BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A young, pretty girl from the countryside seeks a better life in the big city as a domestic worker.
She falls in love with her boss, or his son, and triumphs against the odds to overcome the class divide and lift herself out of poverty.
It’s a recurring plot line in Latin American soap operas or telenovelas from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, watched by tens of millions every day across the region.
Fairytales aside, Latin America’s nearly 20 million domestic workers face long working hours, unpaid overtime and verbal abuse by employers, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
In general, however, they can expect wages and working conditions superior to their counterparts in the Middle East and Asia.
“I like watching the daily afternoon telenovela and following the love story,” said Perla Reyes, a Colombian housemaid, wearing the typical white coat and trouser uniform.
“But I’ve never known any maid to fall in love with her boss and live happily ever after,” she added with a chuckle, as she ironed a pile of clothes.
Given the lack of job opportunities for women and widespread poverty in rural areas, it is not surprising that one in every four women earning a wage in Latin America is a domestic worker.
They work in country ranches or the houses of affluent city families as nannies, cleaners, dog walkers, swimming pool cleaners and cooks.
In Colombia, a large proportion of the country’s three quarters of a million domestic workers are displaced women, uprooted from their rural homes during 50 years of civil war.
The daily grind can be hard, but Latin America’s domestic workers enjoy greater protection under the law than those in Asia and the Middle East.
Over the past decade, big strides have been made throughout Latin America in getting new laws passed to improve domestic workers’ conditions and ensure they enjoy the same labour rights as other workers.
A domestic worker, particularly in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina, is more likely to be paid the minimum wage and be legally entitled to social security benefits, annual paid holiday, maternity leave and limits on working hours than elsewhere in the world.
“Latin America, along with Europe, is one of the regions where domestic workers are much better protected by the law,” said Claire Hobden, an ILO expert on domestic worker labour conditions. “The next steps are ensuring there’s compliance with the law.”
As a minimum monthly wage exists in many Latin American countries, domestic workers have a better chance of demanding decent pay from their employers.
“Having a minimum wage allows domestic workers to speak up and defend themselves and gives them a sense of empowerment to know they are recognised and have rights under the law,” Hobden told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
In Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy and one of the world’s largest employers of domestic workers, the ILO says 7 million domestic workers should have benefited from recent rises in the minimum wage to around $310 a month.
Unlike in Asia, the practice of using recruitment agencies to find domestic work is not widespread in Latin America.
“Latin America doesn’t have systems of recruitment agencies where domestic workers can incur debt,” said Hobden.
Asian migrant domestic workers often end up in a country where they don’t speak the local language, making it harder for them to know and defend their rights.
Domestic workers in Latin America tend to migrate for jobs within the region and between rural and urban areas in the same country.
Their work visas aren’t tied to an individual employer, as is common in the “kafala” or sponsorship system in the Middle East, which fuels labour abuse, according to the United Nations.
A strong tradition of organisations defending labour rights in Latin America - the region’s first union of domestic workers dates back to 1901 in Argentina - has also played an important role in ensuring workers have a voice.
“Domestic workers in Latin America are relatively well organised compared to other places in the world. There are strong women who are organising themselves to defend their rights,” said Hobden.
Colombian Maria Roa, who set up the country’s first union of black domestic workers in 2013, is one such example.
“In the past, I’ve had employers treat me like an animal. Racial discrimination against Afro-Colombians and sexual harassment by a boss or his male friends does happen,” said Roa, 37, who started cleaning houses as a young girl.
“Today we have rights under the law. What we need now is to make sure domestic workers and employers know about these laws and that they are put into practice,” said Roa, who had just returned from a conference at Harvard University where she spoke about labour rights.
“We still get complaints from domestic workers (about) being dismissed without notice by their employers, not being paid the minimum wage and given all their statutory holiday leave,” said Roa, who is campaigning for domestic workers to get a yearly bonus, as most employees of Colombian companies do.
As for the soap operas, she said: “Television isn’t real life. It’s not reality.”
Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Ros Russell