How the most vulnerable workers are targeted for sexual abuse

Isolated, unprotected and scared to speak out – some workers are particularly vulnerable to harassment. Who finds the cases of sexual assault no one else is looking for?


The southern California sky dims as Vicky Márquez zooms south along Interstate 5 in her Honda SUV, with syrupy Spanish-language love songs blasting from her stereo. The satnav on her phone is directing her through a monotonous landscape of Orange County office parks, and Márquez is racing against rush hour, dodging between lanes and swerving with inches to spare. “I’m kind of a crazy driver,” she admits.

Márquez works for a little-known non-profit organisation with the pressing goal of fighting labour exploitation among night-shift janitors – an industry that operates in obscurity, with workers sent to anonymous buildings rarely visited by government regulators. With her glasses, curled-under fringe and pastel sweater, Márquez looks more like a retired librarian than a labour rights activist. On tiptoe, she stands under 5ft tall. On this particular late winter evening, Márquez is on the road to the first of half a dozen office parks where she will make surprise visits, making sure that cleaners are being treated fairly by their bosses.

After 40 frenetic minutes on the road, Márquez arrives at her first destination, near the city of San Clemente. She climbs out of the car carrying a bulging black bag stuffed with papers and tests the front door of the office. Tonight, she has arrived early enough that the door swings open. Márquez has other strategies for when they are locked: she might station herself near the service exits or the dumpsters, where she knows the night-shift cleaners will eventually present themselves. In supermarkets or guarded high-rises, she will sweetly ask for the janitor. If the person she is talking to assumes that she’s looking for a job, so be it.

Tonight her first move is to look for bathrooms or supply closets – two places she knows she is likely to find a janitor. She moves past the elevators to a rear hallway, where she finds María García, a cleaner, holding a mop next to a bucket of murky, citrus-smelling water. Márquez greets her in Spanish. García is on the clock and responds brusquely, almost warily. Márquez doesn’t waste time on small talk. Setting her large bag on top of a drinking fountain, she extracts a packet of papers and passes them to the cleaner. Márquez explains that she works for an organisation called the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF), which helps janitors make sure they get paid what they are owed, and helps them solve problems with issues such as immigration.

When she has García’s attention, Márquez asks a few more questions: does García get paid in cash, or with a cheque on a regular basis? A cheque every two weeks, García says. Márquez nods. Is she given regular breaks? Yes. Does she have to pay for her own cleaning supplies? García says that sometimes what the company gives her is not enough, so she has to buy a few more bottles of bleach. Márquez tells her it is the company’s responsibility to provide her with the supplies she needs.

Then Márquez goes in to close the deal. “Tu teléfono, mija?” Márquez asks. Márquez scribbles the number into a black notebook. “Y tu dirección?” Márquez then takes down García’s address.

Gathering workers’ contact information is Márquez’s ultimate aim. The MCTF is one of only a handful of organisations in the US keeping careful tabs on the practices of non-union cleaning firms – some of which operate entirely in the black market. Through these impromptu meetings, the organisation has generated a database of workers who can give first-hand testimony about whether these companies are following labour laws. Since 1999, the MCTF has helped collect more than $26m (£19m) for janitors who were being abused at work.

García doesn’t know it yet, but Márquez will later call or visit her at home in the early afternoon, when most night janitors have not yet left for work. At these follow-up meetings, Márquez will remind García that she is there to help her solve any problems she may be facing at work. If García doesn’t pick up or answer the door, Márquez will keep trying until she makes contact with her a second and then a third time. This process can take months, but such is the long, slow dance necessary to build trust among workers in low-paying and invisible industries – people who are unlikely to ever make formal complaints.

