Latin American domestic workers build apps to fight for their rights
Ana Sofia Pablo, Nancy Rojas and Diana Enriquez, members of nonprofit CACEH, show the app Dignas on their phones at their office in Mexico City, August 19, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Diana Baptista
What’s the context?
Worker-led collectives in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia are building mobile apps to help domestic staff claim their rights and money.
- Domestic workers turn to technology to guard rights
- Apps include details of laws, payment calculators
- Adoption in rural areas is low, leaving workers vulnerable
By Diana Baptista, Anastasia Moloney and Fabio Teixeira
MEXICO CITY/BOGOTA/RIO DE JANEIRO – After almost three years working for an affluent family in Mexico City, domestic worker Diana Enríquez was unexpectedly fired by text message, without receiving the severance payment or year-end bonus she was entitled to.
Aware that her employers were breaking the law, Enríquez downloaded the app Dignas, or dignified, which provides domestic workers with information on their labor rights in Mexico, and a calculator to estimate payments and bonuses they are due.
"My employer said I had no right to severance payment because we had not signed a contract and couldn't prove I had worked for her. That was a lie," said Enríquez, 50, who is a member of CACEH, a collective of domestic workers that developed the app.
"Dignas protected me. I sent my employer a screenshot of the payment I deserved by law and told her I'd report her to the Labor Secretary if she refused to pay. Three days later I received my payment."
In Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, three of Latin America's largest economies, nonprofits led by domestic workers are developing mobile apps to help more than 9 million workers defend their labor rights.
The three applications include calculators and information for domestic workers - usually poor Black, migrant and indigenous women, who are vulnerable to labor abuses.
Brazilian app Laudelina, which inspired the launch of similar apps in Mexico and Colombia, was released in 2018 and was aimed at more than 6 million domestic workers.
"It's a type of work that has its origins in slavery," said Márcia Soares, executive director at Themis, the nonprofit that developed the app in partnership with the National Federation of Domestic Workers in Brazil (Fenatrad).
"(These women) are at the epicenter of prejudices of sex, race and class," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While a 2015 law gave labor rights to domestic workers, it is not uncommon for the law to be ignored.
Most domestic workers do not have a written contract of employment and can work up to 16 hours a day without receiving overtime payment, said Julieta Hernández, a program manager at CARE, an international aid organization.
Many also face sexual abuse and harassment. In recent years, stories of enslaved domestic workers have made the headlines.
"These apps make it easier for workers to access information about their rights and achieve labor justice," said Hernández.
However, according to collectives developing the apps, they are still inaccessible to workers without smartphones, with low digital literacy, and people in rural areas who lack internet access.
Colombia's estimated 700,000 domestic workers include hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan women who have fled economic and political turmoil in their homeland since 2014.
Often undocumented and without passports or identity cards, Venezuelans are most likely to be exploited and earn below the monthly minimum wage, which equates to about 43,000 Colombian pesos ($9.50) per day including transport subsidies.
The Aliadas, or allies, app provides up-to-date information on labor rights, and also offers an audio option for women who cannot read.
About 20,000 people used it from May 1 to July 31, said Francis Corrales, an analyst at the National Union School (ENS) research center who is helping domestic worker groups to test the app, which first launched in 2019.
Most users are based in the capital, Bogota, and Colombia's second city of Medellin, said Corrales.
Workers in rural areas generally have less education and awareness of their rights, rights organizers said.
Colombian Ana Salamanca, who has been a domestic worker for 25 years, has been using the app since 2019.
"At first, it was a bit difficult, but you get used to it. What I like most is the calculator that allows us to work out what we are owed," said Salamanca, 58, who heads a union of 50 domestic workers who all use the app.
"When we know our rights, we can defend ourselves and negotiate with employers better and reach agreements - although in rural areas some people don't even know they have rights."
Dignas was developed in Mexico during COVID-19, when nonprofit CACEH documented hundreds of cases in which live-in workers were locked up in their employers' homes for two years, or fired from jobs they had held for many years.
"The pandemic taught us about the need to innovate to mitigate the crisis domestic workers were living through," said Ana Sofía Pablo, a project manager at CACEH.
Domestic workers were only granted social security following a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 - but it was left to employers to enroll workers into the system.
By June, only 49,000 of Mexico's 2.2 million domestic workers had been enrolled, according to government data, leaving the rest working informally without access to a pension, public health services, or public housing.
Dignas includes easy-to-understand information for employers on how to enroll their workers and to make mandatory payments into the social security system for their staff.
Work in progress
In Brazil, Laudelina is about to get an upgrade as many workers lacked data on their phones, or deleted the app because their phones lacked sufficient storage, said Soares.
As a solution, Themis is about to relaunch it as a web app linked to WhatsApp - the Meta-owned messaging platform that is hugely popular in Brazil.
Data will not be a problem then, since most data plans in Brazil offer free WhatsApp use, and means they will no longer have to use up phone storage by downloading Laudelina as a standalone app, said Soares.
In Colombia, Aliadas is still a work in progress. The language and legal terms used on the app can be difficult for domestic workers with little schooling to understand.
"We're updating some of the documents because it needs to be a bit more simple," said Corrales.
Since July, CACEH in Mexico has been promoting Dignas at events across the country.
The challenge now is to show women with low digital literacy how to use the app, and slowly push employers into respecting labor rights, it said.
"In paper we have advanced a lot in terms of access to rights. But we still lack a cultural change in which employers see us as worthy of those rights," said Pablo.
Part of:Future Work: Tech's impact on jobs and economies
Updated: August 01, 2023
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