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Human Rights Problem of Domestic Help in El Salvador


The Republic of El Salvador is situated in the continent of Central America. Sharing borders with Honduras and Guatemala, it lays on the shores of the Pacific Ocean (Edward H. Lawson 1996, 426). The country covers a geographical area of 20,742 sq. km. (8,008 sq. mi.) with varied topographical relief being bounded by mountains, which separates the country into three distinct regions and the North Pacific Ocean marking the southernmost boundary of the Republic (U.S Department of State 2009). The population of the Republic, as reported by the last Census Report (2007) stands at 5.7 million of which ninety percent is claimed by the Mestizo, nine percent by Caucasian and the rest one percent by indigenous population (U.S Department of State 2009).

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Central American history has been marked by Spanish conquest. El Salvador is a part of the continent that shares that history. Diego de Alvarado had established the village of San Salvador in April 1525. In 1546, Charles I of Spain granted San Salvador the status of a city (U.S Department of State 2009). Central America witnessed a tumultuous phase with the banding together of the Central American nations for freedom (U.S Department of State 2009). Freedom was ultimately acquired in 1823 with the establishment of the United Provinces of Central America. This federation was dissolved in 1838 when El Salvador declared itself an independent Republic (U.S Department of State 2009). Independence however could not democratize the Republic; democracy remained elusive following periods of civil war stretching from 1980-1992. In January 1992, after prolonged negotiations, the opposing sides signed peace accords, which ended the war, brought the military under civilian control, and allowed the former guerrillas to form a legitimate political party and participate in elections (U.S Department of State 2009).

The political upheaval and a staggering economy plunged the country into the throes of massive torture and exploitation of human capital. Even though the economy is developing with the establishment of a democratic government, the basic amenities required by the lower strata of the society are not available. Further rising inequality of income has increased the gap between the rich and the poor. This has led to rampant human rights violations in the country. Violation is observable from instances of mass execution in between 1978-85, thousands of people were executed in El Salvador to violation of human rights of domestic help. This paper discusses the massive violation of human rights in El Salvador against domestic help.

Human Rights Problem Of Domestic Help

The establishment of a truly democratic government in the Republic has boosted its economy. The commitment to free markets and careful fiscal management has benefited the Salvadorian economy immensely (U.S Department of State 2009). The upward mobility witnessed in the Salvadorian economy was followed by an increased field of employment, especially in the sector of domestic help, in the country. However the increase in the number of domestic help has not been adequately matched by appropriate measures for safeguarding the interest and rights of the people involved in this sector. There have occurred gross human rights violations in these sectors for some time now and this has become a major concern for the world human rights monitors.

Domestic work is the largest employment category for girls under sixteen worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization (International Labour Organization 1996). “Millions of women and girls around the world turn to domestic work as one of the few options available to them in order to provide for themselves and their families. The long list of abuses committed by employers in the workplace and labor agents includes physical, psychological, and sexual abuse; forced confinement in the workplace; non-payment of wages; and excessively long working hours with no rest days.” (Human Rights Watch July 2006. Vol. 18, No. 7 (C), 1).

However children involved in this abominable business remain hidden from the eyes of civil rights monitoring authorities because they are mostly ‘separately employed’ and also because they are made to work ‘in the seclusion of a private house’ (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B)). “They do not exist as a group and are difficult to reach and count. Their jobs are invisible too: domestic work belongs in the informal labor market, is unregistered and does not show up clearly in employment statistics.” (UNICEF International Child Development Centre 1999, 3). Such anomalies existing in the market of domestic laborers have made it increasingly difficult for the international human rights monitoring agencies to keep track of every single domestic labor, especially child domestic laborers. The problem is further intensified by the it’s categorization as “informal labor” which the government considers as lying beyond their scope of regulation and scrutiny (UNICEF International Child Development Centre 1999, 2).

The countries listed by the international human rights monitoring agencies facing such gross violation of human rights of the domestic laborers also list the name of El Salvador. This is evidenced by an advertisement in El Diario de Hoy (San Salvador), which said “Domestic needed with or without experience from 12 to 40 years old in San Salvador.” (February 15th, 2003.p. 87). The hidden status of the child domestic laborers has acted as one of the major impediments in determining the total number of child domestic workers in El Salvador. “We don’t have accurate data” on the number of domestic workers, said Luis Salazar, the associate ombudsman for children and adolescents issues (Flores 2003). The Household Survey (Encuesta de Hogares de Propositos Multiples,) conducted by the Salvadoran Census Bureau reported that almost 348,300 children and young adults in El Salvador, between the ages of ten and nineteen, were “economically active”, in 2001 (Ministerio de Trabajo y Previsión Social 2002). The “economically active population” is the sum of those who have a job and those who seek work (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 9).

