How Impact Investment in a Digital Platform Can Advance Labor Rights for Domestic Workers in Latin America
By Anuradha Shetty & Daan Besamusca
As the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020, a young Brazilian woman working in Rio de Janeiro grew increasingly concerned for both her mother and her grandmother. Both were continuing to go to work as household cleaners and helpers, traveling for hours on public transport to work in other people’s houses—unable to stop working because they desperately needed the money, and unable to rely on any form of government support. Juliana França responded by launching a public campaign—“Pela vida de nossas mães” or “For the Lives of our Mothers”—to draw attention to the plight of care workers; 87,000 people signed a petition calling for guaranteed protection for the health and jobs of the country’s domestic workers during the pandemic.
Similar, small-scale efforts, including appeals for donations and mutual aid schemes, have appeared during the pandemic across Latin America, as the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the profound vulnerability of people, mostly women, who work for families behind closed doors. No one knows exact numbers, but there are an estimated 18 million domestic workers in Latin America, three out of four of them informally employed.
Domestic workers typically have no access to employment-related social security, accident insurance, or health care. They get no paid annual or sick leave. They may receive less than the minimum wage, and work for longer than the maximum working hours. Many workers are not only poor but face discriminatory treatment because they come from Black or Indigenous backgrounds; all are at risk of exploitation, violence, harassment, and forced labor.
Formally, governments around the world, including in Latin America, have pledged to address these issues. In 2011, member states of the International Labor Organization agreed on a convention that guarantees domestic workers the same labor rights as others in gainful employment, from which they have historically been excluded. Sixteen countries across Latin America and the Caribbean have ratified the treaty so far—but there is a huge gap between ratifying a treaty and extending national legal frameworks, to enforcing the law and improving conditions for those who work alone in someone else’s home.
This challenge exists even in the most prosperous economies. In the United States, advocates for domestic workers rights, notably the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have focused on trying to organize domestic workers and promoting mutual self-help initiatives, such as the ALIA portable benefits platform, which provides workers with paid time off compensation and basic insurance services.
Now in Latin America, Open Society’s impact investment arm, the Soros Economic Development Fund, is supporting efforts by a company based in Colombia—Symplifica—that have some parallels. Symplifica operates an online platform in Bogotá, the Colombian capital, that has approached the problem initially via employers, who have been legally required since 2015 to register their employment contracts with domestic workers.
Limited data suggests that today less than 20 percent of domestic workers in Colombia are registered (and many think that figure is an over-estimate). The time burden and complexity of the registration process in Colombia is often cited as key reason for low compliance levels.
Symplifica identified this market gap and currently offers employers a monthly subscription that helps legally enroll domestic workers into social security systems, formalize written contracts, and manage monthly payments for domestic workers. So far, the company has formalized over 15,000 employment relationships; for the majority of workers this marked their first participation in national social security programs, which also enables access to government social support and subsidies, while all earn at least minimum wage compared to less than half estimated to do so at the national level.
Over time, the company hopes to start offering more products and services such as bank accounts, rewards programs, and life insurance products, as well as providing information for domestic workers regarding their rights.
The Soros Economic Development Fund is investing $1.75 million to support Symplifica’s efforts to expand, both within Colombia and across Latin America. Through formalizing work for thousands of domestic workers, the Soros Economic Development Fund believes this platform can directly improve the lives of many while offering domestic workers a stronger collective voice, both with their employers and with their governments.
The objective is ultimately the full recognition of care work as work and care workers as workers entitled to decent pay, protection and working conditions. But fully recognizing the value and importance of care work requires broad shifts, not just in laws and regulations, but in practice and in culture.
During this terrible pandemic, some signs of this kind of change have appeared, including the public debate in Brazil prompted by individuals such as Juliana França. That journey needs to continue after the pandemic—along pathways that will bring care work out of the shadows.
Symplifica is an investee of the Open Society Foundations.
Until June 2022, Anuradha Shetty was an investment principal with the Open Society Economic Justice Program.
Daan Besamusca is an investment principal with the Soros Economic Development Fund.