Essential workers, caring, space and COVID-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina
– Mayra Luciana Diaz, TU Berlin
As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic during the first few months of 2020 different countries and cities of the world saw their commercial, industrial and tourist activity slow down. In Argentina, on March 20th 2020, the national decree 297/20201 established a Mandatory Preventive Social Isolation, in order to reduce the spread of the virus and avoid the collapse of the health care system:
- “[citizens] must refrain from attending their workplaces and may not travel on routes, roads and public spaces, all with the aim of preventing the circulation and spread of the COVID-19 virus and the consequent effect on public health and other derived subjective rights, such as the life and physical integrity of persons”2.
The framework of this isolation decree stipulated who would be authorized to continue working, even in the face of the risk of contracting COVID: those who could continue with their employment activities in a new normality with a special work permit. In this way, the mandatory isolation and the new work permit created a new social subject, the essential worker, and at the same time exposed class-based inequalities that are inscribed in the urban landscape.
The above-mentioned decree exposes the vulnerability of informal workers in several fields, including domestic workers, childminders and carers. As many of them are not registered, the isolation decree threatens to reduce their already limited wages and informal job positions. Firstly, as many employers would now work from home and rather have fewer people frequenting their household, they may choose to abruptly terminate or reduce the employment contracts of their household staff. As their employment is not registered, they would receive no compensating support from the state in this situation or have no basis to argue for unfair dismissal. In addition, in order to be able to work, should they continue to be employed, they have to expose themselves to travel by public transport and, in most cases, travel long distances to reach their various workplaces. This also brings up issues of inequality regarding the access to affordable housing and landownership, that impact directly on urban mobility patterns. The acute conditions of the COVID crisis raise the following critical questions: Who takes care of those who take care of us? Who is responsible for their exposure to the virus in public spaces and in public transportation? To what extent is it reasonable to take the risk? Do they even have another option?
Who is able to (or must) work: The essential workers
The above-mentioned decree provided for certain exceptions, among which were: health personnel, security and armed forces, firefighters, mail, transportation, garbage collection, food supply, among others. In the framework of this essay, the interesting exception is the one for “people who must assist others with disabilities; family members who need assistance; elderly people; children and adolescents”3. The only ones that are not obliged to attend work are those caregivers or nannies that have children in their care that belong to a risk group, or if the inhabitants of the homes where they work have to quarantine due to the coronavirus, or if their employers have had contact with infected people or have returned from travel4.
Informal care workers in Argentina
Domestic employees in Argentina are among those who see their labour rights most violated. This stems from the fact that the majority working in the care sector are informal workers, meaning they are not officially employed i.e., their employment is not registered with the state. This means that more than 70% of those working in domestic care have no pay record, and no pension provisions. They have no paid vacations or sick days and no healthcare insurance.
Designed with the purpose of ending the historical discrimination suffered by workers in private homes, excluded from the rights and obligations established in the Labor Contract Law, in March 2013 Law 26844 was approved, which established a Special Labor Contract Regime for the Personnel of Private Homes. While informality was significantly reduced from 90% to 74% it still affects the large majority of the domestic workforce5. In Argentina there are currently a total of 1,250,000 people who work as domestic employees and caregivers, 97% of whom are women. While 10% of them are overworked with more than 45 hours a week, 30% work in 2 or more households in order to accrue hours (and thus income). Alongside this, those same women have homes and children to care for, estimating a 40-hour workload per week, for which no pay is received6.
The fact that women are the ones who most commonly carry out this type of work reinforces the gender-based divisions between the production and reproduction sectors. One out of six women employed (17%) work in this sector, making it the most popular occupation for women. Migrant women are also over-represented7, since these duties do not require formal training, higher education or even legal residency. The working-hour schedules also allow them to continue performing care tasks in their own homes.
Domestic workers, COVID and fears
In the context of the current crisis, these workers are much more vulnerable for two reasons. Firstly, given the asymmetric power relations in the households that employ them, they may be forced to continue with their tasks despite imposed quarantines of the inhabitants. Or, they may suffer suspension or dismissal without pay. The latter impacts heavily on their economic situation, which was already vulnerable enough before the pandemic.
According to the Argentinian Ministry of Labor, more than 20,000 domestic workers were dismissed in the first few months of the year and, since only a minority of this sector are officially registered, it can be assumed that many more women became unemployed. Following a recent survey of domestic workers conducted by the National University of Lanús, only 33% of the surveyed women continue to receive their normal salary. The work situation for more than half of the employees has worsened due the pandemic8. In the same report, some testimonies were retrieved:
- “I’ve been working for 16 years and still I’m not registered. I’m not getting paid in this quarantine despite belonging to a risk group”9.
- “I was fired from one of the permanent jobs I had as soon as the mandatory quarantine was announced. In the other places of employment, they didn’t even respond to me or didn’t take care of the situation because I didn’t work as a registered employee”10.
With the aim of protecting domestic workers and caregivers, two local organizations that bring together workers have developed a “COVID-19 Healthy and Safe Work Model for employers and workers in private homes”11, which includes recommendations, suggestions and preventative measures against contracting the virus for the resumption of activities.
Beyond the immediate work setting, the private home, another important factor is the city and the means of travelling through it. As for the modes of transport for domestic workers, the following recommendations are detailed:
- “If distance and weather conditions allow it, it is preferable to travel by bicycle, motorbike, walking or in a car paid by the employer”12.
- “Take the bus rather than the train: When possible, it is recommended to avoid this means of transport and it is suggested to take buses with the same routes as the train and with timetables adapted to working hours”13.
- “Avoid travelling during peak hours. It is advisable to talk to employers to establish staggered working hours for both entry and exit of workers”14.