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As it emerged from the census drawn, “domestic workers in El Salvador are not generally from indigenous groups. Estimates of El Salvador’s indigenous population range from 1 to 7 percent of the total population of 6.2 million.” (U.S Department of State 2009) (International Labour Organization 3 August, 1999). Interviews conducted with the domestic help revealed that most of them hailed from “poor sections on the edge of San Salvador.” The report submitted based on these interviews lay bare the fact that “all came from poor families.” It did not prove to be surprising because “Throughout the Americas, children living in poverty, and particularly girls, turn to domestic work because it is one of the few employment opportunities they have and because they must work to support their families.” (Barón 2000).

The condition of human rights in El Salvador concerning the domestic help has been steadily deteriorating over the years. Issues regarding their ever-worsening condition have been brought to the attention of the international human rights authorities. They have delved deep into the problem and have divided the problem into its componential elements contributing to its amplification. We can categorize them under the following headings: Age, Types of works, Hours of Work, Wages, Physical and Psychological abuse (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 10-18).

Age remains to be one of the factors that not only contribute to high rate of domestic labor abuse but also itself acts as a factor leading to it. So age acts both the effect and the cause of violation of the rights of the domestic laborers. “The ILO Minimum Age Convention, ratified by El Salvador in 1996, sets the minimum age for employment at fifteen but allows developing countries “initially” to set the age at fourteen. El Salvador reserved the right to set the minimum age at fourteen when it ratified the convention.” (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 11). However, this commitment has not been strictly adhered to as was revealed by the report of Human Rights Watch. “Most child domestics begin work between the ages of nine and eleven, IPEC reports.” (Godoy 2002, 23). The Human Rights Watch Report interviewed a domestic help in El Salvador, a nineteen-year-old Rosa N. who claimed “I was ten or eleven years when I began doing this.” (N. 2003). Thus, the report concludes, “Many of those we interviewed started to work as domestics during times when they were not in school” suggesting that rights of the domestic laborers were not properly safeguarded as they were way below the age bar prescribed by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The types of work the domestic laborers are made to perform, at their tender age, also remain to be a source of major human rights violations in this Republic. “The number of tasks, the frequency with which they are done, and the effort they require surpass the physical capacities of the girls and boys who do them.” (Godoy 2002, 25).

The hours of work that the domestic laborers are made to work for also remain a major source of injustice asserted on them. “Under the Salvadoran labor code, domestic workers may be required to work up to twelve hours per day: Employers must give domestic workers two hours off during the day for meals and ten consecutive hours off each night.” (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 13-14). However, “The IPEC study found that “the workdays are exhausting; the girls spend from four to sixteen hours each day to complete their duties. Normally they begin the day at 5 or 6 a.m., and at times [the work day] is extended until 10 or 11 p.m.” (B. 2003).

To top it the wage scale of the domestic help is far below the minimum wage standardized by the Salvadoran Constitution for this group of workers, that is ¢1,260 ($144) per month is not paid to them (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 15). “The IPEC study found a broader range of wages, reporting that the monthly salaries paid to children ranged from nothing to ¢1,000 ($114.29). Forty-five percent of the girls interviewed for the study received between ¢300 and ¢500 ($34.29 to 57.14) per month; 19 percent made ¢200 to ¢300 ($22.86 to 34.29) each month.” (Godoy 2002, 33). “Over half the girls interviewed for the IPEC study had worked as domestics in more than one household. When they were asked why they left their previous positions, the most common response was “unjust or insufficient pay” (21.8 percent); the third most common response was “delays in pay” (9.1 percent).” (Godoy 2002, 24).

