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DOMESTICS NEEDED with or without experience from 12 to 40 years old in San Salvador.

—Advertisement in El Diario de Hoy (San Salvador), February 15, 2003, p. 87.

Domestic work is the largest employment category for girls under sixteen worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).8 But child domestic workers throughout the world are frequently “invisible because each child is separately employed and works in the seclusion of a private house, unlike children in a factory or on the street,” the UNICEF International Child Development Center notes. “They do not exist as a group and are difficult to reach and count. Their jobs are invisible too: domestic work belongs in the informal labour market, is unregistered and does not show up clearly in employment statistics.”9

For these reasons, it is difficult to estimate the total number of child domestic workers in El Salvador. “We don’t have accurate data” on the number of domestic workers, said Luís Salazar, the associate ombudsman for children and adolescents’ issues.10 According to the Household Survey (Encuesta de Hogares de Própositos Multiples), conducted by the Salvadoran census bureau, some 348,300 children and young adults between the ages of ten and nineteen were “economically active” in 2001. Girls and women comprised 30 percent of that total.11 Using these data, the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) concluded that approximately 21,500 youths between the ages of fourteen and nineteen work in domestic service. Some 20,800, over 95 percent of these youths, are girls and women.12 Based on these figures, one out of every five girls between the ages of ten and nineteen who has or is seeking a job is a domestic worker.

In contrast to their peers in neighboring Guatemala, domestic workers in El Salvador are not generally from indigenous groups. Estimates of El Salvador’s indigenous population range from 1 to 7 percent of the total population of 6.2 million.13

Many of the girls we interviewed migrated from rural villages to work in urban households. Others came from poor sections on the edge of San Salvador. We did not attempt to determine the incomes of their households, but it was evident to us that all came from poor families. This observation is not surprising: Throughout the Americas, children living in poverty, and particularly girls, turn to domestic work because it is one of the few employment opportunities they have and because they must work to support their families.14


Most child domestics begin work between the ages of nine and eleven, IPEC reports.15 Human Rights Watch heard similar starting ages from the workers we interviewed. Nieves L., now fourteen, told us that she took her first job as a domestic worker when she was nine-and-a-half.16 Nineteen-year-old Rosa N. reported, “I was ten or eleven years old when I began doing this.”17

Many of those we interviewed started to work as domestics during times when they were not in school. For example, Mónica F. began domestic work when she was thirteen, initially working only on weekends and during school vacations. When she turned seventeen, she stayed with the family on a full-time basis until she left the job in November 2002 because of her school schedule.18 Alma S. also began domestic work when she was thirteen. She lived at her employer’s house for two months during the school holidays. After she left that job, she worked as a live-in domestic in two other houses during the school year.19

The I.L.O. Minimum Age Convention, ratified by El Salvador in 1996, sets the minimum age for employment at fifteen but allows developing countries “initially” to set the age at fourteen.20 El Salvador reserved the right to set the minimum age at fourteen when it ratified the convention.

Types of Work

Domestic workers regularly perform a wide variety of household tasks, including cleaning, cooking, washing dishes and laundry, caring for children, and shopping. “I did the cleaning,” fifteen-year-old Alma S. said. “I cleaned the bathroom, took out the trash, washed the car. . . . Another girl cooked and ironed. I lived in the house. I got up at 5:30 a.m. At 6 a.m. I began to clean the house. I would stop cleaning after lunch; in the afternoon I would do other things. I worked practically the whole day.”21

As Alma did, Mónica F., seventeen, lived in her employer’s house and had a similar workday. She told us:

At 5:30 a.m. I would get up and prepare breakfast and serve it. Then the señora would leave and I would clean, feed the child breakfast, and then I would have breakfast at about 9 a.m. The girl was six and a half years old. Then I would wash the clothes for all of the family. Then I would get the child a snack, then mop, then fix lunch, then bathe the child, then mop. I would mop three times a day. Then [I would] serve lunch, then clean the bathrooms, then straighten the rooms, then give the child a snack, then watch the child, then clean; then I would cook dinner. . . . After dinner I would wash the dishes and then iron into the night.22

