Ecuador's 300,000 women and men who work inside homes cleaning, cooking or taking care of children and elders have seen a profound transformation in the last 10 years under the country's progressive government. But with a key election looming, those landmark gains hang in the balance.
And for the tens of thousands of workers that have won basic labor rights for the first time in the past decade, the stakes are high.
“There were times when we worked and we didn’t get paid, we didn’t have social security, there was no minimum wage for us,” Maximina Salazar, director of the Household Workers Association of Ecuador, told teleSUR.
“All this type of labor violence against us women is what we had in the past,” she added.
When the Citizens' Revolution began in Ecuador as the left-wing government of President Rafael Correa took office in 2007, it was the first time the country put on the agenda an open dialogue between ministers, employers and workers to demand better working conditions. The Household Workers Association, founded in 1998, had a new political opportunity with a seat at the table to make gains in its decade-long struggle for labor rights.
Maximina remembers many cases in which workers inside homes — who her organization refers to ask household workers, rather than domestic workers — didn’t have rights and many were even sexually violated by their employers.
“There has always been discrimination towards this working sector,” said Maritza Zambrano, head of the Union of Household Workers. “It’s been 19 years of struggle.”
Maritza, 46, and Maximina, 64, have worked together for years to protect workers' rights and are striving to broaden their coverage around the country to provide assistance to as many laborers as they can.
“If they (workers) would get pregnant with the child of the employer, after they gave birth, they would be kicked out and the employer would take the child,” said Maritza, underlining the difficult conditions suffered, especially by women, before the introduction of much-needed reforms.
Together with negotiations to improve working conditions, the association went one step further to protect its members and created a union, through which they also collaborate with other major labor organizations in Latin America as well as the International Labour Organization. The Union of Household Workers was created in 2016, marking a landmark victory in the labor movement.
Along with fighting for concrete rights, part of the struggle for Ecuador's household workers is also about winning dignity for household workers and recognition of their work for the important role it plays in society.
“Once I go into your house to work, you don’t have to call me 'domestic.' It’s true that I work in a house — I clean and cook — but that is a job, for which I receive payment,” said Maritza. “So we are trying to change that discriminatory term towards our sector.”
Now, the 660 affiliated members in the union receive training and information on job safety, work hazards and social security benefits, as well as their rights and responsibilities. They are also guaranteed minimum wage, social security, respect for the 8-hour work day and vacation time, none of which were part of the law a decade ago, when workers endured conditions most of them describe as a form of slavery.
“If another government comes, from another party, from the right-wing, believe me — we could lose everything we have accomplished,” said Maximina.
According to Ecuador's Political Secretariat, 99,614 paid household workers are now from the country’s social security system. The guaranteed benefits for tens of thousands of household workers is signifcant, given the fact that across Latin America more than 14 million women who work inside homes are denied proper payment for their labor.
But now, the future of these progressive gains under the Correa government will be put to a popular vote, as Ecuadoreans will head to the polls on Feb. 19 to elect a new president and other lawmakers. Meanwhile, referendum on tax havens could spur the fight against inequality by blocking wealthy politicians from siphoning off tax dollars needed for development.
This will be a key election for the Andean country, as voters will decide if they want to continue the legacy of the Citizen's Revolution for another four years through the ruling party, or choose one of the other seven candidates of the divided opposition, who have all focused their campaigns on overhauling many of Correa’s cornerstone initiatives.
Before leaving office, President Correa — who is barred from running for another term in office — will present one last referendum, asking citizens to cast a ballot on whether or not to introduce a ban for politicians and elected officials from having money in offshore tax havens. Ecuador has spearheaded a fight for stiffer international regulations to stamp out tax dodging, and new national rules would set an important precedent, while also cementing the Correa government's legacy of battling inequality.
The global campaign in reign in tax avoidance and foster global solutions for stronger economic development gathered momentum after the leak of the Panama Papers last year, which shed light on how some of the wealthiest most powerful people on the planet hid their money and avoided paying taxes through offshore accounts and shell companies.
Eurodad, the European Network on Debt and Development, one of the main associations working on tax issues, has promoted global negotiations among governments in the United Nations to stamp out tax havens, with the support of international financial organizations.
Tax Justice Coordinator at Eurodad, Tove Ryding, says some of the world's rich and developed countries aren't interested in having such global talks, but instead want to push out other countries that do want to work together for transparency and equality.
"We think there should be a strong and broad coalition of all the governments that want to move forward,” Ryding told teleSUR. “And then if there’s one, or two or three governments who refuse to cooperate, it shouldn’t stop the world from moving forward and reaching an agreement on this.”
“Developing countries have supported this throughout the last 10 years," said Ryding. “And now we see Ecuador bringing this issue back to the table.”
According to Ryding, oil companies, international banks and even big coffee chains are pushing back, creating a coalition of multinational corporations to stop any legislation that would change the tax system in place.
The U.N.’s Conference on Trade and Development said in its latest report that one type of corporate tax avoidance alone is costing developing countries US$100 billion annually.
According to Ryding, it is still impossible to know the full scale of tax avoidance around the globe because it’s covered in secrecy, but tax havens are costing a lot of money not just to developing countries, but for all countries around the world.
“It’s a global problem, so we need a global solution,” she said.
“We look at tax issues as one of the reasons why we haven't been able to get rid of poverty, we haven't been able to finance environmental protection,” she added. “It’s in everyone’s interest to solve this problem.”
But while the issue of tax avoidance has recently topped Ecuador's political agenda, many people in rural areas in the country still don’t know much about tax havens, or if their local elected officials have millionaire accounts abroad.
According to the Panama Papers leak, there are 40 companies in Ecuador that have their assets in offshore accounts, especially in Panama. The country also lost an estimated US$3.4 billion to tax havens between 2014 and 2015.
Maximina, who has dedicated at least two decades to defending the rights of household workers, is on board with Ecuador's proposal and supports a "yes" vote in the upcoming referendum on public transparency when it comes to tax havens. She says she rejects the idea that rich people can make other countries more developed with the interest they pay, instead of bringing it back to the country for the benefit of their fellow citizens who need it the most.
“If that money were in our country we would have better conditions,” she said.
“Not just for living, but health, roads, education," she added. "That’s why we don’t support that current politicians can have money in tax havens in other countries, instead of having it in our own Ecuador.”
Maritza agreed, saying that she considers such politicians as traitors, arguing that even though they are Ecuadoreans, their economic decisions suggest they don't love Ecuador or its people.
“All those candidates that are making promises that they will give millions of jobs — how can they promise such things when they are the first to invest in other countries? Maritza said.
“Do you think the Ecuadorian people deserve that deceit?" she added. "They don’t deserve it.”