Norma Palacios is one of the co-founders and leaders of SINACTRAHO, a domestic workers’ union in Mexico that seeks to raise awareness of their economic and labor situation, while empowering their members to demand and exercise their rights as workers.
From the onset of the pandemic, Norma understood that it was an opportunity to understand the needs of the sector and see how domestic workers are withstanding the crisis. When the union’s offices were closed, this meant opening spaces via Zoom, but soon she realized that it was not enough. “At some point I understood that I needed to hear from domestic workers in other states to understand how they were coping”. That’s when she left her office in the capital and began reaching out to workers in other provinces.
By listening to the workers, SINACTRAHO had a clear strategy for how to offer immediate relief. A cash grant secured through the International Domestic Workers Federation enabled leaders to help domestic workers most in need to "pay their rent, buy medicines, a basic food basket".
But while the immediate economic relief was important, the emotional one was crucial. “The compañeras are not going to tell you ‘I need to be heard’ but they’re going to talk and talk, to tell you how they became domestic workers, how they were treated in their workplace, how they endured situations of violence, of very long working hours, and how they reached this moment when it just exploded […] so we saw the need for psychological help. And we were able to have four sessions with a psychologist [via Zoom]”.
These encounters also strengthened the solidarity among workers in particularly challenging times.
“Most of the time you work in a place where the employer's house is your workplace, but you can be alone all day long and you have no contact with other people with whom you identify. We do see that these relationships can develop when, perhaps, they work in the same building, when they establish a friendship, but we see that when they come to the union they become stronger".
With so many strains both in their households and workplaces, the historic effort to ensure domestic workers' long term social protection was even more pressing. “For us, the most important thing right now is to have a greater number of compañeras with access to social security. It is something that keeps us very busy, to see how we are going to resolve this issue, and it is also up to us to advocate with the corresponding authorities so that they do their job.” Parallel to this advocacy work, the union also offered legal counseling for domestic workers who faced exploitative employment relations or were fired without justification during the crisis.
Norma has been a domestic worker for 27 years and while she recognizes that she is tired and “has fears, like any other human being”, she finds strength in this movement.
“Doing all these things during the pandemic showed us that we can achieve everything. It also strengthened me a lot: when we have these encounters with authorities I know we carry with us the voice of us as domestic workers […] We have to hold on to all these women to move forward”.
* This story is based on an interview with Norma Palacios for round 2 of WIEGO’s COVID-19 Crisis and the Informal Economy Study, conducted in August 2021. It was published with Norma’s consent. Read more on COVID-19 recovery in Mexico City here.