Coming of age to work, and lead

Coming of age to work, and lead

Publication info

Allen Clinton

Many of the estimated 250,000 domestic workers in Guatemala begin working at about 14 years of age. That time came much sooner for Lilian de Leon. After her father abandoned them, as the oldest of three daughters, it was up to Lilian to help feed and clothe her impoverished family. At age 11, she joined her mother as a domestic worker. She cleaned, cooked and took care of young children in wealthier households. Lilian worked 16-hour days, seven days a week for the next decade, earning only $150 a month – compared with $400 a month she would make if she were being paid a minimum wage for “regular” work.

Like other domestic workers, including her sisters, who eventually became domestic workers too, Lilian was caught in the trap of work that excludes indigenous women and girls from basic labor rights like an eight-hour workday, minimum wage, overtime, employee health care and maternity protection. “Sometimes the families didn’t even pay us at the end of the month,” says Lilian, now 23. “We’d be fired if we questioned anything. This was not going to be my life.” 

Determined, Lilian found a way to go to school in the early mornings or midafternoons while keeping pace with her busy work schedule. She graduated from high school with above-average grades. Last year, however, Lilian injured her back in a bus accident and was fired when she asked for a few days off to recover. It’s hard to imagine that turn of events could be a blessing in disguise, but it was. It led to a new path in life. Still needing to earn an income, Lilian began selling candy in Central Park, where one afternoon she was approached by a domestic worker representative who shared information with her. Lilian joined the newly formed 158-member group Sitradansa – the first of its kind in Guatemala – and became a key advocate for the rights of domestic workers. 

“Our main goal is to protect indigenous women and adolescent girls from discrimination and violence in the workplace,” Lilian says. “Right now the membership is small. Domestic workers are extremely reluctant to organize in Guatemala and would be fired for participating if their employers found out.”

Learning of her potential, CARE Guatemala recently recruited Lilian as a full-time employee and liaison with her group. “The rights of domestic workers is a critical issue for CARE, because it impacts so many women and their families,” says Ada Zambrano, CARE Guatemala director. “We are training Lilian as a professional with the skills to help lead and grow the domestic workers movement from the ground up. We aim to help workers approach Congress and the president with the case to ratify International Labor Organization Convention 189. This would be a critical first step, which essentially gives domestic workers the same rights as any other workers.”

Opportunities for young women from rural villages in Guatemala are few and far between. Driven by poverty, they either stay home to marry young and raise several children, while still being teenagers themselves, or they migrate to cities in search of domestic work to earn some kind of income. Either way, they get stuck in the cycle of poverty. 

Lilian is that rare case. She has transformed her life and wants to transform the lives of other domestic workers, and help make sure the proper value and protections are placed on their work. Domestic work is so informal, there are hardly any statistics. One of Lilian’s first tasks at CARE was to prepare a questionnaire to identify types of violence and harassment that domestic workers face in the workplace. Three of the 23 domestic workers interviewed in an initial random sample said they suffered sexual abuse, and two of those three got pregnant by their employers – one was only 16 years old.

”If I could meet with the president right now, I’d tell him that domestic workers are treated like slaves,” Lilian says. “I would say to him, ‘Be aware of the child labor situation in your country. Young girls work for food and aren’t paid anything. Physical and sexual violence happens all the time in the workplace, and they can’t do anything about it. In your hands are the rights of women and young girls who want a better life, to support their families and to raise the children of Guatemala.’ ”

Lilian de Leon of CARE Guatemala, a former domestic worker herself, says her main goal is "to protect indigenous women and adolescent girls from discrimination and violence in the workplace." Photo: Allen Clinton/CARE