Casimira Rodríguez is breaking the pattern of exploitation, discrimination, and trafficking to which 150,000 Bolivian domestic workers continue to be subjected; as she was for eighteen years. Casimira fosters solidarity among the workers, negotiates with employers, and counteracts the conditions and misinformation that drive girls and young women to migrate in the first place.
The New Idea
Casimira was one of the 150,000 domestic workers in Bolivia who migrate from their indigenous, rural communities to serve in slave-like conditions in the middle- and upper-class homes of the country’s urban centers. She has seen that neither a Domestic Workers’ Union nor a law can effectively protect the rights of these girls and women because the problems run far deeper than a lack of political representation. Instead, Casimira’s strategy for achieving full citizenship of Bolivia’s domestic workers is directed at three critical processes: Facilitating the creation of a surrogate indigenous community across the Domestic Worker’s Union which can support and empower the women who migrate from rural communities; changing society’s perceptions by working with employers and diverse institutional partners; and attacking the conditions and misinformation which drive the girls and young women to migrate in the first place.
Casimira is directing her attention and energy at the actors that perpetuate the exploitation and discrimination: The workers, the employers, and the workers’ families and communities. She recreates the social support network that many of the domestic workers left behind in their indigenous communities by providing programs and services (e.g., literacy classes, sewing, and cooking to facilitate their work) at times and locations accessible to this excluded population; a necessary space in which the girls and women can regain their dignity and self-esteem, and gain the skills and knowledge to defend their rights. Casimira also sees the need to work with employers to improve working conditions. It is critical that employers, in particular, and society, in general, explicitly recognize their role in denying domestic workers the dignity and respect they deserve as full citizens, in order for existing laws to have any tangible effect. Finally, Casimira has identified a significant part of the problem which many others fail to take into account: The poverty conditions from which the girls and young women migrate, and the lucrative networks that facilitate human trafficking between the rural and urban centers. Families will continue to support their daughters’ migration to the cities as long as they believe that a “better life” is possible as a domestic worker, just as Casmira’s family did over 20 years ago.
Bolivia is by far the poorest country in Latin America and is marked by extreme inequalities between rural and urban, rich and poor, indigenous and mestizo. There are deep, historical social divisions that create first- and second-class citizens. Being indigenous, poor, illiterate, and women, many domestic workers aren’t considered citizens at all. To make matters worse, 90 percent of the domestic workers live in the homes in which they work, making them “invisible” to Bolivian society at-large.
Thousands of girls and young women leave their indigenous families and communities each year to work in the city as domestic employees; 55 percent of them start working between the ages of 7 and 15, and 42 percent between 16 and 20. The girls find themselves alone and without a support system. As a result, they are harassed and physically or psychologically abused, often receive their wages late or not at all, are exploited, discriminated against, and denied the basic rights of citizens and employees. To make matters worse, they have significantly lower literacy rates than the rest of Bolivia, only 47 percent have a primary education, and only 7 percent know their rights as domestic workers. The 90 percent that live in their employers’ homes have restricted access to the society at-large, and the access they do have is reduced to very specific spaces and times: Sweeping the front walkways, markets, Sunday outings with the employers, the church, and a handful of night schools. Their invisibility perpetuates a general complacency and apathy toward their situation.
Even the legal system has paid little attention to the domestic worker’s plight. The original labor laws (prior to 2003 of Salaried Home Working Regulation Law # 2450) didn’t apply fully to domestic workers, and even after passing the Domestic Workers Protection Law in 2003, there has been little, if any, real impact on the working conditions of the estimated 150,000 domestic workers. Bolivia’s National Workers’ Union pays little attention to the domestic workers campaign because they lack the resources; other citizen organizations do not support the law; and, in large part, because of the macho mentality of its leaders and constituency, nearly all of whom are men. While the National Domestic Workers’ Union has been able to put their issue on the political agenda, the general public seems not to care, given that many of the individuals who have the power to attract public attention to the domestic workers’ experience (i.e. politicians, wealthy elite), are the same people benefiting from the women’s exploitation and discrimination.
Despite the reality of the conditions in which the workers live, the flow of rural, indigenous girls continues. They leave behind poverty-stricken communities in which there are few viable alternatives for generating income. They arrive in search of a “better life,” to earn their own incomes and take their families out of poverty. But a dream is sold to them by a well-organized network of human traffickers who take advantage of their vulnerable circumstances and disseminate grossly inaccurate accounts of domestic workers’ lives in the homes of the urban, middle- and upper-class. These networks go unnoticed due, in large part, to the lack of rural-urban collaborations of representative organizations and the political and social interests in favor of their service.
Casimira’s strategy focuses on creating enduring changes in three key groups: The domestic workers themselves, the employers and the perceptions of society at-large, and the rural communities from which the girls migrate.
