Since she migrated to Guatemala City from the department of Totonicapán in 1995 when she was fifteen years old, Elisabeth González, K'iche', has worked as a domestic worker in several different households, encountering long work hours, low pay, restrictions on her movements, verbal abuse, no job security, and no health insurance. In a household where González was employed in 1996, she rose at 3 or 4 a.m. to start cleaning and prepare breakfast. Her day ended at 10 or 11 p.m. For this nineteen-hour day, González earned Q400 (U.S. $53) a month. González's 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. schedule in her current place of employment-a fourteen-hour day-is a virtual luxury by comparison. She explained, however, "I hardly ever rest, not even for a minute. There's no fixed time for meals. They interrupt me while I'm eating." González earns Q700 (U.S. $93) a month, a relatively high salary compared to that of many other domestic workers.
-- Elisabeth González, domestic worker
The señor wanted to take advantage of me, he followed me around...he grabbed my breasts twice from behind while I was washing clothes...I yelled, and the boy came out, and the señor left. I didn't tell the señora, because I was afraid. I just quit.
-- María Ajtún, domestic worker
Sara Fernández had to go to a private laboratory and pay for a pregnancy exam in order to provide proof that she was not pregnant before she was hired at the Textiles Tikal, S.A. factory in October 1999.
-- Sara Fernández, maquila worker
Miriam de Rosario, twenty-seven years old, was fired from her job at Modas One Korea maquiladora at the end of May 2000. The director of personnel told De Rosario that she could not continue working because she was pregnant, because this meant she would not work extra hours, could not be made to stand for long periods of time, and would not work as hard as others.
-- Miriam de Rosario, maquiladora worker
These women's experiences are stark examples of the obstacles working women and girls in Guatemala encounter to their full and equal participation in the labor force. Poor women, with little or no education, suffer gender-specific abuses when they work as domestic workers or maquiladora line operators. Live-in domestic workers, situated in private homes and performing "unskilled" tasks considered to be "women's work," are denied key labor rights protections in the Guatemalan labor code and are acutely vulnerable to sexual harassment. Maquiladora line operators, sewing in the global assembly line, are discriminated against on the basis of their reproductive status (pregnancy and maternity status and access to reproductive health care). Working women in both sectors face sex discrimination at the hands of government officials and private citizens, while indigenous women working in these sectors suffer the devastating impact of discrimination based both on sex and ethnicity.
Domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women and girls, do not enjoy equal protection under the law. The labor code effectively excludes domestic employees from basic labor rights. Unlike most other workers, domestic workers are denied the nationally-recognized right to the eight-hour workday and the forty-eight hour workweek, have only limited rights to national holidays and weekly rest, and by and large are denied the right to employee health care under the national social security system. Furthermore, domestic workers are denied the right to be paid the minimum wage. The exclusion of all domestic workers from these rights, although facially gender neutral, has a disproportionate impact on women. This exclusion is not based on legitimate reasons related to the tasks of domestic work, but rather is based on reasons related to gender. Most Guatemalans consider domestic work to be the natural extension of women's role in the family and society, and paid domestic workers essentially perform for wages the tasks the woman of the house is socially expected to perform for free. Both the author of the Guatemalan labor code and the nation's first labor minister acknowledged that gender stereotypes and perceptions about the role of domestic servants in the family influenced the low priority attached to their rights when drafting Guatemala's labor legislation.
The labor code provisions on domestic work have a discriminatory disparate impact on women. Mayan women, who constitute a significant portion of domestic workers in Guatemala, experience heightened discrimination in practice due to pervasive racist sentiment among non-indigenous, or ladino, Guatemalans.
The result of this discrimination is state denial of domestic workers' rights and increased exposure to a series of abuses. These workers toil for upwards of fourteen hours per day; rarely enjoy a full day's rest on Sunday, the common day off; experience tremendous difficulty accessing health care, including reproductive health care; in practice do not enjoy maternity protections under Guatemalan law; and suffer significant levels of sexual harassment and, in the worst cases, sexual assault in the workplace. One third of the twenty-nine domestic employees Human Rights Watch interviewed talked about experiences of sexual harassment at work.
In the maquiladora sector, there is widespread sex discrimination on the basis of reproductive status. Maquilas-as these factories are commonly referred to in Guatemala-often obligate women to reveal whether they are pregnant as a condition of employment, either through questions on job applications, in interviews, or through physical examinations. Maquilas often deny workers who become pregnant on the job their full maternity benefits under Guatemalan law. Finally, maquilas routinely obstruct workers' access to the employee health care system to which they have the right to belong, either by not enrolling them or, if the worker is enrolled, denying her the necessary certificate and time-off to visit a health facility. As with domestic workers, this obstructed access to health care has a direct impact on working women's reproductive health.
