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It is likely that one of every five working girls and women between the ages of fourteen and nineteen is a domestic worker.95 But in interviews with Human Rights Watch, Ministry of Labor officials consistently downplayed the number of children working in domestic service. “We don’t have many children working in this area,” Walter Palacios, the director general of social welfare, told Human Rights Watch.96 We heard the same from other ministry officials. “Really the work of minors in domestic service is very little. Few minors are working as domestics. Very few,” said José Victor Orlando Orellana Maza, director general of labor at the time of our interview. Later in our interview, he told us, “We have had isolated cases of minors. But the work of those under fourteen is practically zero. The employers are not contracting with minors.”97

The basis for such statements is unclear. Ministry officials were unable to provide Human Rights Watch with national labor statistics that disaggregate child domestic workers from other children and young adults who work. These officials appeared to rely on the low number of complaints by children for their conclusion that few children worked as domestics. But the number of complaints is a poor measure of the total number of child domestics, particularly because children are less likely than adults to know about and use official complaint mechanisms.

Salvadoran Law

The labor code offers domestic workers fewer protections than other workers receive. Contracts need not be in writing.98 Domestic work is not limited to the eight-hour workday or the forty-four-hour week guaranteed other workers; instead, domestic workers may be required to work up to twelve hours per day with one day off for every week of work.99 Domestic workers may be dismissed without notice for a wide variety of reasons that include “having vices or bad habits that place in danger or prejudice the domestic order or alter the moral condition of the household”100 and committing “grave acts of disloyalty or insubordination” against members of the household.101

El Salvador is not the only country that offers domestic workers inferior protections under the labor code. In Guatemala, where laws relating to domestic work have remained virtually unchanged since that country’s labor code was adopted in 1947, Human Rights Watch found that domestic workers are effectively excluded from the key labor rights protections enjoyed by most workers.102 Elsewhere in Latin America and in other regions of the world, domestic work is among the least regulated of occupations.103

An ILO survey of legislation on domestic work in sixty-eight countries found three principal justifications for the separate treatment of workers in labor legislation: first, that domestic work takes place in private households; second, that it involves an intimate relationship between employer and employee that is not comparable to other occupations; and third, that household obligations know no time limits.104 Some differences in the regulation of this kind of paid work may be appropriate. But as Human Rights Watch found in Guatemala, the exclusion of domestic work from most labor protections is often based on reasons related to gender: “[D]omestic work is considered the natural extension of women’s role in the family and society. Paid domestic workers essentially perform for wages the tasks the woman of the house is socially expected to perform for free.”105

Work by children is in theory subject to greater restrictions, principally those related to the age at which they may work, the types of work they may perform, and the hours they are permitted to work. But each of these provisions is riddled with exceptions or couched in vague language that effectively leaves children without protection. For example, the labor code does not unequivocally prohibit children under eighteen from performing dangerous work and does not clearly set a minimum age for employment:

  • Work by those under eighteen must be “suited to their age, physical state, and development.”106
  • Children under eighteen may not perform “dangerous or unhealthy work.” But those sixteen and older may perform dangerous work—defined as work that “may occasion the death or immediate and grave injury” of the worker107—“provided that their health, security, and morality be fully guaranteed” and that they have received professional training relevant to the field of work.108
  • Children under fourteen and those who have not yet completed basic education “may not be employed in any form of work.” But children twelve and above may perform “light work” that does not prejudice their health or development and does not interfere with their education.109
  • In addition, employment by children under the age of fourteen may be authorized “when it is considered to be indispensable for [their] survival or [that] of their family, as long as it does not impede their completion of the minimum obligatory instruction.”110

These multiple and sometimes contradictory provisions may explain why one labor inspector was not aware of the minimum age for employment for domestic workers. “I can’t say whether or not they are allowed to work at age fourteen. It’s that girls are almost never working,” he said, repeating the view that there are not many children in domestic service.111


We heard frequent complaints that the Ministry of Labor does not investigate the use of children in domestic work. “Nobody [in the ministry] wants to get into that issue,” one activist said.112 Luís Salazar, the associate ombudsman for children and adolescents’ issues, told us, “In general, they [officials at the Ministry of Labor] undertake superficial activities, almost nothing. What there is is legislation. There’s no coordinated action to oversee compliance.”113

Others commented that the government has not done enough to raise awareness of workers’ and children’s rights. “With respect to domestic workers, the problem is not the law. It can be improved, but it isn’t bad. The problem is monitoring and dissemination of information on this issue,” commented an ILO lawyer. “There’s little interest in doing that. Domestic workers are invisible, and they generally have low levels of education. . . . This is not an issue of improving laws. The most fundamental thing is that the people know that they have rights.”114 When we asked what steps the government should be taking, an activist replied, “A campaign as simple as raising awareness about Convention 182 [the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention]—there’s no will to do it.”115

A community worker and former staff member of the ombudsman’s office told us that a variety of government agencies can receive complaints, including the police, the attorney general’s office, the ombudsman’s office, and the Salvadoran Institute for Children and Adolescents (Instituto Salvadoreño del Niño y Adolescente, ISNA). “The problem is that the majority don’t know about any of this,” he said. “Most are illiterate or completed only a low grade in school. They usually come from low-income families and have to work and give their money to their parents.”116

Perhaps for this reason, the Ministry of Labor does not receive many complaints from domestic workers. “Domestics can report to us, but I can tell you it is not a high number of reports. There are but only a few. But it doesn’t matter—although the cases are few, we do the inspection,” said Edmundo Alfredo, the chief of industrial and commercial inspection at the Ministry of Labor. He told Human Rights Watch that the ministry had handled forty-one cases relating to domestic work out of a total caseload of 2,900 in 2002. “Out of these, the numbers that were minors was minimal. Fewer than ten,” he said.117

