Empleada, niñera, nana, chacha, muchacha – these are the names identifying the domestic workers of South America, signifying employee, nanny, cleaning person, cook, servant. It is a shock for some foreigners to realize the ubiquity of the empleada in Latin American life. “We cannot live without our empleadas,” many a Limeña has told me. And in developing economies, where the stratification of rich and poor is vast, these occupations do allow some women to come from the countryside and study in the city, and improve their prospects and potential. “Música de Plancha” a Latin American ballad form is so called because of it’s popularity among servants performing household tasks (ironing music).
Trabajadores del Hogar" (domestic workers) occupy one of the lowest stratums of Peru's very hierarchal social system. A significant portion of these employees come from indigenous communities in Peru's interior provinces, seeking opportunity, education, and support for their families in the provinces, they are reliant on the benevolence of their employers to not exploit them. Their continued existence is emblematic of the institutionalization of oppression of racial minorities in Peru. It is estimated that there are at least half a million women who work as domestic workers in Peru, with approximately 67% of that. number working in Lima. Yet the Law of Household Workers (Law Nº 27986) protecting their rights and establishing employment guidelines has only been on the books since 2003. While this law guarantees them rights of renumeration, social security and pensions, and maximum working hours (48 hours/week) it does not guarantee a minimum wage and many employees are unaware of their rights to this day. The Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP) reported that for 2017 50% have social security and 46% health insurance, indicating a disparity between rights and compliance to Law No. 27986.
More recently groups like Casa Panchita, a social service organization dedicated to education and support of domestic workers and other groups are raising awareness of the plight of household laborers. In the exclusive seaside resort of Asia, ninety kilometers south of Lima, where household workers were forbidden from swimming in the beach until after 7 pm, a January 28, 2007 protest "Operativo Empleada Audaz" (Operation Bold Employee) called for the elimination of discriminatory restrictions for "empleadas del hogar" (household servants). Members of human rights organizations, artists, and household employee social service organizations dressed in the uniforms of household servants and entered the private beachside community to fight "ethnic, social, and cultural discrimination prevailing in Peru" according to the Mesa Contra Racismo, a human rights organization. With chants of "The beach belongs to everyone and not the racists," and uniformed girls affirming, "We are employed and we are citizens!" the crowd formed a human chain along Playa Asia demanding equal access to Peru's beaches.
Yet the prevailing public attitude of disdain remains: All over Lima, "Nanas" or nannies and other empleadas gather to watch over their young charges and chat in the public parks of the upscale neighborhoods of Miraflores and San Isidro. A 2015 op-ed in Lima's paper of record, El Commercio, discussed a prevailing attitude among some Limeñas regarding these public gatherings of Peru's domestic servants: "My mom always complains about the park because there are too many nannies." The statement is exemplary of the inchoate attitudes towards these working class peoples right to exist in the public sphere. The displeasure at the sight of lower-class workers congregating in the performance of their duties is the manifestation of a silent but tangible prejudice. There are more overt signs of discrimination as well: Some Limeño private clubs have been accused of perpetuating the indignities against domestic employees by demanding that they utilize separate bathrooms. "They say we have germs," asserts Enrestina Ochoa Lujan, vice president of Sintrahogarp (the National Trade Union of Domestic Workers of Peru.)
It is difficult to watch them, hovering on the periphery of family life, integral and seemingly invisible. Do they accept this fate as inevitable? Or consider themselves lucky to be part of a well-known family? Are they resigned to a situation where all they have ever known is lack of access to education and wealth-building? I cannot help but see similarities to the Jim Crow South in the United States, and wonder what it will take to provide greater opportunities to the lower classes that are so often disdained by those they serve. These photographs were taken during many visits to Lima over the past ten years.