Can ‘On-Demand Economy’ Improve the Conditions of Mexican Domestic Workers?

4 February 2016
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Two distinct institutions have emerged in Mexico: SINACTTRAHO, a domestic workers' union, and Aliada, an on-demand housekeeping service. Which of the two will have a greater impact on the welfare of domestic workers?

Mexico has an estimated 2.3 million domestic workers, the largest group of informal workers in the country, and more than 90 percent are women. Like many of their counterparts around the world, Mexican domestic workers are grossly underpaid without any social security and work up to 16 hours a day. Nearly one out of five reports mistreatment and sexual abuse. Mexico voted in favor of the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Domestic Workers but has yet to ratify it, signalling a lack of commitment to the issue.

Two distinct institutions have emerged to address the low pay and poor working conditions of domestic workers: SINACTTRAHO (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras del Hogar), the country’s first domestic workers’ union, and Aliada, an on-demand housekeeping service. While both intend to improve domestic workers’ livelihoods, they represent very different approaches to change: one, a political movement based on mobilization of workers and demanding more of the state, and the other a private sector solution based on 21st century technology.

Are these approaches complementary or contradictory? Which of the two will have a greater impact on the welfare of domestic workers?

SINACTTRAHO demands mandatory access to social security for all workers and pressures the government to ratify the binding International Labor Organisation Convention 189.

Aliada, on the other hand, facilitates matching between employers and domestic workers through an Internet-based application. Like other on-demand aggregators, it allows the domestic workers to choose their location and time of work. Aliada workers earn almost three times more than an average domestic worker. The company even provides healthcare, monthly bonuses, food supplements and transportation vouchers for its workers. Aliada is like a socially conscious Uber for domestic work.

Each group’s strategy comes with advantages and drawbacks.

The union’s success in advancing the rights of workers is ultimately dependent on its strength and perseverance. Movements of this kind require patience, and domestic workers may not have the time to enter a long haul fight with the Mexican state. On the other hand, if SINACTTRAHO prevails in pressuring the government to ratify the convention, the extension of rights will apply to all domestic workers, not only union members.

The on-demand approach might be a quicker solution. Domestic workers who gain access to the Aliada app immediately improve their earning potential and their working conditions. But as a for-profit company that must ensure quality of service, Aliada ends up targeting the most highly skilled domestic workers. Its model may never benefit workers across the entire industry. Aliada may also face regulatory challenges as it grows into a larger entity.

While rights-based advocates and social entrepreneurs often see one another’s strategies as limited, these examples from Mexico demonstrate that the two approaches can be complementary. SINACTTRAHO and Aliada are effecting change on different time horizons, and potentially with different groups of workers. Nevertheless, the Mexican state will eventually need to step up, recognize and enforce the rights of its domestic workers, and facilitate the formalization of this sector in the shadows.