A protest in Sacramento, California, in support of a bill to protect female workers from sexual harassment.
 A 2016 protest in Sacramento, California, in support of a bill to protect female workers from sexual harassment. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

As a reporter who has investigated these industries for several years, I have been forced to conclude that low-wage immigrants labouring in isolation are at unique risk of sexual assault and harassment. It is an open secret in these industries that immigrant women in financially precarious jobs – many of whom are undocumented – are targeted for sexual abuse by their superiors. While it is not possible to know how often these abuses happen, they are not anomalies. Federal government figures estimate that about 50 workers are sexually assaulted each day, and in the industries that hire newcomers to the country in exchange for meagre paycheques, such assault is a familiar workplace hazard. And yet there have been few meaningful efforts to prevent it before it starts. Instead, we expect women with the most to lose to seek recourse by reporting the problem after the fact – but the reality is that if these workers face abuse from a superior, the combination of uncertain immigration status, financial constraint and shame often conspires to keep them silent.

The same unfortunate pattern plays out among farm workers and domestic workers – those who cook, clean and care for families behind the locked doors of private homes. Their vulnerability to sexual violence echoed what I had heard from janitors: in their isolated workplaces, it was often their direct employers who groped them or propositioned them for sex.

In her work as an advocate for cleaners, Vicky Márquez has discovered that a lot can happen in places no one is looking – but she didn’t realise the full extent of it until she met a young cleaner named Georgina Hernández.

Many low-paid jobs share similar risk factors. Every day vast numbers of women – often hired via a complex web of barely accountable subcontractors – find themselves working in isolated locations across the US. With few other people around – and those that are often battling poverty and eager to keep their jobs – they can become the perfect target for predators.

Hernández was working at a cinema sweeping up popcorn when Márquez first met her. For the first month and a half on the job, Hernández never received a pay cheque, and worked more hours than she was being paid for. She hadn’t complained because she thought that, as someone without immigration papers, she was easy to replace. She still recalls the way Márquez spoke to her – gently, like an understanding aunt. Before Márquez left, she took down Hernández’s phone number and told her she would check in with her again.

On her next visit, Márquez looked at Hernández’s pay stubs and compared them to the working hours she had written down in a notebook. They didn’t match up. When Márquez asked why Hernández hadn’t written down any time for breaks, she said it was because she wasn’t given any. Márquez and the MCTF eventually helped Hernández and some of her co-workers file a complaint with California’s labour commissioner, which led to a $1m fine from the state of California against the two cleaning companies that had employed Hernández: for failing to pay minimum wage and overtime, and for not giving their workers rest or meal breaks.

But when Hernández moved to a new, higher-paying job as a hotel cleaner, there were even bigger problems. Early on, she says, her supervisor flirted with her and tried to convince her to have sex with him. She rebuffed him, and he retaliated by giving her more work. When his advances didn’t stop, she tried to hide from him, but he would follow her or call her on her cellphone to find out where she was.

His demands quickly became violent. Less than a week into the new job, Hernández says he told her that he needed to talk to her privately about her work in his car. This made her uncomfortable, but he said: “You need this job, don’t you?” He instructed Hernández to meet him in the parking garage. Worried about losing her job, she went. When she got there, he told her to get into the vehicle. She hesitated, but he was the boss. She did what she was told. The supervisor drove them to a higher, darker floor of the garage. After he parked, he began to touch her legs. She told him she didn’t want to continue, and he replied that he would give her more days off and better pay. Hernández told him she didn’t want more days off – she had taken the job because she wanted to work. When he began touching her breasts, she became afraid. Then he took off her trousers. As he forced himself on her, she panicked and froze.

Afterwards, the supervisor asked her to put in a request for an extra shift that week, so he could take her to a hotel. Hernández told him she couldn’t. He assured her there would be perks: he would pay her for the shift, and make sure she received seven shifts that week. “You’re delicious,” he told her before driving her to a lower level of the parking garage. He told her to go into the building first. He followed a while later.

Hernández never requested an extra shift. She didn’t immediately tell anyone what her supervisor had done. The shame of it was too much, and she knew it would not be easy to find a new job as an undocumented worker who couldn’t read or write.