How domestic workers and caregivers commute to work is just as important as their place of work.
Mobility of care
The mobility of care is related to the urban structure and the spatial distribution of people and jobs in the care sector. As much of the informal care work takes place in urban and suburban middle- and high-income residential areas that are usually not well enough connected to public transport, caregivers have trouble reaching the homes where they work. This is because care has historically been ignored as a source of employment, so many residential areas are not recognized as workplaces. In addition, given the informality and precariousness of the work, women caregivers generally only have incomes that allow them to live on the outskirts of cities, which means that they have to cross the much of city to reach their jobs in higher-income areas15.
As the work of Blanco & Bosoer shows, there are certain trends in the mobility of domestic workers in Buenos Aires Metropolitan Region16.
- 1. They are intensive users of public transport, which represents almost 90% of journeys (bus, train, and subway). The remaining 10% corresponds to journeys on foot and by bicycle.
2. Trips to work begin very early in the morning in relation to other work trips, with a marked peak between 6 and 8 a.m., and a flatter return between 2 and 6 p.m.
3. Their trips are the longest within the Region. 40% of the trips are over 1 hour long, exceeding the average of the rest of the workers, with a pattern that is only comparable with construction workers.
4. They use modal combinations to a greater extent than the rest of the workers.
5. Most of the workers live in the suburban areas. Buenos Aires City, as well as the high-income municipalities, attract a significant number of workers on a daily basis, while the outer (and poorer) municipalities generate the domestic workforce.
The COVID context once again revealed issues of informal labour in many sectors, especially regarding the activity of domestic workers or caregivers, jobs that are mostly carried out by the females. As this is a low-paying and rarely registered job, female workers are forced to move around the city to reach not just one but multiple workplaces. In this way, COVID related measures forced many domestic employees and caregivers to be exposed to the virus in public spaces and when using public transport when travelling to work. However, the informality of their labor situation shows that they have no choice: The initial fear of infection is transformed into the fear of losing their jobs and livelihoods.
In addition to making informality and precariousness visible, the pandemic demonstrated that urban mobility infrastructure is inefficient for these workers, leading to long travel times and multimodal journeys. If the current pandemic is considered as a chance to rethink urban mobility, then the experience of care workers needs to be taken into account in order to re-design the routes, operational hours and capacity of our public transport so that travelling to work is not a job in itself, but safe, reliable and affordable for everyone, especially for the ones with unequal opportunities.
1. Official bulletin of the Argentine Republic – Decree 297/2020 (2020) [online]. Available at: https://www.boletinoficial.gob.ar/detalleAviso/primera/227042/20200320 [Accessed: 14 October 2020].
2. Ibid. Translated by the author.
3. Ibid. Translated by the author.
4. Buchara, A. (2020). Empleadas domésticas y cuarentena: ¿quién las cuida? Cosecha Roja [online]. Available at: http://cosecharoja.org/empleadas-domesticas-y-cuarentena-quien-las-cuida/ [Accessed: 14 October 2020].
5. Tuchin, F. (2020). Limpiar, cuidar, cocinar. ¿Está bien reconocido el rol de las trabajadoras domésticas? Redaccion [online]. Available at: https://www.redaccion.com.ar/limpiar-cuidar-cocinar-esta-bien-reconocido-el-rol-de-las-trabajadoras-domesticas/ [Accessed: 14 October 2020].
6. Cañete Alonso, R. (2020). Descansar, un lujo para pocos. Revista Anfibia [online]. Available at: http://revistaanfibia.com/ensayo/descansar-un-lujo-para-pocos/ [Accessed: 14 October 2020].
7. Gimenez, P. (2020). La irresponsabilidad de Nicole y los duros números de la feminización del cuidado. Filo News [online]. Available at: https://www.filo.news/genero/La-irresponsabilidad-de-Nicole-y-los-duros-numeros-de-la-feminizacion-del-cuidado-20200804-0025.html [Accessed: 14 October 2020].
8. UNLA (2020). Encuesta a trabajadoras/es de casas particulares y su situación laboral en el contexto de aislamiento por la pandemia de COVID-19 en Argentina [online]. Available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1p5def7udT41Fx_Tgle_U_8mztjOELiNX/view?fbclid=IwAR2xQhenyGSxVONhQUWokksTMIJezgVFJ2zACyZSUt9br7MeAMk-QUXWdag [Accessed: 14 October 2020].
9. Ibid. Translated by the author.
10. Ibid. Translated by the author.
11. UPACP (2020). Modelo de trabajo sano y seguro ante el COVID-19 para empleadores/ras y trabajadoras/es de casas particulares [online]. Available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Fn1ldDUx-vtObMGO3pb9r5wFyMdoriFr/view [Accessed: 14 October 2020].
12. Ibid. p. 18. Translated by the author.
13. Ibid. p. 10. Translated by the author.
14. Ibid. p. 18. Translated by the author.
15. Montoya Robledo, V., Montes, L., Bernal, V. (2020). Movilidad para el cuidado con cara de mujer [online]. Available at: https://blogs.iadb.org/transporte/es/movilidad-para-el-cuidado-con-cara-de-mujer/
16. Blanco, J., Bosoer, L. (2020). Desigualdad social, territorio y movilidad: Apuntes sobre la movilidad por trabajo del servicio doméstico en la Región Metropolitana de Buenos Aires [online]. Available at: http://urbared.ungs.edu.ar/pdf/Blanco_Bosoer_Apuntes-servicio-domestico-COVID.pdf [Accessed: 14 October 2020].
Cover image: Domestic workers and COVID-19. Source: Author’s own.
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