We asked how domestic workers can contact the Ministry of Labor with their complaints. “They can telephone,” Orellana Maza replied. “The problem is that the call from the telephone can be anonymous but they have to identify themselves so we can do a report. We have confidentiality. Nobody has come here to make a complaint. We have done a campaign on the buses with a telephone number that comes here. But to make a complaint, we ask them to come. . . . There are cases of domestics. Yes, domestics come, maybe not ones who are minors.”118

The low number of complaints may explain why labor ministry officials routinely told us that there were few or no children working as domestics. “We never find cases of kids working as domestics,” said Rolando Borjas Munguía, director general of inspection at the Ministry of Labor. “Generally girls are not used.”119

The Ministry of Labor is not the only government body that can exercise oversight over child labor issues. For example, the Legislative Assembly has a committee that deals with labor issues, but a member of the committee told us that it rarely addressed child labor issues. “Child labor should be part of the Labor Committee, but children have been abandoned,” said Calixto Mejía Hernández, a deputy in the Legislative Assembly.120

The International Community

With the support of the government of Canada, the ILO is funding a project run by the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo de la Mujer, ISDEMU). “The plan is to support a home for child domestic workers who flee,” said the ILO’s Benjamin Smith.121 This project was not in operation during our visit.122

IPEC produced a rapid assessment of child domestic work in El Salvador as part of a series of rapid assessments on the worst forms of child labor in the country.123 But it develops its child labor initiatives in consultation with the government, which has not identified domestic work as a priority area for El Salvador’s Time-Bound Programme. “It’s a touchy area with the government. There’s a reluctance to group it along with the other forms of child labor,” said Benjamin Smith, the ILO’s principal technical advisor in El Salvador.124 As a result, IPEC is not addressing domestic work as part of its child labor initiatives in El Salvador.

Neither UNICEF nor USAID, which is working with the Salvadoran government on several education projects, is addressing child labor issues in the country.125 Asked about children working as domestics, USAID staffer Dora Gutiérrez replied, “It’s not an issue that I have heard much about when child labor is being talked about.” Listing the areas covered by the IPEC Time-Bound Programme, she continued, “But I haven’t heard about domestics until you mention it as an area for me.”126

Benjamin Smith explained that international agencies face difficulties working on the issue. “It’s usually considered the sanctity of the home, so it’s off limits,” he said. “It’s impossible for an international organization to work there. The government also has limitations or unwillingness to work there.”127

95 See Chapter III.

96 Human Rights Watch interview with Walter Palacios, director general of social welfare, Ministry of Labor, San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

97 Human Rights Watch interview with José Victor Orlando Orellana Maza, February 13, 2003.

98 Código de Trabajo, art. 76.

99 Compare Código de Trabajo, art. 80, with Constitución de la República de El Salvador, art. 38(6).

100 Código de Trabajo, art. 83(2).

101 Ibid., art. 83(3).

102 See Human Rights Watch, From the Household to the Factory, pp. 19-23.

103 See, for example, IPEC, El trabajo infantil doméstico en Nicaragua (Managua: ILO-IPEC, 2002), p. 37; Bharati Pflug, An Overview of Child Domestic Workers in Asia (Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2002), p. 28; Walter Alarcón Glasinovich, “Aspectos legislativos del trabajo doméstico infantil en América Latina,” in Acosta Vargas, Trabajo infantil doméstico: ¿Y quién la mandó a ser niña?, pp. 137-56.

104 See International Labour Organization, The Employment and Conditions of Domestic Workers in Private Households (Geneva: ILO, 1970).

105 Human Rights Watch, From the Household to the Factory, p. 20.

106 “El trabajo de los menores de dieciocho años debe estar especialmente adecuado a su edad, estado físico y desarrollo.” Código de Trabajo, art. 104.

107 Ibid., art. 106.

108 Ibid., art. 105. The law gives examples of dangerous and unhealthy work, including work with heavy machinery, work underground or on the seas, and work in bars and billiard halls. Ibid., arts. 106-108.

109 Ibid., art. 114.

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

111 Human Rights Watch interview, San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

112 Human Rights Watch interview with Jorge Escoto, coordinator, Programa Acción para la Niñez, Fundación Olof Palme, San Salvador, February 4, 2003.

113 Human Rights Watch interview with Luís Enrique Salazar Flores, February 10, 2003.

114 Human Rights Watch interview, February 6, 2003.

115 Human Rights Watch interview with Yolanda Barrientos, February 4, 2003.

116 Human Rights Watch interview with community worker, San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

117 Human Rights Watch interview with Edmundo Alfredo, chief of industrial and commercial inspection, Ministry of Labor, San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

118 Human Rights Watch interview with José Victor Orlando Orellana Maza, February 13, 2003.

119 Human Rights Watch interview with Rolando Borjas Munguía, director general of inspection, Ministry of Labor, San Salvador, February 13, 2003.

120 Human Rights Watch interview with Calixto Mejía Hernández, deputy in the Legislative Assembly, San Salvador, February 5, 2003.

121 Human Rights Watch interview with Benjamin Smith, February 6, 2003.

122 Human Rights Watch interview with Zoila de Innocenti, executive director, Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo de la Mujer, San Salvador, February

123 See Godoy, Trabajo infantil doméstico, p. iii.

124 Human Rights Watch interview with Benjamin Smith, February 6, 2003.

125 Human Rights Watch interviews with Karla Hananía de Varela, February 19, 2003; Dorita E. de Gutiérrez, February 10, 2003.

126 Human Rights Watch interview with Dorita E. de Gutiérrez, February 10, 2003.

127 Human Rights Watch interview with Benjamin Smith, February 6, 2003.

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January 2003