A Woman Could Govern Mexico. Millions More Remain in the Shadows as Domestic Workers

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Alejo, 43years old, puts on makeup on a Tuesday morning and leaves her tiny apartment on the outskirts of Mexico City. She walks until the gravel in front of her house turns into cobblestones, and the campaign posters covering small concrete buildings give way to the immaculate walls of the city’s upper-class gated communities.

It is there that Alejo has discreetly worked cleaning houses and raising the children of wealthy Mexicans for 26 years.

Alejo is among the approximately 2.5 million Mexicans—mostly women—who work in domestic service in the Latin American country, a profession that embodies the gender and class divisions long ingrained in Mexico.

Women like her play a fundamental role in Mexican society by taking on the bulk of domestic work as a growing number of professional women enter the workforce. Despite the current government’s reforms, many domestic workers continue to suffer low wages, employer abuse, and long hours. It is an institution that dates back to the colonial era, and some researchers describe their unstable working conditions as “modern slavery.”

Now that Mexico is on the way to possibly electing its first female president on June 2, household employees hope that either former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum or former Senator Xóchitl Gálvez can improve their situation.

“I have never voted all these years (…) I realize it’s always the same,” said Alejo. “When have they ever listened to us, why should I give one of them my vote?”

“I hope that at least if it’s a woman, this situation will be different,” she added.

Alejo was born into a poor family in the central Mexican state of Puebla and left school at 14 to move to Mexico City as a live-in nanny for two sisters.

“It’s like being a mother. The children called me ‘mom.’ Their children were born, and I bathed them, took care of them. I did everything from the time I woke up until they went to sleep,” she explained.

Although some domestic workers live separately, many live with families and work weeks, if not months, without rest and isolated from their family and friends.

Alejo said the demands and low salary of domestic employment prevented her from having her own children. Others told The Associated Press that they were fired when they fell ill and asked their employers for help.

“When you work in someone’s house, life is not yours,” said Carolina Solana de Dios, a 47-year-old live-in nanny.

Their help is essential for working women, like Claudia Rodríguez, a 49-year-old single mother, who continues to struggle to enter professional spaces traditionally reserved for men. In Mexico and much of Latin America, a gap has long divided men and women in the workplace. In 2005, 80% of men were employed or looking for work, compared to 40% of women, according to Mexican government data.

That gap has narrowed over time, although significant differences in salary and leadership positions persist.

Rodríguez was born in a town two hours from Mexico City. She, her mother, and her siblings fled an abusive father and took refuge in the capital. Instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a professional dancer, she began to work and study because “I didn’t think about making all those sacrifices” that her mother had made, striving in a succession of informal jobs.

For years she made her way in the technology industry, but took on all the domestic work when she had daughters with her husband. When her husband left her for another woman six years ago, hiring a live-in domestic worker was the only thing she could do to stay afloat.

Now, both she and her nanny, Irma, get up at 5 in the morning, one prepares lunch for her two daughters, and the other takes them to school.

“In the case of businesswomen, we definitely couldn’t handle the whole package, simply because I think the expectations society has been too much,” she said.

However, a historic number of Mexican women are taking on leadership positions, partly due to gender quotas established in political parties. Since 2018, the Mexican Congress has had a 50-50 gender composition, and the number of female governors has skyrocketed.

Although none of the presidential candidates have openly spoken about domestic workers, both Sheinbaum and Gálvez proposed addressing violence against women and closing the gender pay gap.

The government of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador passed a historic law in 2019 recognizing basic rights for domestic workers such as paid leave, limits on working hours, and access to employer-paid medical insurance.

But the government has not monitored the enforcement of these rules, leaving domestic workers unprotected and trapped in a “dynamic of power inequality,” explained Norma Palacios, head of the Mexican domestic workers’ union, SINACTRAHO.

In practice, nothing has changed, she pointed out, although “there is already a legal framework of labor rights towards us.”

Neither Alejo, the household employee, nor Rodríguez, the single mother, say they particularly identify with any of the main candidates. Both have plans to vote. Although the candidates seem more of the same to them, they agreed with Palacios that having a president would be an important step.

“It’s a woman who is going to be at the head of a country, right? In a macho country, in a country of inequality, in a country of violence against women, in a country of femicides,” said Palacios.

Meanwhile, workers like Alejo continue to walk a difficult path.

Alejo is among the 98% of domestic workers who are still not enrolled in medical insurance, according to SINACTRAHO data.

Finally, she works for a kind family that pays her a fair salary, but she is gathering courage to ask the family to pay for her medical insurance, and fears being replaced if she asks for her rights to be respected.

“They don’t like it when you ask for things,” she said. “It’s not easy to look for work. If you need to work, you end up accepting what they give you.”

Source: Independent