About a week later, Hernández’s supervisor told her to meet him again. When she said no and tried to quit, he threatened to hurt her and her daughter. He added that if she wanted to stay in the country, she needed to keep him happy. This time he drove them to a motel.

On one of her nights off, Hernández’s supervisor called her incessantly until she picked up the phone. He said he needed her to work that night and that he was on his way to pick her up. Hernández hurried to get herself ready for work, but once she was in his car, he drove to the motel. Hernández cried and tried to climb out of the car, but he pulled her into a room by her hair, where she says he forced her to have sex with him again. He later warned her not to tell anyone what had happened – but she would have stayed silent anyway. She thought her family and friends would never believe her, or would think she had brought it on herself.

Hernández says that, at the time, she didn’t think there was a way out of her supervisor’s trap. “There’s no way to defend yourself,” she says. “There’s no way to say no. When you need the job, you become the victim. That’s why you deal with all the harassment, the discrimination, everything – because you need the job.”

For the next few weeks, she reported to work at the hotel as usual, making a point to avoid her supervisor. But he managed to find her, either to remind her how much she needed the job, or to chastise her for being so cold during their encounters. Finally, he came to her with an ultimatum: she had to decide whether she wanted to keep her job or not. If she did, he would continue to have certain expectations of her.

Hernández felt hopeless. She was having migraines and panic attacks. She dreaded his next demand. When he confronted her again, she told him she would not have sex with him to keep her job. Then began his revenge. He yelled at her in front of co-workers and disciplined her for supposedly leaving used tissues in the lobby. Then, she says, he started to sabotage her work, making a mess of places she had cleaned and disciplining her for it.

The rapes had been horrific violations, but they had happened in private. Now her supervisor was publicly impugning her work, and her job was still at risk. She felt lost and compromised, but she swallowed how she felt and continued to drag herself to work.

She later decided to speak to the cleaning company about the assaults. She had seen her supervisor try to hug and flirt with another cleaner, so together the two women called human resources to make a complaint, but nothing changed. Almost two months into the job, Hernández called in sick one evening. The next day, the supervisor fired her.

Hernández didn’t leave the house for days. She had headaches and couldn’t sleep. Her nausea continued to intensify. The truth was hard to face: she was pregnant. Depleted and sobbing, she sought out the only person she could trust. Vicky Márquez remembers how Hernández sounded that day. She was crying and her voice was anguished. Márquez had rushed to Hernández’s apartment, but the cleaner said they could not talk there. “I don’t want anyone to hear me,” she said.

They talked in Márquez’s car. “Something has happened that I don’t want to have to tell you, Vicky,” Hernández began. “Something terrible.” She was inconsolable. Márquez told her: “We can find a lot of help for this. Don’t be scared.” But in truth, Márquez had no idea what she could do. She called Anel Flores, a colleague who was an attorney, to ask for help. Flores suggested Márquez bring Hernández to their office. For the next two hours, Hernández shared fragments of her experience, until Flores was able to piece the whole story together, from the rape in the parking lot to being forced into sex at the motel. Finally, Hernández told Flores that she was pregnant from one of the rapes, and that she had already made an appointment for an abortion. “I cannot have this baby,” she said.

She added that she was worried people would find out she was pregnant, and that she would be judged and blamed for everything. Flores tried to reassure her: “It’s not your fault. You did not do anything wrong. You’re not a bad person.” Hernández eventually agreed to let Flores share some of what had happened with Márquez, and with Lilia García, the executive director of the MCTF. They told Hernández they would help her address the problem step by step, and would become her confidants and support network.

When Hernández terminated the pregnancy a few days later, Flores picked her up from the clinic and took her home. After an attorney specialising in sexual harassment suggested that Hernández file a police report, Flores and Márquez drove Hernández to the police station, and Flores sat with her as she was interviewed.

