Indian Women Changing Bolivia

LA PAZ, Bolivia – For the moment, it is quiet in the modest national office of FENATRAHOB, the acronym for the National Federation of Domestic Workers of Bolivia. Miguelina Colque has just returned from rounds of meetings held in Bolivian cities where there are local domestic workers unions. She is the head of the executive council of the federation, which was founded in 1993 in the First Conference of Domestic Workers held in Cochabamba.

Colque was elected to a two-year term in 2006. The national meeting will take place in October, when a new secretary general will be elected. Colque was reflective as she spoke about her term in office.

“I have learned a lot and also I have been able to teach the compañeras. When they learn, I am very happy.”

In context, her comment mirrors her own story of learning and even changing the words that are used to describe her position in the household. “They begin to work when they are 8 years old. For example, I have worked for 38 years. I’m 46 years old. There isn’t time for anything else: only work, work, work. What are you going to do when you’re 45 or 50? We don’t have family or a house. We don’t have anything.”

It has been a long struggle for the organization, which began to take root in 1988 when domestic workers from Latin America and the Caribbean began to discuss the dismal situation of women and children who work in the homes of middle- and upper-class families.

In Bolivia, there is little or no distinction between the pre- and post-1952 revolution class and racial structures that haunt the country, which is in the midst of the culmination of a long struggle by indigenous peoples for social change. FENATRAHOB plays an active role in the radical changes taking place in today’s Bolivia. As Colque pointed out, children are pressed into service at a very young age. In this regard, very little has changed.

Domestic workers are infantilized and treated as property in Bolivia. It is not unusual for a middle-class woman who has grown up side by side with an Indian child, or one has been raised by an Indian woman, to think of and call her, for example, “my Rosa.” The relationship is part of the social fabric of a still deeply stratified society. It is a clear example of the privileged child’s socialization into master over their Indian caregivers.

To clarify the deep contradictions of this relationship, Silvia Rivera, a well-known Bolivian sociologist, calls the process “the trauma of the awayo.” The awayo is the multicolored, beautifully woven square piece of clothing that is used, among many other things, to carry children on the mother’s back.

The work of FENATRAHOB is in part to help women understand that they are not servants, but rather workers who deserve respect and compensation for their work. Colque said, “Almost every day at all hours, domestic workers are discriminated against.” Many women are afraid to ask for their pay or better working conditions. They fear that they may find themselves in a worse situation than the one before.

Supreme Decree 28655 of Bolivia An English translation of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ Supreme Decree 28655 reads, in part: "Considering that: "Domestic workers were victims of discrimination by law and social practice, by constructing a sector essentially constituted for migrant women from the countryside of humble indigenous extraction. "The sector of domestic workers led by its matrix entity, FENATRAHOB, after years of struggle has achieved the approval of Law No. 2450 on the 9th of April 2003 – Law of Regulation of the Salaried Worker of the Home. This has granted them labor rights, although there are still some limitations. "There are 131,000 [domestic workers] that daily support the economy and development of the country, permitting with her work that dozens of thousands of compatriots dedicate themselves to theirs. The labor of the domestic worker is many times made invisible, as they do their daily work. Their work ought to be recognized in the same way."


“We have many abuses against the workers. They don’t receive benefits and at times they aren’t paid for their work. At times, the employers who don’t pay throw them out of the house. The women are afraid to go back and get their pay. They don’t even pick up their clothes.”

She described the first time that she learned that she had rights as worker. “I was listening to the radio and FENATRAHOB had a program. I learned about my rights.” Things changed dramatically for Colque with this knowledge. She began to participate in FENATRAHOB by attending meetings and seminars. Eight years ago, she became a leader in the organization. According to Colque, one of her most fulfilling tasks is to teach others, as she was taught, about her right to live a life with dignity and respect.

For Colque, the year 2000 – when she became active in FENATRAHOB – was crucial. When the organization was founded, its major goal was to push for legislation that would regulate the salaries and benefits of workers of the home. In the early to mid-’90s, they had hoped that Victor Hugo Cardenas, the first indigenous vice president, would be able to usher their proposal through the legislative process. Unfortunately, they were unable to make headway. By 2002, they were able to push the legislation forward in what became law in February 2003.

The Law of Regulation of Salaried Domestic Work has 25 articles. Work hours are established in two categories; for women who live outside their place of employment, there is an eight-hour day. For women who live in the home, the work day is no more than 10 hours. Another article grants workers the right to one day off per week.

Colque pointed out that women’s solidarity was not found across the board. She had been talking about indigenous and non-indigenous women’s organizations that worked together to get basic women’s rights into Bolivia’s new constitution. However, in the case of the law, the solidarity was deeply fractured: “There were many women with workers who did not want the law.” It was a long, tough battle.

She is emphatic when she talks about rights and discusses the ongoing work of implementing the law. “The compañeras have neither health care nor retirement. When compañeras reach 50 or 60, they are alone; they don’t have housing or anything – they end up on the streets.” She further explained that the majority of domestic workers are single mothers or alone. The lack of social and familiar support makes the situation extremely serious.

One of the projects that FENATRAHOB is working on is building housing for women who can no longer work. She said, “A large house! So, if they don’t have anywhere to go, they will have their own house.” For most women, it will be the first time they will have a place of their own. The project is in cooperation with Spain. The plan is to start in La Paz and expand to other cities.

Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006. He appointed Casimira Rodriguez, one of the founders and leaders of FENATRAHOB, to the position of Minister of Justice. In Supreme Decree 28655, Morales declared March 30 to be National Domestic Workers Day. Colque said proudly, “La Paz has its day; Bolivia has its Independence Day; the U.S. has its Independence Day; and now we have our day.”