As head of the women’s department of the Paraguayan union centre CUT-Autentica, affiliated to ITUC-TUCA, Marta Dora Peralta is leading the trade union battle to organise domestic workers, indigenous in the main, and to battle against the gross exploitation they suffer. She tells us about the magnitude of the struggle to be waged against discrimination, especially in the area of pay and working conditions, as well as against child labour. (VIDEO)
What can you tell us about the situation of domestic workers in Paraguay?
In Paraguay we have a situation of semi-slavery in Asunción and complete slavery in the ranches of El Chaco. The women work without pay and are completely unprotected.
We estimate that almost half of the women in Paraguay work as domestics. The impact is double, as other women in the family have to step into the breach to look after the children and do the cooking and household chores while the mothers are away. Domestic workers cannot look after their own children. They have to look after other people’s children instead.
We are pressing the government to set up state crèches and kindergartens for the children of working mothers and are trying to bring improvements to the education system. We want to see domestic workers well paid for an eight-hour day.
The minimum monthly wage, as established by law, is just over 1.5 million guaranies (about US$330), but the government has also brought in labour legislation setting domestic workers’ pay at 40 percent of the minimum wage. If they are aged between 14 and 17 years, the law sets their pay at 60 percent of the minimum wage. All this is completely discriminatory.
In Paraguay, the minimum wage for poor workers is not a minimum wage, it is a maximum wage. We need to have a universal minimum wage that is applied throughout the country.
Furthermore, most domestic workers are only given half a day off a week, when the law states they should get at least one day off a week. Apart from this half day, they have no right to any other holidays.
When did CUT-Autentica start its campaign to improve domestic workers’ conditions?
We started work on domestic workers in 2005. We analysed the situation, looked for strategic alliances with civil society organizations and constructed a regional agenda. We also produced a short feature film highlighting the abuses suffered by domestic women workers to get the message out.
Then we began a campaign to get the issue on to the political agenda. We also started working in El Chaco and on the big estates in the eastern part of the country.
Since 1998 we have also been working through the Tripartite Commission, comprising the government, employers and unions, to promote equal opportunities for men and women and decent working conditions.
Paraguay has two domestic workers’ trade unions and an Association of Domestic Workers. We are working very closely with one of the unions, the Paraguayan domestic workers’ union SINTRADOP, and are helping the association to get full trade union recognition from the government.
Do you face any distinct problems when trying to organize domestic workers?
Yes we do. One of the great difficulties in organizing these women is that most only get one day off, a Sunday, and as mothers they quite naturally want to spend this precious time with their families and children. A domestic worker doesn’t have any time to relax or even eat properly, and she is not in touch with her own family.
Even so-called part-timers work at least 12 hours from 6 a.m. to around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. before they go home.
Workers who live with their employers start work at 5 or 6 a.m. They cook, look after the children and elderly and finish after 14 or 18 hours’ work. If their employers need them at night, they have to be there for them.
Much domestic labour could also be described as child labour……
Absolutely. One of our major preoccupations is that many domestic workers are children. Their families send them to Asuncion to work as “baby-sitters”, and the employer is supposed to provide them with an education in return. But it is not the case. The education they are given is so poor that they don’t even finish primary school.
Paraguay is an extremely macho society. Could you tell us more about this and how it affects your work?
Machismo is an institution here in Paraguay. Of all the Latin males, the Paraguayan is the most macho. He can do exactly as he pleases, come home at any time he wants. This is where all the trouble starts with their wives and children.
There was a recent study saying Paraguayan policemen were the worst in terms of how they treat their wives.
We have an incredibly high incidence of wife beating and domestic abuse. The number of broken marriages is soaring, and more women are now deciding to live alone, rather than suffer this type of abuse.
There are also sexual exploitation, women trafficking and “womb renting” networks. These illegal activities are particularly rife in the border areas.
Paraguay seems to have very “unusual” labour laws. This must hamper progress?
Yes. The Ministry of Justice and Labour is in overall control, but it spends 80 percent of its budget on prisons and law enforcement. Only 20 percent of the budget is handled by a Vice Minister of Labour, who is in charge of non-state workers.
State workers are overseen by a Civil Service Secretariat and are governed by different labour laws.
So the situation is very complex. We want to see the ministry transformed into a Ministry of Employment and Social Security. This has always been one of CUT-Autentica’s main objectives. The government is seriously studying this proposal as we speak. We have had many meetings with it over this issue.
Paraguay has had a long and debilitating history of military dictatorship. Has the current civilian government been more open to dialogue with the trade unions and democratic forces?
You could say the current government has been more “tolerant”, but you could not say that they have been more favourable to us.
The government is an alliance between the Liberals and the party of the former bishop Fernando Lugo. Lugo doesn’t just have one hand tied behind his back, but both. And a recent scandal over him fathering children while he was still a priest has further undermined his fragile authority.
There are other worrying signs. In the recent local municipal elections the Colorado Party, the party of the former dictator, Stroessner, returned to power in Asunción and many other municipalities throughout the country.
People are still not prepared for democracy. Very discriminatory practices are still in place. Twenty years have gone by and we still haven’t managed a ’transition’. Paraguay can’t continue to live like this, with slave labour, wage discrimination and no workers’ rights.
Interview and photos: David Browne
Also see the video: Guatemala: gold mine plundering sacred resources