Reassured by the support of the women from the MCTF, Hernández became determined to push back against what had happened. With the help of the lawyer she had met through the organisation, Hernández filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the cleaning company. In the legal filing, Hernández accused the company of failure to prevent sexual harassment, wrongful termination and retaliation, negligent supervision, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery. Within months, the company paid a financial settlement to close the case, though it did not admit any liability in the process. It also fired the supervisor.

Hernández says the outcome of the case can never make up for the rapes, but she is proud that she set aside her fears to challenge what had happened to her. She had tolerated too much for too long because she didn’t know how to get help, and she might have been stuck with the same problems if Márquez hadn’t found her. “I would have guarded all of this pain,” she says. “I wouldn’t have known how to speak out about what happened.”

Márquez says the isolation of the job and the demographic of the workers makes night-shift cleaners such as Hernández easy targets for abuse. “It is because the supervisors always think the worker needs work and they have work to give,” Márquez says. “So they commit these abuses. And there are many – who knows how many hundreds or thousands of cases – that remain in the shadows because no one knows. Many women don’t say anything out of fear. They’re afraid that society will realise that they have been forced to sleep with someone. They are afraid that they will lose their job.”

Márquez knows that it is rare to uncover cases such as Hernández’s. For each janitor the MCTF reaches, it can take months of calls and visits before a worker will begin to think about speaking up about their problems. In matters of sexual assault, it takes even more work and time. “How many cases are there in this country that we don’t know about?” Márquez says.

Across the US, immigration status and poverty are used as leverage against female workers to hold them hostage in jobs where they are being sexually abused. Labour enforcement is predicated on the idea that workers already know their rights, and thus it is logical to expect them to make a complaint to bosses or the government if problems arise. These laws do not take into consideration the experiences of low-wage immigrant workers and what their options really are if they have been sexually assaulted at work.

The legal system – through filing a civil lawsuit or a criminal case – is often viewed as the clearest way to demand accountability. Workers can also go to their employers or unions to demand redress. Making a formal complaint helps emphasise that there can be consequences for this type of abusive conduct. But these approaches are only part of the solution, and are inherently reactive, requiring the confrontation of systemic roadblocks – such as deeply flawed notions of credibility – that often get in the way of satisfactory outcomes. Meanwhile, we know that prevention is possible. Decades of empirical research offers clear direction. While there are some heartening efforts to incorporate this research into worker training and advocacy programs, employers and policy makers have largely chosen not to use it.

A protest in Sacramento, California, in support of a bill to protect female workers from sexual harassment.
 Supporters of the Justice for Janitors campaign at the Sacramento protest. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In addition, advocates for female workers have tried for decades to make the case that sexual assault at work should not be dismissed or marginalised by employers and the government because it has historically been perceived as a “women’s issue”. Instead, they argue, gender-based violence should be viewed in the same way as other forms of on-the-job physical violence, so that prevention plans are implemented, the government takes a proactive role in enforcement and workers have an avenue for demanding accountability.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere, but if there is a perfect storm of factors that put workers at risk, night-shift janitorial work is its epicentre. Nearly every office building relies on after-hours cleaners, but we rarely see the people who do the vacuuming and mopping. The work is scheduled to happen at night or during the early morning, when few people are around. They are expected to be invisible.

This is also emblematic of a wider trend. Before the 1980s, most businesses had their own cleaning staff. Then, as institutional investors purchased high-rises and retailers grew into chains with premises all over the country, it became more efficient and cost-effective to outsource such work to independent companies. A wide range of low-paid, unskilled industries have followed suit.

This business model has become even more opaque with the rise in subcontracting. While one contractor might land the official cleaning contract for a large retail chain or high-rise office block, it might then hire a subcontractor to do the actual cleaning. Some of those subcontractors might then subcontract some or all of the work to a third business. Building owners, retailers and businesses award contracts to the lowest bidder, so cleaning companies – both big corporations and small subcontractors – have to keep costs as low as possible. Human labour is the largest expense in this business, and where the firms look first to trim costs.