“It was very hard,” said Sandra B., age seventeen. “I worked in a house looking after the children, washing the clothes, cleaning the house, preparing the meals—almost everything in the house.” She worked in that house for two and a half years, starting when she was fifteen. Later in our interview, she described the tasks she performed at that house in more detail:

The tasks I did? Well, I cared for the baby. I washed the baby’s clothes. I cleaned the whole house. I ironed. I cooked for the other people in the house. I did the washing and cleaning. I went to the market also. There were seven people in the house, plus the two children, plus me, so I cooked for ten people in all. I was the only domestic worker in the house.23

Domestic workers may also help with their employers’ small businesses. For example, Nieves L. worked at her employer’s store, in addition to her responsibilities in her employer’s home, when she was nine and a half. “I would care for children, tend to the store, wash, iron, clean,” she told Human Rights Watch. “At 6 a.m. I would clean and then open the store because the señora got up late. She left me in charge of the store.” Now fourteen, she works as a domestic in another house and sometimes helps her employer sell tacos on the highway.24

Younger children, in particular, may not be suited to the tasks they are asked to perform, either because they lack the necessary experience or because they are assigned more work than they can handle. For example, nearly every domestic worker with whom we spoke told us that her employers expected her to watch their children in addition to her other duties. When she was ten, Nieves L. said, “One time I grabbed the child’s arm and she cried, and the patrona told me not to do this because the arm could break. I felt bad.”25 In addition, IPEC’s study on child domestic labor in El Salvador concluded, “The number of tasks, the frequency with which they are done, and the effort they require surpass the physical capacities of the girls and boys who do them.”26

Hours of Work

As in the case of Flor N., profiled in the summary, long hours are common. Most of the girls we interviewed told us that they spent nearly every waking hour working, attending school, or getting to and from work and school.

Those who lived in their employers’ homes reported the longest work hours. For example, Rosalba G., seventeen, worked for two years in a house where her primary responsibility was to care for two children, ages seven and five. She reported:

I would get up at 6 a.m., wash dishes, sweep, mop, straighten up. I didn’t go to the market, but I did go to the store. Sometimes they [the employers] would come back and cook; other times I made food. I served the children. The adults fixed their own food. I washed clothes for the four children. I liked the work. I would go to bed at 9 or 10 p.m.27

Domestic workers who do not spend nights in their employers’ homes may still work long hours. Sandra B., who now works from noon to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, worked in another house for two and a half years. “In the old house, my hours were from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday,” she told us.28

The IPEC study found that “the work days are exhausting; the girls spend from four to sixteen hours each day to complete their duties. Normally they begin the day at 5 or 6 a.m., and at times [the work day] is extended until 10 or 11 p.m.”29

Under the Salvadoran labor code, domestic workers may be required to work up to twelve hours per day: Employers must give domestic workers two hours off during the day for meals and ten consecutive hours off each night.30 But child labor is subject to more restrictive hours. The Salvadoran Constitution provides that “[t]he work day of minors under sixteen years shall not be greater than six hours daily and thirty-four weekly, in any type of work.”31 The labor code repeats this provision and declares, “Likewise, [minors under sixteen years] may not work more than two hours of overtime in a day nor carry out work that requires great physical effort. Minors under eighteen years may not work during the night.”32


Those who were paid for their work told us that they received between $40 and $100 per month, in addition to room and board in the cases of those who lived with their employers. The following examples are representative of the accounts we heard:

  • Dolores Q., seventeen, made ¢350 ($40) per month for forty-eight hours of work each week, according to her friend Nora L.33
  • Rosa N., then fifteen, received ¢450 ($51.43) per month in 1999, when she worked about seventy hours per week.34
  • Sandra B., age seventeen, made ¢550 ($62.86) each month for eighty-four hours of work per week.35
  • Fifteen-year-old Alma S. reported that her monthly salary was ¢800 ($91.43) for approximately seventy-two hours per week.36

The IPEC study found a broader range of wages, reporting that the monthly salaries paid to children ranged from nothing to ¢1,000 ($114.29). Forty-five percent of the girls interviewed for the study received between ¢300 and ¢500 ($34.29 to 57.14) per month; 19 percent made ¢200 to ¢300 ($22.86 to 34.29) each month.37

