The limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have not hampered migrant women labor activism in Argentina, but instead have galvanized political action.
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On March 13, 2013, Argentina became one of a handful of countries to recognize full labor rights for household workers through the passage of Law 26844, which established the Special Regime of Labor Contract for the Personnel of Private Households. This landmark legislation, which transformed the juridical status of household workers from servants (with almost nonexistent labor rights) to workers (with rights virtually equal to those enjoyed by all other workers), marked a milestone in the fight for household workers’ labor rights (Jaramillo Fonnegra and Rosas 2014). It also marked a milestone in the fight for migrants’ rights, given that the legislation offers the same degree of protection to all household workers regardless of their citizenship status. At the same time, this legal equality has stood in stark contrast to the intersectional material and symbolic inequalities that many household workers continue to endure to this day.
As in other contexts documented in this forum, the inequalities endured by household workers in Argentina have drastically deepened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, translating not only into obstacles to accessing labor rights but also into the loss of rights that had already been acquired. While a significant portion of household workers have been categorized as “essential” by Argentina’s government during the pandemic, such categorization has not gone hand in hand with maintenance of or access to essential job security and benefits.1 Since the start of the pandemic, more than 300,000 household workers in Argentina have lost their jobs. Just 2 percent of these workers have been able to access unemployment insurance, given that household work is an occupation with a high rate of informality. It is also the primary occupation of working-class women (Poblete 2015), with four out of ten migrant women in Argentina employed in this sector of the economy. In the capital of Buenos Aires, two out of ten of household workers are migrant women from other Latin American countries such as Paraguay, Peru, and Bolivia (Rosas, Jaramillo Fonnegra, and Blas Vergara 2015).
Argentine readers of Exertions will remember the infamous case of the businessman from the city of Tandil, who gained national attention at the beginning of the pandemic after it became known that he had violated the lockdown imposed by the government by hiding a household worker in the trunk of his car and trying to smuggle her into the gated community where he lived. Stories of abuse like this one illustrate how situations of intersectional vulnerability faced by household workers have been exacerbated in the context of the pandemic. Other violations of household workers’ labor rights have included lowering salaries and requiring workers to stay indefinitely at their workplaces, even when this was prohibited by the health authorities. Many household workers have been unable to access severance pay, sick leave, or insurance in the context of the public health crisis. There have also been employers who changed the work category under which they hired workers in order to circumvent restrictions imposed by the government, and still others who communicated that workers should consider the lockdown as a vacation period.
For migrant women, being coerced to keep going to work presented challenges specific to their legal status as noncitizens. These challenges included being exposed to police abuse and legal sanctions that put them at risk of deportation, being unable to continue sending remittances to their families in their countries of origin, and encountering difficulties in accessing the direct relief payment for the unemployed and underemployed.2 Many migrant household workers lacked information on how to access the payment, or lacked the computer literacy or internet access necessary to submit an application. Of those who did manage to put an application through, many were rejected. The requirements for accessing the relief payment included proving legal residence in Argentina of at least two years, which excluded those workers who had been residing in the country for a shorter period as well as those who lacked documents to show that they had, in fact, been living in the country for longer than that.
This exacerbation of inequalities has been confronted head-on by the collective action of migrant women household workers and workers’ rights activists. An instructive example is the work of the Association of United Migrant and Refugee Women in Argentina (AMUMRA), an organization I have been working in collaboration with since 2014, whose mission is to promote the “social, economic, and cultural integration of migrant and refugee women and their families” and to contribute to “overcoming historical and contextual inequalities toward the construction of a more just and democratic society.” Activists such as those involved with AMUMRA did not stop their capacity building or advocacy activities during the pandemic, even though their office had to remain closed and they were not able to meet in person with people in need of their assistance. To the contrary, AMUMRA activists continued and in many ways redoubled their efforts toward building capacity and advocating for migrant women’s rights, in particular those of migrant household workers.
For example, AMUMRA activists helped migrant women to access the direct relief payment by providing them with information on their eligibility through WhatsApp groups and one-on-one phone consultations. In this way, activists not only raised awareness among migrant women of their rights during the pandemic but also bridged the digital divide that, as discussed above, prevented many from accessing this benefit. In addition, the labor lawyer at AMUMRA, who before the pandemic provided pro bono legal counsel to workers each week at the organization’s office, has taken her clinic online. On the one hand, she has continued providing one-on-one counsel via phone and WhatsApp; on the other, she has been organizing collective consultation sessions over Facebook and Instagram Live. These sessions have given workers the opportunity to express the challenges that they have been facing in their places of work, receive free legal advice on how to proceed in the context of the pandemic, and obtain social support by sharing their experiences with activists and other workers.
Migrant household workers’ rights activists have taken advantage of online platforms to raise awareness of worker grievances and to make demands at the local, national, regional, and global levels. They have seized on these platforms as crucial tools to politicize the issue of migrant household workers’ rights during the pandemic, even beyond the particular context of Buenos Aires or Argentina.
One example is the online gathering “The Reality of Household Workers in the Midst of COVID-19,” which was organized by AMUMRA in April 2020 and which attracted household workers’ rights organizations and unions from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay. This gathering not only shed light on the trials and tribulations of household workers in Latin America during the pandemic, but also served as a venue to identify commonalities across contexts and to explore opportunities for collective organizing.
A second example is the event “Voices of Migrant and Refugee Women Household Workers: Work-Life Trajectories and the Impact of COVID-19,” a public gathering of migrant household workers in Argentina organized by AMUMRA in June 2021. In this setting, workers shared their experiences, provided public testimony, and came together in community.
At a different scale, in July 2021, the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), of which AMUMRA is a member organization, held an event entitled “Caring for Carers: Forum on the Global Situation of Vaccination of Migrant Domestic Workers and the Campaign for Inclusion of All Migrants in the Protection Scheme for COVID-19 Response,” which highlighted the global dimension of the urgent situation of migrant household workers and strengthened bonds between organizations and unions of household workers across the world.
The logistical limitations and the more general insecurity imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have not hampered the activism of migrant household workers’ rights activists. To the contrary, the urgency created by the pandemic has galvanized their political action.
María Lis Baiocchi received her PhD in anthropology with a specialization in cultural anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh, where she is a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology. Her research investigates how household workers and household workers’ rights activists seek, claim, and access labor rights in daily life and thus manage the transition from primarily customary to increasingly contractual modes of regulating household labor in Argentina.
Courtesy of Gilbert Mercier.
1. The legal framework that regulates paid household work in Argentina divides it into five categories: supervisor; personnel for specific tasks; housekeeper; assistance and care of persons; and personnel for general tasks. Of these categories, only those workers hired under the category of “assistance and care of persons” were considered essential by the government; they were not only allowed to circulate in the streets but also obliged to continue working during lockdown.
2. This onetime direct relief payment was known as Family Emergency Income (IFE). Those eligible for it included informal workers, some independent contractors, household workers, and the unemployed.
Jaramillo Fonnegra, Verónica, and Carolina Alejandra Rosas. 2014. “En los papeles: de servidoras domésticas a trabajadoras. El caso argentino.” Estudios de derecho 71(158): 197–217.
Poblete, Lorena. 2015. “New Rights, Old Protections: The New Regulation for Domestic Workers in Argentina.” McGill University Labor Law and Development Research Laboratory, Working Paper Series, 5.
Rosas, Carolina, Verónica Jaramillo Fonnegra, and Albano Blas Vergara. 2015.
“Trabajo doméstico y migraciones latinoamericanas. Desde Argentina, hallazgos y reflexiones frente a los destinos extrarregionales.” Estudios demográficos y urbanos 30(2): 253–90.