Casimira is facilitating surrogate indigenous communities formed by the domestic workers as a place where they can support each other, learn new skills, acquire independence, and develop the mechanisms for protecting their own rights in the workplace. Casimira is currently developing a team of trained leaders, lawyers, educators, and professionals that can meet the needs of a more empowered domestic workforce. In order to cultivate a more supportive environment for the domestic workers, training courses develop the women’s professional skills, including learning how to negotiate with an employer and skills that are beneficial to the employer (i.e. cooking, childcare, etc.). Casimira focuses on attracting the participation, and attending to the needs of the youngest workers, so that future generations develop a sense of entitlement from early on.
The vision is to establish a network of Educational and Support Centers in Bolivia’s largest cities, which would be formally recognized by the Minister of Education. These Centers would offer the physical space and safety for organizing the workers, as well as increasing the communities’ visibility. Casimira has already supported the rise of new leaders in the Cochabamba group who are assuming responsibility for its operations, enabling her to direct her energies to the network’s expansion. As the respected and well-known leader of the Domestic Workers’ Movement at the national level, Casimira has the contacts and know-how to make this vision a reality.
However, Casimira is clear that working with the women is not enough; it is also critical to work with the employers and society that have historically permitted discrimination and exploitation. Casimira’s organization has established partnerships with progressive employers to raise awareness among the households that benefit from the women’s labor and to generate social pressure for positive change. Through strategic alliances with nearly ten different national and international institutions, including universities, the International Labor Organization, the Minister of Labor, and the national indigenous movement, Casimira aims to get civil society more involved with the issue. Studies conducted in collaboration with universities are critical for revealing the truth about the domestic workers’ professional and personal experiences; their results will be disseminated through popular media and with the support of civil society and the allied employers. Casimira’s future work will capitalize on the momentum she has generated over the past 20 years, during which she has successfully brought the problems facing domestic workers to the national political discourse.
Finally, Casimira has become more aware of the need to address the factors that initially encourage the girls and young women to leave their homes. Without a concerted action to counteract the misinformation that sells the false expectations of a better life and the influence that the Trafficking Networks have, it will be impossible to stop the oversupply of cheap labor. The team of professionals being developed in the Cochabamba organization and future Educational Centers, will initiate informational campaigns in rural communities to disseminate the realities of being domestic workers, as well as facilitate trainings to better prepare those girls who do decide to leave. This work will be strengthened through alliances with rural campesino organizations and international groups, such as the International Organization for Migration. These early interactions will make the Domestic Workers’ Education Centers more accessible to the communities and families of the girls and young women as source of dependable information, support, and recourse.
Casmira sees her role in Cochabamba now as more of an advisor, rather than a central coordinating figure. As the Cochabamba organization grows stronger, she will turn her attention to replicating the Educational Centers, alliances, and rural efforts to other regions of Bolivia. Her three-tiered strategy to garner broad support for systemic change, combined with her extensive personal contacts, have the potential to positively impact not only the 150,000 domestic workers in Bolivia, but also the millions working in other countries throughout Latin America.
Casimira left home at age 13 to work for a middle-class family in Cochabamba. After two years of attending to the 15-member family, working up to 18 hours a day, with only a few hours of rest on occasional Sundays, unable to speak with anyone and under constant surveillance, she returned to her community without ever receiving a single pay check. For Casimira, this first experience introduced her to the realities of the domestic workforce: Exploitation and human trafficking. In her second job, she did receive a regular paycheck, bur her employer regularly discriminated against her, treating her as less than human—a slave. She had to respond to a bell, and was constantly criticized for her work.
But it was during this job, when she was 21, that Casimira found the small group of domestic workers who would one day form the Domestic Workers’ Union of Cochabamba. Through a sewing class offered by this group, she was able to convince her employer to let her leave earlier and return later on Sundays. This became a space for sharing experiences and disseminating information about workers’ rights and organizations. It was March 30, 1989—the International Day for Domestic Workers—and nine years after beginning this job, that Casimira remembers “gaining her freedom,” vowing never again to live in a home where she served as a domestic worker.
Casimira quickly became deeply involved in the Domestic Workers’ Movement. She helped establish the Cochabamba Domestic Workers’ Union in 1985 and in 1989 when the National Domestic Worker’s Union was founded she was listed in the directory. She was later elected as a leader in the National Federation of Domestic Workers. As a national leader, she creatively captured public and media attention by leading the efforts to elaborate and pass the Domestic Workers’ Protection Law, which Congress approved in 2003. Most recently, Casimira has been in the General Secretary of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Domestic Workers.
This latest experience working at the continental level has given her valuable lessons about networking, communications, and organizing, that she is putting to use to gain full citizenship for Bolivia’s invisible domestic workforce.