Under the Salvadoran Constitution, “[e]very worker has the right to earn a minimum wage, which shall be set periodically.”38 El Salvador does not have a minimum wage specifically for domestic workers, but it does set a minimum wage for all commercial, industrial, and service workers. Last modified in 1998, the minimum wage for this group of workers is ¢42 ($4.80) per day, or approximately ¢1,260 ($144) per month.39

These wages are likely an important contribution to the family income. A rural family of five must spend between ¢830.40 and ¢864 ($94.90 to $98.74) on food alone each month, according to 2001 figures from the Ministry of Labor.40 Adding in other basic necessities, IPEC estimates that the same family would need approximately ¢2,170 ($248) each month: The total for each person’s basic monthly necessities—clothing, personal items, food, bus fare, and medication—comes to ¢434 ($49.50), a figure that includes ¢25 ($2.86) for recreation.41

We heard numerous accounts of girls who did not receive all of the wages they were due. For example, Eva M., a sixteen-year-old who has worked in three homes since she left the third grade, reported:

When I was ten, I went to work in the first house. I would wash the dishes, make the beds . . . . I slept there. This was in San Salvador. They didn’t pay me because they left and went to their mother’s house and didn’t give me the address. I worked there for four months without being paid. I worked from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. In the morning I would do the cleaning and then make lunch. I took care of the three-year-old child. I would cook, wash clothes.42

Over half the girls interviewed for the IPEC study had worked as domestics in more than one household. When they were asked why they left their previous positions, the most common response was “unjust or insufficient pay” (21.8 percent); the third most common response was “delays in pay” (9.1 percent).43

Others work for little or no pay because they have no realistic alternative. María Q., sixteen, left her home after she was abused by her father. She lives in a neighbor’s house and does the housework there to support herself.44 Flor N. also initially left her home and sought employment as a domestic worker because of abuse.45

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes “the right of everyone to enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular . . . [f]air wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value, without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work . . . .”46

Physical and Psychological Abuse

Domestic workers frequently spoke of abusive behavior by children that was not corrected by parents. For example, Eva M., told us that when she was twelve, she worked for one such employer. “I was already pregnant. . . . I worked there for one month only because the children would hit me in the stomach and it would hurt. There were three children. So I left. I got paid ¢300 [$34.29] for one month. I would work from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.”47

Caring for children was one of the most common tasks reported by the girls we interviewed. Young, often inexperienced, and unrelated to the family, these girls face considerable disadvantages in dealing with their employers’ children. After Eva M. left the house with the children who routinely punched her in the stomach, she went to another house with four children. The mother “didn’t like me to say anything to the children, which is why I left,” she said.48

We heard no firsthand accounts of sexual harassment, but those who work with young domestic workers told us that they have encountered cases of such abuse. Ima Rosillo Guerola of CEMUJER told us, “We have had cases of [sexually] abused domestic workers, including where the employer has brought the girl in [to see us].”49 Similarly, a former official with the attorney general’s office told us:

I have known various cases of patrones and sons who sexually abuse domestic workers, including cases in which the domestics became pregnant, and then [the families] throw the girls out. We followed at least three cases of this, and at least one was underage [under eighteen]. . . . The rate is huge. It’s the norm, whether it’s the patrón or his sons. It’s normal for her—she accepts it. She goes to work in a house, and she has no friends or relatives there, and she is afraid that she will be fired. If she says what is happening, they will fire her and say that she has provoked it. There is no fear of the complaint [process].50

Domestic workers, especially those who live in the premises where they work, are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. Of those surveyed for the IPEC study who had held more than one position as a domestic worker, 15.5 percent reported that they left their previous position because of sexual harassment or sexual abuse, making such abuse the second leading cause for leaving a position.51

Under the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation, any work that “exposes children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse” falls under the international prohibition on harmful or hazardous child labor.52 In addition, El Salvador is obligated under international law to protect domestic workers from sexual harassment in the workplace. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has noted that sexual harassment impairs equality in employment, in violation of the principle of nondiscrimination.53 The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (known as the Convention of Belém do Pará) explicitly prohibits workplace sexual harassment as a form of violence against women,54 and the ILO considers sexual harassment to be a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958.55

8 International Labour Organization, Child Labour: Tolerating the Intolerable (Geneva: ILO, 1996).

9 UNICEF International Child Development Centre, Child Domestic Work, Innocenti Digest No. 5 (Florence: UNICEF International Child Development Centre, 1999), p. 3.

