Money or liberty? No win for carers, cleaners in coronavirus crisis

by Oscar Lopez and Ellen Wulfhorst | @oscarlopezgib | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 April 2020 10:05 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A Mexican immigrant to the U.S. works as a maid cleaning a home in Los Angeles December 1, 2006. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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Millions of domestic staff around the world face grim choices - be locked in with their employers or lose work and wages

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By Oscar Lopez and Ellen Wulfhorst

MEXICO CITY/NEW YORK, April 3, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An army of maids, child carers and cleaners who work in private homes risk losing their wages or their liberty in what they say is a lose-lose situation in the grip of the coronavirus crisis.

From Mexico to Thailand, millions of domestic staff face unique challenges - be locked in with their employers or locked out of their jobs and losing their wages.

More than 1 million people have been reported infected by the novel coronavirus across the world and more than 52,000 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

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Infections have been reported in more than 200 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019.

Before the pandemic, Silvia Lazaro worked for 14 years cleaning the plush penthouse of a wealthy Mexico City family.

When the disease broke out, the family abruptly told her to stop coming, potentially leaving Lazaro without her $430 in monthly earnings but flush with worries.

"I live day to day. I have to pay my rent, water, gas, electricity," Lazaro, 34, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "That's what makes me anxious every day... I feel a great uncertainty at not knowing what's going to happen."

Lazaro is among the world's 67 million domestic workers - three in four of whom lack formal health care, sick leave, unemployment insurance and a host of other workplace benefits, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

That leaves them most vulnerable as their work evaporates in the global lockdown, unlike workers laid off by companies, who would be eligible for unemployment pay benefits.

In the United States alone, the number of people filing claims for unemployment benefits topped 6.6 million to a record high last week.

New York state got more than 8 million telephone calls last week from people seeking to file unemployment claims, compared with a normal call volume of about 50,000, officials said.

'I CANNOT GO OUT'

And as coronavirus locked informal workers like Lazaro out of their jobs, other domestics - housekeepers, nannies and cooks who live in - risk being locked firmly in.

"My employer told me that I cannot go out," said Lyn, a domestic worker who lives with an elderly employer in London. She did not want her surname published.

If she defies those orders, "I'm not allowed to come back," said the 38-year-old Philippines native. "I will be jobless and homeless. I can't send money to my family back home."

Live-in staff in Thailand face the same stark choice, said Zar Ni, secretary of the country's Network of Migrant Domestic Workers, with barely an exception allowed.

She said employers were telling their staff: "If it's not the case that your parents have died, don't leave."

Confinement puts pressure on any household, and for a worker forced to stay in a home that is also a workplace, the stress is far worse, experts say.

"There is so much tension in the household," said Eman Villanueva, a spokesman for the Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body, a domestic workers' advocacy group in Hong Kong.

"There is just no space in the apartment, and the workload has gone up tremendously when everyone is around the house."

In Singapore and Hong Kong, domestic workers who normally spend days off with friends in city parks now face fines or jail for violating social distancing policies, he said.

'UNDERVALUED, UNDERPAID'

Advocates for domestic workers say they risk being left penniless in the spreading crisis, among them Julie Kashen of the U.S.-based National Domestic Workers Alliance.

"This is already an undervalued, underpaid work force who does not necessarily have savings or paid time off or health insurance and are now losing jobs and paychecks," she said.

In Mexico, the SINACTRAHO union said it was fielding dozens of complaints a week from workers who had been laid off or furloughed without pay.

Angélica Martínez took to social media when her mother, a housekeeper for 20 years in New York City, was told by all of her clients not to come to work.

Not a single one offered to pay her.

"I am certain that none of them lost their income but her income just went to zero," Martinez tweeted. "If you hire a housekeeper, please pay them, it's the decent thing to do!"

Her remarks drew nearly 325,000 likes.

"I started thinking about all the other housekeepers -particularly in New York City because it's a lot - just thinking how many of them are losing their income, how many of them have children," she said.

Her mother's clients were unlikely to notice, she said.

"To be honest, they barely know my mother's name."

Yet Kashen said efforts were underway to protect such workers.

Some will be eligible to collect unemployment benefits under a coronavirus economic stimulus package approved by the U.S. Congress, and she said the NDWA had launched a $4 million fund to help the most vulnerable.

"If you continue to pay your housecleaner and they're able to continue to pay their rent and pay for groceries, then everybody's better off in the end," she said. "This is shining a light on how we are all so interconnected."

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(Reporting by Oscar Lopez in Mexico City, Ellen Wulfhorst in New York, Kieran Guilbert in London, Beh Lih Yi in Kuala Lumpur and Nanchanok Wongsamuth in Bangkok. Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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