When Fernando Lugo took presidential power in Paraguay two years ago, ending 60 years of rule by the right-wing Colorados party, he promised to help the underprivileged and deprived. But continually low salaries, weak health coverage and scarce state aid shows little has changed. Finally though, there are signs that the new government is cleaning up its act – starting with the country’s many empleadas domésticas, or household cleaners.
The domestic cleaning workforce consists of more than 200,000 women in Paraguay – 3 per cent of the population. Most of them get paid about $120 (€88) a month, 40 per cent of the minimum salary. The rest is made up for in bed and board.
Paraguay’s Ministry of Justice and Work, in a bid to end the underpayment and mistreatment women experience in domestic jobs, created a programme in April this year to improve their working environment. The Professionalization Course for Domestic Workers is a joint project with the United Nations and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID), which instructs on the finer points of domestic service.
Women of 16 and over may enroll in the free two-month course (96 hours of lessons) without any requirements other than a valid identification card. It includes five modules taught by professionals – work legislation, domestic relations, cleaning services, kitchen services and occupational projects. The government even gives each participant a transportation fee.
According to the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), Paraguay lacks strong laws to protect the dignity of women (it was only in 2000 that a law was passed classifying domestic violence as a crime – and only if the crime is reoccurring). That is why the course’s main objective is to empower women through rigorous professional training. “We were taught to value ourselves and to have our rights respected,” says Carina Torres, one of the approximately 60 women who have participated in the course so far. With a diploma under her arm, she has already found a job at a cleaning company thanks to an employment register created by Hogar Kuñataí Róga, a seminary where the course is taught.
The number of domestic workers in the world is an estimated 100 million, with 14 million being from Latin America, a region where the profession offers women little social support (in Paraguay health insurance coverage is only offered in capital city Asunción and for short term illnesses, for example). “Promoting a dignified work environment through gender equality is fundamental to accomplish bigger changes,” says Vanessa Stanley, one of the course instructors.
With only the lowest standard of working conditions and a limited opportunity for unionising, staking a claim in a macho society still appears to be one of Paraguayan women’s hardest tasks.