10 Human Rights Watch interview with Luís Enrique Salazar Flores, associate ombudsman for children and adolescents’ issues, Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procuradoría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos), San Salvador, February 10, 2003.

11 See Ministerio de Trabajo y Previsión Social, Oficina de Estadística e Informática Laboral, Estadísticas Laborales 2001 (San Salvador: Ministerio de Trabajo y Previsión Social, 2002), cuadro 3.1.5: Condición de actividad de la población en edad de trabajar, según sexo y tramo de edad, total país 2001, p. 16. The “economically active population” is the sum of those who have a job and those who seek work. See ibid., p. 75.

12 Oscar Godoy, El Salvador: Trabajo infantil doméstico: Una evaluación rápida (Geneva: International Labour Organization, International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour, 2002), p. 19. To arrive at these figures, the IPEC study employed statistical projections based on data collected in the Salvadoran census bureau’s Household Survey. See ibid., p. 19.

13 Compare U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, “Background Note: El Salvador,” September 2003, available online at (retrieved September 26, 2003) (estimating indigenous population at 1 percent) with International Labour Organization, “Indigenous Peoples in Latin America,” August 3, 1999, available online at ampro/mdtsanjose/indigenous/cuadro.htm (retrieved September 26, 2003) (estimating indigenous population at 7 percent).

14 See, for example, Esmeralda Ruíz González and Maritza Díaz Barón, “Las niñas también trabajan,” in Gladys Acosta Vargas et al., eds., Trabajo infantil doméstico: ¿Y quién la mandó a ser niña? (Santafé de Bogotá, Colombia: Tercer Mundo S.A. and UNICEF, 2000), pp. 157-96; Defensa de los Niños Internacional-Sección Costa Rica, El trabajo infantil y adolescente doméstico . . . pesa demasiado: Historias de vida de siete niñas y adolescentes mujeres trabajadoras domésticas en casas de terceros en Centroamérica, México y República Dominicana (San José, Costa Rica: Defensa de los Niños Internacional, 2002), p. 11.

15 Godoy, Trabajo infantil doméstico, p. 23.

16 Human Rights Watch interview with Nieves L., San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

17 Human Rights Watch interview with Rosa N., Department of San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

18 Human Rights Watch interview with Mónica F., San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

19 Human Rights Watch interview with Alma S., Department of San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

20 I.L.O. Convention No. 138 concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment (“Minimum Age Convention”), adopted June 26, 1973, 1015 U.N.T.S. 297 (entered into force June 19, 1976), art. 2(3). El Salvador ratified the Minimum Age Convention on January 23, 1996, and specified a minimum employment age of fourteen. A country that specifies a minimum employment age of fourteen must set a date by which it will raise its minimum age to fifteen. See ibid., art. 5(b). Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine the date, if any, that El Salvador has set for raising its minimum employment age to fifteen.

21 Human Rights Watch interview with Alma S., Department of San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

22 Human Rights Watch interview with Mónica F., San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

23 Human Rights Watch interview with Sandra B., San Salvador, February 20, 2003.

24 Human Rights Watch interview with Nieves L., San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

25 Human Rights Watch interview with Nieves L., San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

26 “La cantidad de tareas, la frecuencia con la que las realizan y el esfuerzo que requieren, sobrepasan las capacidades físicas de las niñas y niños que las ejecutan.” Godoy, Trabajo infantil doméstico, p. 25.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with Rosalba G., San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

28 Human Rights Watch interview with Sandra B., San Salvador, February 20, 2003.

29 “[L]as jornadas de trabajo son extenuantes, las niñas dedican desde 4 hasta 16 horas cada día para cumplir con sus obligaciones. Normalmente inician la jornada a las 5 ó 6 de la mañana, y a veces se extiende hasta las 10 u 11 de la noche.” Godoy, Trabajo infantil doméstico, p. 32.

