrete proof yet so we can’t denounce them.”

Sexual abuse of the young men doing household work is common, a consequence of feudal relations harking back to the hacienda, in which the owner imagined himself owner of everything, including the very bodies of his servants. In a famous short story by José María Arguedas, “Warma Kuyay,” a boy named “Ernesto” cries when he discovers that Justina was “forced upon by Don Froylán.” As always, truth appears stranger than fiction: Vittoria Savio remembers a girl who had worked in a house at the age of six came to Yanapanakusun and said that when she was 12 she began being raped by the boss in the house. When she got pregnant and gave birth, the woman made her “get rid of the baby.” The girl said she had drowned the baby in the same tub where she washed the family’s clothes.

In the ILO’s definition of child labor, the organization takes care to also recognize that children are exposed to conditions that are “harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” Vittoria Savio considers the psychological factor a key: “If they don’t know affection or tranquility then what can they compare their current situation to?” Raimunda Colloqui, the radio host, echoes this in contrasting her current situation to how she lived as a child: “I don’t feel alone anymore because I have people now. When I leave work, I know where I’m going, and I have where to sleep. And I don’t just have food, I have people that care for me; I can tell them about my things and maybe chitchat. A lot has changed.”

The Life of Sarita Montiel

When Sarita Montiel went to the government to get a national ID document, she didn’t know her birth date or even her last name. A doctor calculated her age by looking at her teeth. Sarita chose her name and April 10th as her birthday, but it seems she was born in February, “when the potato crops flower.” Now she’s 31 (or 33) with two daughters, a husband and psychological support to help her overcome her indignation. She’s a household worker and makes 100 soles ($33) a month.

Sarita Montiel with her two daughters. (Credit: Giancarlo Tejeda)

I think at five, I remember being brought in someone’s arms. My godmother and my brother and some people I didn’t know brought me to the valley. My brother left me there in some house, and they started me on washing dishes. I broke a lot of plates. My hair was really long, down to here, and the woman would pull me by my hair and one day she grabbed some scissors and cut it off. She would make me wake up really early and while I was still sleeping she’d throw water on me to wake me up. I had to cook for people, but since I was so small I didn’t do it well, and they’d hit me. I would sleep next to their beds on a goatskin; they just gave me a blanket and I couldn’t sleep from the cold. At three in the morning they’d wake me up: “Wake up! Wake up!” So I’d get up. I’d have to peel sweet potato, yucca or plantains, but I’d fall asleep sometimes and the woman would wake up and come over and hit me really hard [she sobs].

They would tell me that they had done all paperwork with my mom to adopt me, and that I’d stay like another daughter, but they didn’t treat me like one. They’d hit me. They’d send me all swollen up to buy things at the store. The lady at the store always recognized me from my bruises. That lady always gave me the change really carefully, because I didn’t know how to read or count, or anything. I’d come back and they’d say, “Where is it!? Money is missing! You’ve stolen it!” They hit me hard and send me back to the store, but the lady there would tell me that they were lying, because she gave me the right change.

Now that I know my mom I asked her why she never came and got me. She said, “Your brother told me you were doing good and that you were studying.” … We don’t get along. I like her like someone would a distant friend. I don’t love her like a mother.

I left because the man, the owner, [sexually] abused me [sobs]. He said that if I told his wife, then he’d kill me. He even pointed his gun at me. I was desperate to get out of there… Once I even took poison, I didn’t want to live anymore. After he [sexually] abused me, I left the next week. The woman of house had left for a week to Quillabamba, and so the man always came in after the other workers had left. I don’t know if he’d come just to look at me but he always came. One time as soon as he left, I got out of there, just with the clothes on my back. I didn’t have anything, and since it was forest and had no car, I just walked.

I got to the train, and it was packed with yucca, a lot of it, so I hid beneath it. I managed to get by and when we got to Quillabamba I went unnoticed again. From there, I came here to Cuzco. I spoke very little Spanish, only Quechua, but the lady at the store had told me: “When you get there, find the Avenida del Sol.” Since I didn’t know how to read, after I got off the train, I just asked around, “Where is the Avenida del Sol.” A man told me where it was, but since I couldn’t read the signs I didn’t even know when I had reached it. I was thirsty and tired, and I began wondering: “Where am I going to sleep tonight.” I was walking on the street and I asked a man to read a sign in a storefront to me. It was a bookstore. He told me the sign said, “A woman’s help wanted.” I went in and told the lady: “I want to work.” She said, “You have no papers, for all I know you’re a thief.” I said, “I’ve come from Quillabamba, please give me a job, I don’t even have where to stay tonight.” Another lady asked, “Do you know how to make soup?” I said I did. “Then you can stay,” she told me.

Sometimes I get really angry, even violent, maybe because what I’ve lived, but I try not to. Sometimes when I talk to my daughter, she cries over nothing and I react really nastily. It hurts me a lot. So I tell my daughter all about my story, and I tell her that I don’t want to be that way.

Hair-Raising Statistics

Marleni Palomino works on projects to eliminate child labor at the ILO and at the Bartolomé de las Casas Center. In a survey she conducted in Cuzco, she interviewed 289 household employees, both men and women, from ages six to 17. The statistics echo much of the testimony above. Jobs are transmitted through family relations: children from the countryside are taken against their will by their parents (20%), many work because they think they’ll have better access to education (39%), or because they say they need the money (13%). But there is also a considerable percentage seek these jobs to escape family violence (11%).

The last census by the government’s National Institute of Statistics found that in Cuzco there are 10,149 household workers that range in age between six and 80. The majority are women (7,299), with a substantial percentage male (28%), particularly compared to Lima where only 6% are male. In the department of Cuzco, 215 workers are between six and eight (218 in Lima), while 2,380 of the workers range in age from 13 to 17. In Lima, most are in their twenties (5,239). Most household workers in Cuzco have not finished high school (2,577), while 16% have had no education at all. Sixty-three percent don’t attend any kind of school.

Rocío Silva Santisteban works for the independent online newspaper La Insignia in Peru. This article was first published in Revista Ideele, a publication of the Instituto de Defensa Legal, and translated from the Spanish by Teo Ballvé. This article was supported by the Becas AVINA de Investigación Periodistica. The AVINA Foundation is not responsible for its contents.


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