The maquila industry, especially apparel manufacturing, has expanded rapidly since the 1980s. There are at least 250 apparel maquilas in Guatemala, employing some 80,000 workers, approximately 80 percent of whom are women. U.S. apparel companies subcontract with maquilas located in Guatemala-many foreign-owned, some Guatemalan-to assemble and package pre-cut fabrics and ship them to the United States for retail sale. The majority of apparel maquilas in Guatemala are directly owned by South Korean companies. Although the influx of global capital and the growth of the maquila sector have meant more economic opportunities for women, these much-needed jobs have come at the price of workers' rights to equality, privacy, and dignity.
The abuses in both the maquila and the paid domestic work sectors reveal a situation in which women's participation and equal rights in the Guatemalan workforce are circumscribed by the expectations and choices surrounding the exercise of their reproductive rights and sexual autonomy. Maquila line operators and domestic workers suffer labor rights violations that have at their core the regulation of their bodies, most notably in the form of pregnancy testing, or the presumption of access to their bodies, in the form of sexual harassment.
Women often start to work in both sectors when they are under the age of eighteen. Nearly twelve percent of maquiladora workers are under the age of sixteen, according to a study conducted by the Central American Network of Women in Solidarity with Maquila Workers. No reliable data exist for domestic workers, but most of the women we interviewed began domestic work at the age of fourteen; we spoke with five girls who were between the ages of fifteen and seventeen at the time of our interviews. (Unless otherwise noted, we use the terms "girl" and "child" to refer to persons under the age of eighteen.)
On paper, Guatemala has embraced its international human rights obligations to protect women from discrimination in the labor force. As a party to international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Guatemala has committed itself to eliminate legal discrimination, prevent discriminatory practices in both the public and private sectors, and provide effective remedies to those who have suffered abuses. Under CEDAW and the Inter-American Convention for the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará), Guatemala is obliged to take steps to eliminate gender-based violence, including sexual harassment. And under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Guatemala has the duty to protect the right to privacy. Many of these commitments are reiterated in the package of peace accords, signed in December 1996, which ended the thirty-six-year civil war in Guatemala.
Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, Guatemala is obligated to afford particular protections to girls employed in work that may threaten their health or safety by exposing them to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse, long work hours, unreasonable confinement to the premises of their employer, or other particularly difficult work conditions.
In practice, however, Guatemalan women and girls cannot count on their government to ensure the full exercise of their rights. While the Guatemalan Constitution states that women and men shall have equality of rights and opportunities, and discrimination on the basis of reproductive status is recognized as illegal, the government has taken few meaningful steps to combat these widespread practices. Discriminatory provisions that negatively affect domestic workers have been left on the statute for decades. There is no sexual harassment legislation. The Ministry of Labor is ineffectual, the labor courts are inefficient, and sanctions for violations of labor laws have been so minimal that they failed to provide any disincentive. There is little coordination among the state institutions charged with enforcing the rights of workers and compliance with national law in the maquila sector. The result is that Guatemala is failing to live up to its international obligations to eliminate all forms of sex discrimination and ensure the right to privacy.
This report is based on research conducted by the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch from May 26-June 26, 2000, in Guatemala City and its surrounding area, and Chimaltenango, a city some fifty kilometers from the capital where maquilas have been established. In the course of the investigation, Human Rights Watch took the testimonies of thirty-seven maquila workers (who between them had worked in thirty different maquilas) and twenty-nine domestic workers. All workers' names have been changed in this report to protect their privacy and prevent retaliation. We also interviewed organizations providing direct services to both populations, women's rights activists, human rights activists, indigenous rights organizations, labor unions, labor law experts, the independent maquila monitoring group COVERCO, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center and the United States/Labor Education in the Americas Project, and government officials (including the labor minister; the director of the Working Women's Unit of the Labor Ministry; the head of the National Office on Women; the Women's Rights Defender in the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office; the Defender of Indigenous Women's Rights; officials in the Labor Ministry's Inspectorate, Guatemalan Institute for Social Security (IGSS) Inspectorate, and the Ministry of Economy; and a labor magistrate). We also met with representatives of the United Nations Mission in Guatemala, the International Labor Organization's Project for Women Workers in the Maquilas in Guatemala, the labor attaché and human rights officer at the U.S. embassy, and representatives of the United States Agency for International Development.
Human Rights Watch documented widespread egregious violations of the Guatemalan labor code and Guatemala's obligations under international law. To remedy these violations, we make the following recommendations to the Guatemalan government, maquila owners and management, the Guatemalan apparel business umbrella organization, multinational corporations that subcontract to maquilas in Guatemala, the International Labor Organization, and the United States government: