Mexico City, 1970. Cleo’s alarm sounds very early in the morning. She gets up and climbs down the stairs from her rooftop room in the upper middle class house where she lives and works. Everyone else in the house is still sleeping. Cleo gently wakes up the kids, serves the family breakfast and takes the youngest child to kindergarten.

She works from sunup to sundown, even providing emotional support to family members along the way. After a day of cleaning and housekeeping tasks, she welcomes everyone back home. She serves her employers snacks while they watch TV together in the living room. She takes the kids to bed, turns off the light, and climbs the stairs to her room after everyone has gone to sleep.

Cleo’s long working days are magnificently portrayed by director Alfonso Cuarón in Roma, which has just won three Oscars, including best director. You are left appalled at the state of her work-life balance – and wondering about the lives of domestic workers today.

There are at least 67m domestic workers worldwide and almost three quarters are women. Many are migrants who – like Cleo – are required to live in their workplace. Over 70% are employed informally, with no contract of employment. They often work very long hours for low pay; get treated violently or harassed; and are casually hired and fired at will. The profession still tends to be excluded from many labour laws and social security regimes. Recent estimates indicate that 90% of domestic workers worldwide have no access to social security, for instance.

These workers’ rights remain a grave concern in many countries, but there have been significant recent reforms – despite commentaries on Roma implying otherwise. Latin America has led the way here, hauling employment protections into line with other professions, for instance, but Mexico is only finally catching up. As we shall see, Roma and Cuarón have played a key role in helping bring this about.

Latin American reformers

Domestic work is perhaps undervalued because it is associated with tasks commonly performed by unpaid housewives. The lack of legal protection makes domestic workers exceptionally vulnerable. Even when labour laws do protect workers, it can be difficult to check that employers are meeting the relevant standards, so there are often problems with noncompliance.

As Cuarón beautifully depicts in Roma, the boundaries between home and the workplace can be particularly unclear in Latin American countries. Too often, employers take advantage of unequal bonds of affection to justify taking liberties. The region’s domestic workforce is mostly black or indigenous, and includes the most dispossessed elements of the population. High inequality rates and intergenerational poverty, plus the fact that most workers are female, makes regulating the sector a crucial route to social justice.

Domestic worker NGOs and other civil society organisations in the region began pushing for reform in the early 2000s, and many countries had a lively debate about the best way forward. On the back of this, Uruguay (2006), Argentina and Brazil (both 2013) adopted rules that put domestic workers on a par with other workers in relation to conditions like holidays, working hours and maternity pay. They also established wage-bargaining mechanisms for the profession, and encouraged employers to introduce formal contracts.

To promote the new rights, these countries raised awareness through publicity campaigns on television and billboards. They also took a progressive approach to enforcement which proved effective. In Uruguay, for instance, labour inspectors visited homes with domestic workers; but instead of punishing infringements, they took the opportunity to educate employers about their obligations. Uruguay has since seen domestic worker wages take a big step towards the national average. Argentina and Brazil have achieved various improvements, too.

In parallel, the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) launched the Domestic Workers Convention in 2011 – international laws aimed at improving domestic worker rights across the world. The convention entered into force in 2013, and has been ratified by 27 countries including 14 in Latin America and others such as South Africa, the Philippines and Germany. Among the entitlements are a minimum wage, daily and weekly rest hours, the right to choose where to live, and clearly communicated conditions of employment. The majority of countries around the world have still not ratified the convention, however. Mexico, unfortunately, is one of them.

Why so slow, Mexico?

Mexico was actually the first country to enshrine labour protection in its constitution, but domestic workers still get a raw deal. With over 2.4m domestic workers in a country of some 90m adults, the law discriminates against them by not limiting their working hours or mandating a minimum wage equal to that of other workers. Very few domestic workers have employment contracts, so the limited legal protections that do exist are rarely followed. As many as 97% of domestic workers still have no access to social security in the country.

The first sign of progress came when the first domestic workers’ union was recognised in 2015. The National Union of Household Workers (SINACTRAHO) has since fought tirelessly for domestic worker rights. In December 2018, the Supreme Court duly ruled that excluding these employees from the country’s obligatory social security regime is unconstitutional. The court mandated a pilot programme that will this year develop a new system for these workers.

Meanwhile, the new left-wing government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which took office in December, has said it will present the ILO Domestic Workers Convention before the senate for ratification. The country’s two biggest parties are also jointly sponsoring a billaimed at the profession. It proposes to equalise domestic workers’ rights with other waged workers, including a minimum wage and a maximum 44-hour working week.

While these developments owe much to vigorous campaigning by SINACTRAHO and other domestic worker organisations, Roma has played an important role by highlighting the struggle of the profession. Cuarón dedicated the film to Mexico’s domestic workforce, and recently invited activist Marcelina Bautista to give a speech at the national premiere of the film. “Mexico owes a lot to women,” she concluded. “We need to stop violence and abuse of power against women.”

If the promising signs in Mexico bear fruit, Cuarón’s masterpiece will have helped secure decent conditions for domestic workers in a country which has denied them for too long. Roma surely deserves its Hollywood awards, but achieving real reform will be worth a great deal more.