El Salvador: Child Domestic Workers
By Sehba Imtiaz

August 7, 2006
A 12-year-old Mexican girl was found in Laredo, Texas shackled to a pole in Texan Sandra Bearden’s backyard. This 28-year-old woman was charged on aggravated kidnapping, injury to a child and child abandonment. The girl had been working in their house as a maid since October and was found chained, beaten, and dehydrated, while being in “shackles in a 3-by-3 foot patch of dirt behind a concrete wall in the backyard.” The police had to use a bolt cutter to free her. She had been chained outside for two months after Bearden supposedly accused her of stealing. She would come in for chores or beatings and then be put outside once again. The girl’s “La senora”, beat her regularly with her hands, a belt, a broomstick, glass, and once with a skillet.
The girl was found in stable condition when the paramedics took her to the local Laredo hospital. She was put in the intensive care unit, being treated for dehydration, infection on the skin and eyes, and severe cuts and bruises on her face and body. The doctors said that she wouldn’t have survived another week in these conditions. Being smuggled across the border to work isn’t the easiest thing in the world. But Bearden convinced her parents that she could offer the child food, clothing and a better life in the United States that they could in the rural village they lived in near Guadalajara.
The FBI might have entered the case to look into the possible human-rights violations.

Now what’s that suppose to mean? “Possible human-rights violations.” A young girl is being abused and harassed and the police say it’s a possible violation. But then again, the FBI can’t solve all of the cases now can they? This is just one of the stories out of the many that exists. Domestic workers face a wide range of grave abuses and labor exploitation, which includes physical and sexual abuse, forced confinement, non-payment of wages, denial of food and health care and/or excessive working hours with no rest days. But isn’t it the police and government’s job to protect people from abuse? However, governments usually exclude domestic workers from standard labor protections and they “fail to monitor recruitment practices that impose heavy debt burdens or misinform workers about their jobs”.
Nisha Varia, a senior researcher for the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, said, “Instead of guaranteeing domestic workers’ ability to work with dignity and freedom from violence, governments have systematically denied them key labor protections extended to other workers.”
In the worst situations, women and girls are trapped in a state of forced labor, or they are trafficked into forced domestic work with conditions similar to slavery. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that more girls under 16 work in domestic services than in any other category of child labor. In El Salvador, more than 20,000 girls and women between the ages of 14 and 19 are domestic workers. And its brutal working conditions often make it one of the worst kinds of child labor.

Many migrate from rural villages to work in urban households in El Salvador. Others come from poor areas on the edge of San Salvador. Children living in poverty, especially girls, turn to domestic work because its one of the few employment opportunities they have. They have to work to support their families. The I.L.O Minimum Age Convention sets the minimum age for employment at 15, but allows developing countries “initially” to set the age at 14. However, most child domestics began work between the ages of 9 and 11, IPEC (ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour) reports. These kids aren’t even of age yet, and they have to start working. Many start to work during the times they were not in school. Most girls spend nearly every waking hour working, attending school, or getting to and from work and school. The long hours are common. Those who live at their employer’s house have the longest hours, but even individuals who don’t live with their employer may still work long hours. The IPEC study found that “the work days are exhausting; the girls spend from four to sixteen hours each day to complete their duties. Normally they begin the day at 5 or 6 a.m., and at times [the work day] is extended until 10 or 11 p.m.”
But most people ignore what the Salvadorian labor code says, because child labor is subject to more restrictive hours. It states that domestic workers may be required to work twelve hours a day; employers must give them two hours off during the day for meals and ten consecutive hours each night. As well as that, the Salvadorian Constitution provides that “[t]he work day of minors under sixteen years shall not be greater than six hours daily and thirty-four weekly, in any type of work. Likewise, [minors under sixteen years] may not work more than two hours of overtime in a day nor carry out work that requires great physical effort. Minors under eighteen years may not work during the night.” Nevertheless, teenagers still work long hours, and no one does anything to stop them. They exhaust themselves but keep going, for they have no other choice. Why don’t they have choices?

“As a domestic worker, you have no control over your life. No one respects you. You have no rights. This is the lowers kind of work.”
-Hasana, child domestic worker who began employment at age 12, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, December 4, 2004.

