‘Roma’ casts spotlight on Latin America’s domestic workers

1 / 2
Mexican domestic worker Ignacia Ponciano prepares lunch at the house where she has worked for over 30 years in Mexico City on January 18, 2019. (AFP)
2 / 2
Domestic worker Fabiana Barbosa de Souza, 36, poses for a portrait at the house where she works twice a week at Laranjeiras neighborhood, southern Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on January 11, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 20 February 2019
0

‘Roma’ casts spotlight on Latin America’s domestic workers

  • In recent years, several countries have established laws to formalize what tend to be very ad hoc employment contracts for maids and nannies
  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) enshrined job security and benefits in a convention in 2013

MONTEVIDEO: She scrubs plates, mops floors and washes clothes with vigor. She works when others relax. And she plays games with children who are not hers, even though they might feel a bit like family by now.
Just like Cleo, the live-in nanny in Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-nominated film “Roma,” Ignacia Ponciano represents millions of women working in domestic service across Latin America for want of a better opportunity.
“Nacha,” as she is known, started working at the Rodriguez household in Mexico City 30 years ago, when she was in her late teens. She left her rural village for the capital looking for a break.
Once she found both a job and a home, she never left.
Ponciano’s story is hardly uncommon for women in Latin America, where the work and personal lives of so many domestic employees are closely intertwined.
“Roma” is Cuaron’s tribute to his childhood nanny Libo and women like her across the region — forever in the background yet an integral part of the families that they serve.
In recent years, several countries have established laws to formalize what tend to be very ad hoc employment contracts for maids and nannies.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) enshrined job security and benefits in a convention in 2013 — so far, more than a dozen countries in the region have ratified it.
But other regional economic and migration crises have made its lofty goals difficult to achieve.
In the home where she says she landed “without knowing how to do anything,” Ponciano worked cleaning, cooking and looking after Penelope, the daughter of her boss, who was divorced and living with her sister.
She quickly became a confidante to everyone in the house.
But while it was a close-knit, family-like community, it was also the source of her livelihood — and she had no formal contract to protect her from the whims of fate.
According to the ILO, there are 18 million domestic workers in Latin America, 93 percent of them women, making it “one of the most important occupations for women in the region.”
But it is almost 80 percent informal employment, meaning workers have trouble accessing social security, lack opportunities for advancement and have no recourse for workplace inspections, the ILO says.
There is also no collective bargaining to lobby for better work conditions.
With new lifestyles and new regulations, workers who live with their employers have become the exception, not the rule, and this change is having an impact on how the homes themselves are designed.
Lourdes Cruz Gonzalez Franco, a researcher from the National University of Mexico, said it is unusual now for architects to plan for servants’ quarters in new houses.
“Although you can’t generalize, because the upper classes still plan for servants’ quarters, there is a tendency to get rid of them or convert them into guest rooms or studios,” she said.
That means that domestic servants have to commute to work, often for hours, which in turn leads to more superficial relations with their employers than the close ties portrayed in “Roma,” set in the 1970s.
Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, among others, have introduced rules that establish base salaries and other benefits.
In December, Mexico’s Supreme Court ordered that some two million domestic workers be enrolled in the social security system within three years to guarantee their access to public health care and other benefits.
Nevertheless, countries that have made progress in the sector, like Argentina, have discovered that the challenge does not end with writing new laws.
Since 2013, domestic workers there have had the right to overtime, paid holidays and maternity leave. Yet still some 57 percent of the work in private homes is on an informal basis.
Workers are also very vulnerable to economic and social unrest, as has been the case in Brazil.
Despite a 2013 law to benefit domestic workers, the economic crash two years later dealt a serious blow to the country’s safety net.
Now, around a third of Brazil’s 6.2 million domestic workers are employed on an off-the-books basis.
The situation is even worse in crisis-torn Venezuela, where 41-year-old Marbelis Martínez cleans apartments.
Despite a 2012 law protecting domestic workers, she is lucky if she can afford half a kilo (one pound) of meat a week.
“It won’t even get me a dozen eggs,” she said of her pay.
Even in the United States, seen by some in the region as a promised land, a survey by the National Union of Domestic Employees found that “workers are exposed to the whims of their employers.”
According to the study, 23 percent of dismissals were because people complained about their working conditions. In many cases, the workers’ immigration status obliges them to suffer in silence.
But that helplessness is often experienced by Latin American workers in their home countries.
In Guatemala, Maritza Velasquez, president of the Association of Domestic Workers, said the majority of maids come from indigenous communities, and few make even the minimum wage of $384 a month.
“The monthly wage can go from $90 a $320, but there are almost no complaints for fear of reprisals,” she said.


Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

Updated 20 min 4 sec ago
0

Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

  • Kerr's family fled Germany as the Nazi's rose to power
  • She based the characters on animals she had seen in real life

LONDON: British writer and illustrator Judith Kerr, whose death at 95 was announced on Thursday, captivated young readers around the world with her tales of a fluffy tiger coming to tea, a trouble-prone cat and her own family's flight from Nazi Germany.
With curly hair and a mischievous smile, the petite Kerr worked well into her 90s, saying she even picked up the pace in old age, drawing inspiration from events in her own life to become one of Britain's best-loved children's authors.
Kerr was born in Berlin on June 14, 1923, fleeing Germany 10 years later after a policeman tipped off her father Alfred Kerr, a prominent Jewish writer, that the family was in danger from the rising Nazi power.
"My father was ill in bed with flu and this man rang up and said: 'They are trying to take away your passport, you must get out immediately'," she recalled in an interview with AFP in June 2018.
He took the first train to Switzerland and his wife and two children soon joined him. A day after their escape, the Nazis took power.
The family moved on to Paris before settling in London in 1936.
This story is loosely recounted from a child's perspective in Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" (1971) in which the fleeing girl can only take one toy and so leaves behind a favourite rabbit.
Kerr, who started drawing at a young age, credited the success of the book with being "published at a time when the Germans hadn't really managed to talk to their children about the past".
But she is better known for "The Tiger Who Came to Tea", released in 1968 to become a global classic of children's literature, with at least five million copies sold and published in more than 30 languages.
Kerr's first picture book, it tells of a girl and her mother interrupted at teatime by a huge, fluffy tiger who eats everything in sight before leaving again.
She was able to write up the story -- a bedtime favourite of her young daughter -- while her husband was at work and their two children at school.
The fictional family mirrors her own at the time, the illustrations featuring the yellow and white kitchen cupboards of their London home.
Kerr used tigers at a London zoo as models for her feline creation.
Next was "Mog the Forgetful Cat" (1970), the first in what became a 17-book series about the antics of a mischievous, egg-loving moggy inspired by her own pet.
"Goodbye Mog" (2002) was meant to be the last offering -- broaching the subject of death with the much-loved cat departing for heaven. But supermarket chain Sainsbury's persuaded Kerr to produce one more in 2015: "Mog's Christmas Calamity".
Proceeds of the last book were for Save the Children's work on child literacy, and a TV advert was the first to feature Mog in animation with Kerr herself also making a cameo appearance.
In her illustrated story "My Henry" (2011) -- for children and adults -- an elderly lady fantasises about adventures with her late husband, such as climbing Mount Everest, hunting lions, and riding dinosaurs.
Kerr dedicated the book to her husband Thomas Nigel Kneale, a respected screenwriter who died in 2006. The couple met at the BBC, where they both worked, and married in 1954.
Commenting on the book in 2011, The Telegraph wrote: "For all the depth of underlying emotion, there's a celebratory feel to it, an unfeigned lightness of spirit that, throughout her life, has been a great boon.
"It has helped her cope with widowhood just as it allowed her to get over the loss, exile, penury and frustration of her early life."
In 2012 Kerr was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to children's literature and Holocaust education.