“The way you make money in this industry is to cheat, because the profit margin is so thin,” says Stephen Lerner, who led the Justice for Janitors campaign with the Service Employees International Union in the 1980s. Larger companies are not without their problems, but they are easier to track, and most provide regular pay cheques and benefits to workers. But at the other end of the spectrum are an unknown number of black-market subcontractors, where misconduct largely stays hidden.

In many ways, the MCTF is doing for cleaners what the state could be doing for all vulnerable workers. “The reality is that there are very few or no enforcement agencies who do this work,” says Lilia García, underlining the fact that the many of the cases her organisation brings would probably go unreported if the job were left solely to the government.

In some states, including California, there is a push to create regulations regarding workplace violence that would address everything from physical attacks to sexual assault. At the federal level, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) acknowledges that it has a responsibility to address sexual assault on the job. In reality, though, the OSHA doesn’t do much to tackle the issue. It took on its first case of workplace sexual assault in 2016.

For now, it is up to organisations such as the MCTF to do the tough work of finding the cases that no one else is looking for. “There is not [much information] in these work sites of where to call if you’re in trouble, of what you can do if a right is violated or if you’re attacked,” says García. “They were almost like these lost islands, just operating in the middle of the night, for years and years and years. We’re actually connecting them with society, and letting them know that their working conditions are wrong or that an attack on their person was wrong and there’s something that they can do about it.”

Sexual assault in the workplace is a crime and an extreme form of sexual harassment. It is outlawed by the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nevertheless, companies do not have to disclose how many sexual harassment complaints they receive internally, whether the claims were physical and violent, or how they handled them.

Complaints made to government agencies are often kept confidential until one party decides to file a lawsuit. Most sexual harassment complaints received by the federal government never result in litigation. They are processed and then stored in filing cabinets or databases.

Even lawsuits don’t always reveal much about what is really happening. If a worker threatens to file a sexual harassment suit, the company can buy the person’s silence by offering a confidential settlement before the case is filed and becomes public information. Cases that do make it to court can be kept under wraps through quick settlement agreements, which include confidentiality clauses that silence the worker and sometimes their attorneys.

Of course, some workers don’t want their personal business known to everyone. Meanwhile, companies argue that keeping these claims out of the public eye is necessary. They say they settle cases as a way to end an embarrassing complaint, even when they don’t truly believe the harassment happened. As a result, they worry that these lawsuits can sometimes become a kind of extortion by disgruntled or dishonest employees.

Advocates such as García, however, argue that it is difficult enough to convince women to come forward about far less sensitive problems – being paid less than the minimum wage, for example. On the dozens of occasions when her organisation has unearthed cases involving sexual violence, the abused workers, for the most part, haven’t wanted to move forward with formal complaints because they didn’t want anyone to know what had happened to them.

“They internalise the shame and the wrongdoing, and the embarrassment is just overpowering,” García says. “They choose not to talk about it to any of their relatives. They really have no other support outside of whatever our organisation can provide.”

When sexual assault happens among invisible workers in industries that few are monitoring, it becomes a crime that can be denied, a problem that never receives accountability or prevention. The repercussions of ignoring the realities of vulnerable workers are clear: if on-the-job sexual violence rarely comes to light, then the problem goes unaddressed and the perpetrator is free to abuse again.

This is an adapted extract from In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers by Bernice Yeung, published by The New Press. Buy it at

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Honduras: La huelga más larga en la empresa que simbolizó las “banana republics”

¿Es usted parte del precariado?

Jonathan Menkos Zeissig

13 de Marzo de 2018 a las 00:00h

Hace algunos días terminé de leer Precariado. Una carta de derechos, de Guy Standing, profesor de la Universidad de Londres. Standing desarrolla una definición sobre lo que considera una nueva clase social, el precariado, caracterizada por la inseguridad crónica y con derechos cada vez más limitados. He aquí doce preguntas para que usted evalúe si es parte de esta clase social.