In spite of this, there are some things that are as bad as the long hours. The IPEC study found that monthly salaries ranged from nothing to $114.29 per month. And those who get paid receive $40 to $100 per month, in addition to room and board, (in cases of those who live with their employers). These wages are likely contributions to the family income, and a rural family of five must spend $94.90 to $98.74 on food each month; and if you add in other basic necessities, it adds up to about $248 each month. But this won’t be enough; 45% of the girls received $34.29 to $57.14 per month. Also, the Salvadorian Constitution states that, “[e]very worker has the right to earn a minimum wage, which shall be set periodically.” Yet El Salvador doesn’t have a minimum wage set for domestic workers, although it does have one for commercial, industrial, and service workers. Last modified in 1998, they’re minimum wage was approximately $144 per month.
These people don’t get paid enough for the jobs they do. They perform a variety of household tasks, which include cleaning, cooking, washing the dishes and laundry, caring for the children, and shopping. They may also help with their employers small business as well. Mónica F., age 17, lived with her employer and this was her workday: At 5:30 a.m. I would get up and prepare breakfast and serve it. Then the señora would leave and I would clean, feed the child breakfast, and then I would have breakfast at about 9 a.m. The girl was six and a half years old. Then I would wash the clothes for all of the family. Then I would get the child a snack, then mop, then fix lunch, then bathe the child, then mop. I would mop three times a day. Then [I would] serve lunch, then clean the bathrooms, then straighten the rooms, then give the child a snack, then watch the child, then clean; then I would cook dinner . . . . After dinner I would wash the dishes and then iron into the night.
But younger kids especially may not be suited to the tasks they are asked to do because they either lack the necessary experience or they are assigned more that they can handle. Over half of the girls interviewed worked as domestics in more than one household. Why did they leave their previous position? The most common answer was “unjust or insufficient pay” (21.8%). The third most common answer was “delays in pay” (9.1%). And the others worked for little or no pay because they have no other choice. Once again I ask, why don’t they have choices?
Domestic workers have frequently talked about abusive behavior by their employer’s children, which was not corrected by parents. Eva M., worked for someone like this at the age of twelve. “I was already pregnant. . . . I worked there for one month only because the children would hit me in the stomach and it would hurt. There were three children. So I left. I got paid $34.29 for one month. I would work from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.” Since caring for children was one of the most common tasks, girls faced considerable disadvantages in dealing with the employer’s children.
Although there have been no firsthand accounts of sexual harassment, those who work with young domestic workers encounter such cases. For example, a former official with the attorney general’s office said “I have known various cases of patrones and sons who sexually abuse domestic workers, including cases in which the domestics became pregnant, and then [the families] throw the girls out. We followed at least three cases of this, and at least one was underage [under eighteen]. . . . The rate is huge. It’s the norm, whether it’s the patrón or his sons. It’s normal for her—she accepts it. She goes to work in a house, and she has no friends or relatives there, and she is afraid that she will be fired. If she says what is happening, they will fire her and say that she has provoked it. There is no fear of the complaint [process].”
Domestic workers, who live with their employer, are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual violence in their workplace. 15.5% have reported that they left their previous position because of such abuse, making it the second leading cause for leaving positions. El Salvador is required under international law to protect domestic workers from sexual harassment in the workplace. However, no one does anything to stop it from happening; everyone seems too scared to make a move.

“When the lady went to drop of the children to the grandmother’s house, the man would stay at home…he raped me many, many times; once a day, every day for three months. He hit me a lot because I didn’t want to have sex. I don’t know what a condom is, but he used some tissues after he raped me. [After paying off my three months’ debt] I took a knife, I said, ‘Don’t get near me, what are you doing?’ I told the lady; she was very angry with me and [the next day] she took me to the harbor and said she bought a ticket for me to Pontianak. I had no money to get from Pontianak. I haven’t gone to a doctor.”
-Zakiah, returned domestic worker from Malaysia, age 20, Lombok, Indonesia, January 24, 2004.

Yet, if we work together, we can stop the abuse. The Human Rights Watch urges governments to extend the key labor protection to domestic workers; establish minimum standards of employment regionally to prevent unhealthy competition; ensure that employers and labor agents are held accountable for abusive practices; and prioritize the elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including child domestic work. As well as that, punitive immigration laws, such as those in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, should be reformed. Punitive immigration laws means those laws that discourage migrant domestic workers from fleeing abusive employers and militate against pressing charges for criminal offenses.

“If I did something the employer didn’t like, she would grab my hair and hit my head on the wall. She would say things like, ‘I don’t pay you to sit and watch TV! You don’t wash the dishes well. I pay your mother good money and you don’t do anything [to deserve it].’…Once I forgot clothes in the washer, and they started to smell, so she grabbed my head and tried to stick it in the washing machine.” -Saida B., child domestic worker, age 15, Casablanca, Morocco, May 17, 2005.

“Abuses Against Child Domestic Workers in El Salvador.” Human Rights Watch January 2003. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/elsalvador0104/3.htm

“Domestic Workers Abused Worldwide: Report Spotlights Violence and Slavelike Conditions in 12 Countries” Human Rights Watch 27 July, 2006 http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/07/26/singap13804_txt.htm

“FBI May Enter Case of Chained Girl” United Press International 15 May, 2001 http://www.vachss.com/help_text/archive/chained_girl.html

“Girl Held Captive Recounts Torment, Torture” The Associated Press 17 October, 2001 http://www.vachss.com/help_text/archive/chained_girl3.html

“Police: Woman chained 12-year-old maid to backyard pole” CNN 14 May, 2001 http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/05/14/chained.girl/

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