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Bolivian combines faith with fight for rights of household workers

 


Bolivian combines faith with fight for
rights of household workers

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A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin
Casimira Rodriguez Romero, who received the World Methodist Peace Award in 2003, has led a long fight for the legal rights of household workers in Bolivia.

Feb. 25, 2005


By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) — In her long fight for the legal rights of household workers in Bolivia, Casimira Rodriguez Romero has never separated her faith from her work.

The 38-year-old activist calls her word-of-mouth campaign to educate domestic workers an “evangelical fever.”

When Rodriguez started attending Emmanuel Methodist Church in Cochabamba, she realized “social justice and the gospels go hand-in-hand”—a realization that “gave me a lot of peace, a lot of comfort and a lot of confidence.”

“It was almost like following in the footsteps of Jesus, being able to help all these other household workers,” Rodriguez said.

This passion led her into the position of chief executive of the National Federation of Household Workers, a union that successfully lobbied the Bolivian Parliament to pass the Household Workers Law in 2003. Since 2001, she also has headed the Confederation of Household Workers of Latin America and the Caribbean. She received the World Methodist Peace Award in 2003.

Speaking through a translator, Rodriguez met Feb. 22 in New York with staff at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. The visit was part of a U.S. tour that included stops in Connecticut and Washington D.C., and participation in a forum at Harvard University.

Born in a poor, rural Quechua family, she became a household worker at age 13 and was subjected to harassment and abuse. “We were like trash thrown away,” she told United Methodist News Service. “We weren’t treated like human beings.”

From her personal experience and “the injustices I saw committed against all the other household workers,” Rodriguez became an active advocate of workers’ rights, even as a teenager. She quickly learned that educating other workers involved more than raising issues of minimum pay or maximum working hours.

“We had made up little cards to invite household workers to some of the meetings we were having,” she said. But when she gave a card to another worker one day, the woman ran after her and explained that she did not understand it.

“It struck me. We have to teach all those household workers. We have to teach them how to read,” Rodriguez recalled. The union operates a number of literacy classes for workers.

Bolivia has about 132,000 household workers, of which 99 percent are women. The history of the union’s 12-year struggle to get the Household Workers Law passed was also the history “of us growing as an organization,” she said. “It took so much to convince all the politicians, and we got so much resistance from the employers themselves.”

The movement began in the mid-1980s as a loose collection of classes on topics such as literacy, cooking and sewing, offered to workers on Sundays, their traditional day off.

“Those were like the yeast years, when the organization was forming,” Rodriguez reflected. “That was the time when we were able to come together as a community of workers.”

After studying protest marches staged by other organizations, Rodriguez organized Sunday marches by household workers who donned aprons and carried brooms and other cleaning equipment. One Sunday, they succeeded in shutting down a major highway.

When the union adopted a law that said basically that the “household workers law will end slavery,” both employers and news organizations began to take notice.

The law requires a minimum salary equal to $50 U.S. dollars a month, and a maximum of 10 hours daily for live-in workers and eight hours daily for live-out workers; Sundays and holidays off; 15 days of vacation each year and a bonus of one year’s pay after five years of work. However, workers still do not have health insurance, pensions or written contracts.

“The biggest problem is there is such high resistance from the employers to follow the letter of the law,” Rodriguez said. Complaints can be filed with the union or government inspectors, but workers don’t always get support from the government, according to Rodriguez.

Education—through radio and television ads or just by word of mouth—is key to the struggle. Said Rodriguez: “There are still so many workers who don’t know about the law and the union because they aren’t allowed to watch television or listen to the radio.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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