Women employed as domestic workers and maquila line operators in Guatemala are discriminated against because they are women. While domestic work is a long-standing option for women, primarily indigenous women from rural areas, with little or no formal or vocational training, the maquila industry presents an alternative for Guatemalan women in the form of new economic opportunities. Some have argued that globalization, in the form of maquilas, is sweeping Guatemalan women into modernity. At last liberated from domestic work, at least the paid kind, women in Guatemala can enter the real labor force to work in factories where they will have more rights and more freedom. The reality is a mixed bag. Many women find themselves trapped between work in which they have restricted rights, little freedom, and no guarantees, and work in which their privacy is invaded and their right to equality is violated.
Domestic workers are among the least protected and most exploited workers in Guatemala. The labor code has essentially established a hierarchy of workers, in which domestic workers are afforded curtailed rights because the work they perform is devalued. It is devalued precisely because it is performed by women and takes place in the private sphere. Domestic workers are denied key labor rights, such as the right to the eight-hour workday, the right to the minimum wage, the right to a full day's weekly rest, and these workers are largely excluded from the national employee health care system. In addition, domestic workers are routinely denied access to maternity benefits and are largely unable to attend to their family responsibilities. The law does not provide special protections for young domestic workers, despite the fact that a significant number of the workforce is under eighteen. Domestic workers, especially girls, are extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment on the job. It is clear that domestic workers do not enjoy equal protection under the law. The exclusion of domestic workers has a disparate impact on women and girls, who constitute the vast majority of this workforce.
Maquila workers, although employed in a highly regulated industry where they should enjoy the full range of labor rights guaranteed in the labor code, are nonetheless discriminated against on the basis of reproductive status. In order to secure a job in a maquila, women applicants must often answer questions about their pregnancy status and, sometimes, take a pregnancy test. Once employed, workers who become pregnant frequently do not have access to appropriate health care and do not always enjoy the full range of maternity benefits provided for in Guatemalan law. Discrimination on the basis of reproductive status is contrary to the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity and treatment.
The Guatemalan government has international obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill women's human rights. This means Guatemala must eliminate legal discrimination where it exists, take steps to prevent discrimination by both public and private actors, and ensure that women whose rights have been violated have access to effective remedies. In practice, Human Rights Watch found that the government of Guatemala is not living up to these obligations. The result is that women workers are subject to sex discrimination and violations of their right to privacy. As more and more women enter the Guatemalan workforce, the government must take all necessary measures to ensure they do so with equal rights and equal opportunities, in law and in practice.