Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Dynamics of domestic worker relationship a difficult adjustment

Ana is the name of the woman who helps in our home. She’s privy to some of the most intimate details of the house: what and how much food we have (and waste), whether or not my daughter has wet the bed, our laundry for goodness’ sake!

She knows the trash schedule in our neighborhood better than we do, and worries about what we’ll have for lunch before I even start thinking about it.

She is wonderful, if a bit indulgent, with my child and my dogs — she heats tortillas to throw into their food bowls! — and has never, ever shown us any unkindness.

Though she’s worked hard all of her life, she is poor, but she doesn’t live in such dire circumstances as others in her position. She raised three children of her own alone, and though she’s only a couple of years older than me, helps regularly with several grandchildren during what little time off she has.

Of all the things culturally that have been new, surprising and uncomfortable, the sharp division among social classes and the dynamics of the señora de la casa/muchacha (lady of the house/“girl” — what most here call domestic workers) relationship has been the most difficult to get used to.

I’ve been impossibly American about it, insisting that she use the informal tú with me and not allowing my child to emit anything that could even be perceived as a demand, but I feel the built-in distance keenly.

The fact that someone comes to my home three times a week to do the work that would otherwise be done by us — that really should be done by us — while her own house sits empty feels decadent and pompous, and although my Spanish is excellent, I stumble awkwardly over my words when talking about her: she’s a grown woman, not a muchacha, and I refuse to use that name for her.

Even if she were a young girl (how young have domestic helpers been and for how long to have had such a name for them stick?), she is doing a real, proper job, which dignifies a real title. Usually I say something like la señora que nos ayuda en la casa (“the lady who helps us at home”), which hardly sounds professional, but at least that way I don’t make her seem like some kid that just hangs around my home.

Other foreign women and I sometimes try to calm our discomfort through humor (“Hey, I know what we should do today! Let’s go get our nails painted and complain about our muchachas!”); we women, after all, are presumed to be the beneficiaries of domestic help, though both women and men are.

In a rapidly-changing society in which both partners find it both necessary and desirable to work outside the home, a vacuum is left where previously la señora de la casa would have taken care of things like cleaning, food preparation and childcare. It’s a lot more work than it sounds like, and I find men of all nationalities fairly oblivious (willfully, I suspect) to the sheer amount of things that must get done for a household to run properly.

Though many people see it as low-skill labor that basically anyone could do, it’s important work, and without it it’s nearly impossible to get any other kind of work done. The home and family, after all, is the prime social unit, and the point from which we all begin and end our days.

Just because it’s traditionally been looked after by women doesn’t make it less valuable, and the lip service paid clearly doesn’t match the real benefits given for keeping it running; praise rings empty when not followed by deed.

With my husband often working in another city and me working many hours from home, we are completely dependent on Ana for the work that simply must get done, whether we have time for it or not. She is an essential and integral part of making our lives work, as domestic workers are all over Mexico.

Amazingly, she does not seem to understand her value to us, and hearing her talk about some of her other clients it becomes clear why. I feel both eternally grateful and ridiculously guilty for our perceived sainthood by comparison: paying a decent wage and showing basic human kindness is not difficult, but it is not something that most domestic workers expect, and doesn’t seem to be something that Ana expects.

The specifications of the new law regarding worker rights for domestic laborers are revealing, and confirm my suspicions about the fate of a majority of them around the country. The fact that it’s necessary to stipulate, for example, that workers have nine consecutive hours of rest and that they must be allowed to eat the same food as those they serve speaks of wide patterns of not just abuse, but elitist attitudes I hoped only existed in the movies.

When an acquaintance detailed a long list of complaints about her muchacha on Facebook, among them the fact that she’d had a beer from the fridge without asking permission, I was shocked that she thought it improper for the person that was caring for her home and children from sunup to sundown for 150 pesos a day to sit down for a moment of rest and consume something from the home she helps sustain.

Now the fact that Ana asks permission to leave early for a doctor’s appointment, makes an announcement that she is grabbing some of “my” coffee, and consistent deference and cheerfulness even when it’s clear she’s had a bad day makes sense.

We’ve helped Ana a lot over the years, with loans, gifts, medicines that she couldn’t afford. We are her highest-paying clients, and even so, I don’t think we’re giving her even half of what she deserves (one part of our “when we get rich . . .” fantasies is to hire her full time with generous salary and benefits).

We don’t think we’re saints for helping her — I shudder at the idea of others thinking we want to be congratulated for being “such good people,” the Mexican version of white saviors. We help her because it’s what she deserves as a worker, independently of how well she does her job, or how much we like her.

We do so because even though her rights hadn’t been specified by law before, they always should have been, and because every working person deserves security, to have their basic needs met and money and time left over for leisure.

The new Mexican law stipulating official contracts and minimum wage for domestic workers is a huge step in the right direction, and I applaud the effort. I hope the government will publish a clear step-by-step guide for setting everything up, and that employers will not simply ignore the law.

I’d especially like to know what to do in Ana’s case, as we are not her only employers. Giving vacation pay and time off for unforeseen necessities is easy enough (and something we already do), but how do we set up health service when we are not her only clients? Hopefully these are issues that will be studied and teased out with straightforward guides available.

The vast number of mostly poor women who keep our homes running deserve a living wage, respect and the same benefits that other workers are entitled to. It’s way past time to give those to them.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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