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Mainstream, VOL LX No 25, New Delhi, June 11, 2022

Vergara on Hutchison, ’Workers Like All the Rest of Them

Saturday 11 June 2022


Reviewed by Ángela Vergara (California State University)

Workers Like All the Rest of Them:
Domestic Service and the Rights of Labor in Twentieth-Century Chile

by Elizabeth Quay Hutchison

Durham: Duke University Press
228 pp. $25.95
(paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1489-8;
(cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-1395-2.

The history of Chile’s paid domestic workers has remained largely invisible. Labor studies do not mention their struggles and unionization efforts or consider the political influence of their leaders. In national histories, they usually appear as passive and submissive women who symbolize a traditional Chile. In her fascinating and carefully crafted new monograph, Elizabeth Quay Hutchison challenges us to reconsider the long history of domestic service and sheds light on what she calls a "hidden history." To do so, she gives voice to the empleadas, the women who work in private homes. Through their personal and collective memories, Hutchison reconstructs their fight for social and labor rights.

The book builds on Hutchison’s impressive experience studying women’s paid work in Latin America. In her first book, Labor Appropriate to Their Sex: Gender, Labor, and Politics in Urban Chile, 1900–1930 (2001), she examined the history of industrial workers at the turn of the century and showed how the elite, social reformers, and male organizers attempted to control and protect women laborers. She has also studied how statistics and official documents contributed to erasing women’s participation in the workforce, making temporal and informal work invisible and further marginalizing working-class women. In her new book, she continues exploring the intersections of gender and paid labor by looking at domestic workers, the most emblematic but understudied occupation for working-class women.

Workers Like All the Rest of Them makes three important contributions to Chile’s labor and gender historiography. First, it illustrates the limits and gaps in Chile’s labor legislation. Hutchison shows that labor laws considered domestic workers a different work category and initially excluded them from many benefits and protections. While protections improved in the 1930s, definitions of domestic work were narrow and omitted, for example, temporary workers or those who had more than one employer. Enforcing rights within the walls of private homes was always challenging, and employers’ abuses were hard to eradicate. In chapter 2, for instance, Hutchison shows how one of the most common disagreements involved employers’ neglect in paying workers’ social security. The question of domestic workers’ legal status and rights reemerged in the late 1970s when the military dictatorship imposed a new labor code. This draconian legislation reversed many of the gains achieved during the long 1960s, leaving domestic workers with minimum protections and bringing back "the more paternalistic articles" of the early 1930s (p. 136).

Second, Hutchison demonstrates that domestic workers successfully organized to improve working conditions, expand labor rights, and provide their members with space to socialize outside their employers’ homes. Through chapters 3 to 5, we learn about these organizations and how they changed over time. These changes reflect the characteristics and composition of the workforce, the influence of the Catholic Church, and the political and social transformation of the country. A distinctive characteristic of the empleadas’ labor movement was its ties with the Catholic Church. Based on extensive oral interviews and church documents, Hutchison analyzes the efforts of local parishes to organize and serve the social, religious, and material needs of domestic workers. The empleadas and progressive Catholic groups forged long and fruitful connections that shaped the lives of union leaders as well as emblematic priests, such as Bernardino Piñera. While many of these religious efforts bore the mark of church paternalism and its attempt to shape and control young and recent rural women migrants, the testimonies of union leaders highlight their importance in providing opportunities to meet and form a community. By the late 1960s, the movement had grown in number and incorporated the teachings of liberation theology and the radicalization of Chilean politics, but, Hutchison concludes, it "remained marginal to Chilean labor" (p. 125).

Finally, the book contributes to understanding the unique labor experience of domestic workers, especially the live-in empleadas. Central to their identity, the author demonstrates, was migration. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century in Chile, rural women migrated to Santiago and other provincial cities to work as maids and nannies. The plight of the recent migrants attracted the church’s attention, which was concerned about their adjustment and the risks they faced alone in a big city. Their migrant identity also shaped the union demands and efforts to create spaces of participation outside work. In the last thirty years, international migration from other parts of Latin America has changed the demographics of domestic workers. The book also touches on some of the complicated relations with employers, the good and the bad ones, and the abuses that many empleadas experienced.

As one of the first histories of domestic labor in Chile, Workers Like All the Rest of Them opens many questions for further research. We need to know more about the diverse experiences of empleadas, including those who were never involved in politics and union activities. In addition, how domestic workers accessed labor protections remains an important question. As Hutchison shows, enforcing rights and documenting abuses within employers’ homes were particularly challenging. Much of what occured within private spaces was never recorded. Many of those issues may have reached the labor courts, but those archives are not yet organized and available to historians. We also need to know more about the role of the Catholic Church. In light of the many scandals affecting the church and the figure of Bernardino Piñera, it is crucial to explore how religious organizations worked toward controlling women’s sexuality and independence and how many of these relations were tainted by abuse.

In sum, this beautifully written and engaging book visualizes Chilean domestic workers’ life and work. Based on in-depth conversations with activists and archival research, it demonstrates that paid domestic workers organized and challenged patriarchal and social norms that saw them as passive and submissive. This is also a book about the present and the vulnerability and abuses women workers continue to face in neoliberal Chile. As Hutchison concludes, these stories matter because they show how women in domestic service successfully organized to confront powerful employers and defend their rights as workers.

[This work from H-LatAm is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License]

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