30 Código de Trabajo, art. 80.

31 Constitución de la República de El Salvador, art. 38(10).

32 “La jornada de los menores de dieciséis años, no podrá ser mayor de seis horas diarias, y de treinta y cuatro semanales, en cualquier clase de trabajo. Asimismo no podrán trabajar más de dos horas extraordinarias en un día, ni realizar labores que requieran grandes esfuerzos físicos. Los menores de dieciocho años no podrán trabajar en horas nocturnas.” Código de Trabajo, art. 116.

33 Human Rights Watch interview with Nora L., Department of San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

34 Human Rights Watch interview with Rosa N., Department of San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

35 Human Rights Watch interview with Sandra B., San Salvador, February 20, 2003.

36 Human Rights Watch interview with Alma S., Department of San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

37 Godoy, Trabajo infantil doméstico, p. 33.

38 Constitución de El Salvador, art. 38(2).

39 Tarifas de Salarios Mínimos para los Trabajadores del Comercio, Industria y Servicios, Decree No. 48, art. 1, Diario Oficial No. 72, vol. 339, April 22, 1998.

40 See Ministerio de Trabajo y Previsión Social, Oficina de Estadística e Informática Laboral, Estadísticas Laborales 2001, cuadro 2.4.1: Valor mensual por familia de la canasta básica de alimentos por área y año, período 1997-2001.

41 Godoy, Trabajo infantil doméstico, p. 34.

42 Human Rights Watch interview with Eva M., San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

43 Godoy, Trabajo infantil doméstico, p. 24. The second most common response was sexual harassment or sexual abuse (15.5 percent).

44 Human Rights Watch interview with María Q., Department of Cabañas, February 11, 2003.

45 Human Rights Watch interview with Flor N., San Salvador, February 17, 2003.

46 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted December 16, 1966, 993 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force January 2, 1976), art. 7(a)(i). El Salvador ratified the covenant on February 29, 1980.

47 Human Rights Watch interview with Eva M., San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

48 Ibid.

49 Human Rights Watch interview with Ima Rosillo Guerola, Institute of Women’s Studies (Instituto de Estudios de la Mujer – CEMUJER), San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

50 Human Rights Watch interview, San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

51 Godoy, Trabajo infantil doméstico, p. 24. Such abuses are by no means unique to El Salvador. In Guatemala, Human Rights Watch found that domestic workers routinely suffered unwanted sexual approaches or demands at the hands of men living in or associated with the household in which they worked. See Human Rights Watch, From the Household to the Factory: Sex Discrimination in the Guatemala Labor Force (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2002), pp.78-82. Sexual harassment of domestic workers has been identified as a “widespread phenomenon” throughout Latin America. See Gaby Ore-Aguilar, “Sexual Harassment and Human Rights in Latin America,” in Adrien K. Wing, ed., Global Critical Race Feminism: An International Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 368.

52 ILO Recommendation concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (“Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation”), ILO No. R190, June 17, 1999, art. 3. See chapter VI, “International Prohibition on Harmful or Hazardous Child Labor” section.

53 See Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Violence against Women: General Recommendation No. 19 (1992), U.N. Doc. A/47/58, para. 17, in Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.6 (2003), p. 246; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted December 18, 1979, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13 (entered into force September 3, 1981, and ratified by El Salvador on September 18, 1981), art. 1. The committee defines sexual harassment as including:

such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions. Such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem; it is discriminatory when the woman has reasonable ground to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment, including recruitment or promotion, or when it creates a hostile working environment.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 19, para. 18.

54 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (“Convention of Belém do Pará”), done June 9, 1994, OAS/ser.L/II.2.27 (entered into force March 5, 1995), art. 2(b). El Salvador ratified the Convention of Belém do Pará on January 26, 1996.

55 See Convention (No. 111) concerning Discrimination in respect of Employment and Occupation, adopted June 25, 1958, (entered into force June 15, 1960, and ratified by El Salvador June 15, 1995), art. 1; Recommendation concerning Discrimination in respect of Employment and Occupation, adopted June 25, 1958. See also Jane Aberhard-Hodges, “Sexual Harassment in Employment: Recent Judicial and Arbitral Trends,” International Labour Review, vol. 135 (1996), p. 507.

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January 2003