Reporting this as not-so-conducive working condition for them would be a gross understatement. Most of the domestic help is subjected to physical and mental torture. “An ILO-IPEC study El Salvador revealed that 15.5 percent of girls domestic workers who had changed employers had left their previous employment because of sexual harassment or abuse, making such abuse the second leading cause for leaving a position.” (Godoy 2002, 24). Sexual harassment as a problem is hard to deal with as most often it goes unreported. In one of the interviews conducted by the Human Rights Watch it was reported by the interviewee, “I have known various cases of patrons and sons who sexually abuse domestic workers, including cases in which the domestics became pregnant, and then [the families] throw the girls out. We followed at least three cases of this, and at least one was underage [under eighteen]…. The rate is huge. It is the norm, whether it is the patrón or his sons. It is normal for her—she accepts it. She goes to work in a house, she has no friends or relatives there, and she is afraid that she will be fired. If she says what is happening, they will fire her and say that she has provoked it. There is no fear of the complaint [process]” (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 17). This practice is being carried out in El Salvador in total disregard of the international commitment it made “to protect domestic workers from sexual harassment in the workplace.” (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 18).

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The injustice done to the domestic help of El Salvador has resulted in an unpleasant truth coming to the fore. “Governments’ response to abuse against domestic workers has largely been piecemeal and reactive.” (Human Rights Watch July 2006. Vol. 18, No. 7 (C), 4). Under such circumstances, it has been suggested to the Salvadoran government by the Human Rights Watch to adopt few measures to ensure better protection to the rights of the Domestic Helps working in El Salvador. They have recommended the government to “support inclusion of child domestic work as a priority in El Salvador’s Time-Bound Program”, to enforce a labor code “that restrict the workday to six hours and the workweek to thirty-four hours for children under age sixteen”, to “set an unequivocal minimum age for employment”, and to “prohibit the employment of all children under the age of eighteen in harmful or hazardous labor.” (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 6).

Certain additional recommendations have also been made whereby the Salvadorian government has been asked to “Set a minimum wage for domestic service, guaranteeing domestic workers fair wages that are comparable to wages earned for other forms of work that require equivalent skills and hours”, to “Bring legislation governing domestic work in line with constitutional guarantees and international standards”, to grant the domestic workers “the same rights as other Salvadoran workers with respect to overtime, rest periods, and vacation”, to enforce a labor code regarding “wages, hours of work, and time off” (Human Rights Watch January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B), 6).

Mere legislation cannot, however guarantee proper protection for the human rights of the Salvadoran domestic laborers. “Good laws become meaningful when accompanied by public awareness campaigns, training of law enforcement, labor and immigration officials, the existence of accessible complaint mechanisms, and effective enforcement.” (Human Rights Watch July 2006. Vol. 18, No. 7 (C), 4). That is why a nationwide public information campaign has been recommended to enhance people’s perception and desire to alleviate the problem.


B., Sandra, interview by Human Rights Watch. (2003).

Barón, Esmeralda Ruíz González and Maritza Díaz. “Las niñas también trabajan.” In Trabajo infantil doméstico: ¿Y quién la mandó a ser niña?, by Gladys Acosta Vargas, 157-96. Santafé de Bogotá, Colombia: Tercer Mundo S.A. and UNICEF, 2000.

Edward H. Lawson, Mary Lou Bertucci, Laurie S. Wiseberg. Encyclopedia of Human Rights. London & New York: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

Flores, Luís Enrique Salazar, interview by Human Rights Watch. Procuradoría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (2003).

Godoy, Oscar. El Salvador. Trabajo infantil doméstico: Una evaluación rápida. Geneva: ILO-IPEC, 2002.

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Human Rights Watch. EL SALVADOR:ABUSES AGAINST CHILD DOMESTIC WORKERS IN EL SALVADOR. domestic child labour, Human Rights Watch, January 2004. Vol. 16 No. 1 (B).

Human Rights Watch. Swept Under the Rug: Abuses against Domestic Workers Around the World. Child Domestic Labour, Human Rights Watch , July 2006. Vol. 18, No. 7 (C).

International Labour Organization. Child Labour: Tolerating the Intolerable. Child labour, Geneva: International Labour Organization, 1996.

International Labour Organization. Indigenous Peoples in Latin America. labour report, International Labour Organization, 3 August, 1999.

Ministerio de Trabajo y Previsión Social. Estadísticas Laborales 2001. Work Census, San Salvador: Ministerio de Trabajo y Previsión Social, 2002.

N., Rosa, interview by Human Rights Watch. (2003).

office, Former Official with the Attorney General’s, interview by Human Rights Watch. (2003).

U.S Department of State. “Background Note: El Salvador.” U.S Department of State. 2009. Web.

UNICEF International Child Development Centre. Child Domestic Work. child domestic labour, Florence: UNICEF International Child Development Centre, 1999.

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