1) ¿Tiene usted un empleo inseguro; es decir, con un contrato de trabajo por tiempo definido? 2) ¿Ha pasado o está pasando por un período largo de desempleo (más de seis meses) buscando trabajo, pero sin encontrarlo? 3) ¿Ha necesitado la ayuda económica (préstamos o donaciones) de familiares y amigos para subsistir mientras encuentra empleo? 4) ¿Experimenta la sensación de que todo en su vida laboral es temporal? 5) ¿Por necesidad, ha tenido que tomar empleos impredecibles, “de lo que sea”, alejados de su profesión? 6) ¿Su patrón le exige trabajar tiempo extra sin remuneración? 7) ¿Trabaja sin derecho a seguridad social, vacaciones pagadas, aguinaldo y bono 14? 8) ¿Trabaja por un sueldo menor al salario mínimo? 9) ¿Factura por su trabajo, ocultando la relación de dependencia que tiene con su patrono? 10) ¿Piensa que su situación económica no mejorará en los próximos dos o tres años? 11) ¿Está sobrecalificado para el trabajo que ha tenido o tiene? Y, finalmente, 12) ¿Carece de ahorros o algún seguro para enfrentar más de dos meses de desempleo?
Si respondió afirmativamente a seis de las doce preguntas planteadas, entonces usted es parte del precariado guatemalteco, el cual es resultado, en buena medida, de las políticas neoliberales que han puesto en marcha un Estado ambivalente: débil cuando deja a la mano invisible —al “libre” mercado— todo lo relacionado con el bienestar de las personas (salud, nutrición, educación, vivienda, seguridad, empleo, prestaciones laborales), y fuerte para regular la vida de las empresas más grandes o de aquellas cercanas al poder político: otorgándoles privilegios fiscales, disminuyéndoles los salarios de los trabajadores, buscándoles nuevos mercados en el exterior o garantizándoles su poder de monopolio.

Romper con la nociva tendencia a precarizar a los trabajadores y, por ende, a sus familias, requiere redefinir el mercado laboral, garantizar el derecho a trabajar y el rol del Estado en su cumplimiento. Standing propone una carta de derechos, con 29 artículos, para poner fin al precariado. Entre los que mejor se adecuan a nuestra realidad están el reconocimiento a todas las formas de trabajo, incluidos aquellos no remunerados relacionados con la reproducción y el cuidado familiar. Asimismo, fortalecer la negociación colectiva y colaborativa; rechazar la pérdida de derechos laborales; promover una protección social moderna y universalista; desmercantilizar la educación y la política, para enseñar empatía y no oportunismo; poner fin a los subsidios que fomentan la caridad en menoscabo de la acción pública para el bienestar social, y avanzar hacia una renta básica universal. Estos cambios requieren de un Estado con políticas públicas bien definidas y financiadas, con objetivos y resultados claros, y con una tributación justa y equitativa.

Si puede envíeme su respuesta a las doce preguntas planteadas para seguir tratando este tema y haga que su enojo e indignación por esta realidad se transforme en valentía. Las personas en el precariado no son una masa sin esperanza: son una fuerza social para el cambio, con potencia para empujar una agenda de nación que elimine la incertidumbre laboral y defienda la igualdad.

Las mujeres organizadas de la maquila

Carmen Quintela Babio

Francisca Alvarado Chij rebusca entre las gavetas de su pequeño cuarto. Entre retazos de tela y algunas hojas, encuentra una carpeta plástica. “Aquí tiene que estar”, sonríe. La humilde habitación, impoluta, y el olor a perfume que impregna cada esquina, son muestra del orden con el que Francisca cuida las pocas cosas que tanto esfuerzo le ha costado juntar.

Abre la carpeta con cuidado, y camuflado entre algunos papeles aparece un álbum de fotos, resguardado de la humedad. “Sí, aquí está”, confirma. La mujer saca una fotografía antigua, de hace unos 20 años, dice. En ella aparece una dedicada y joven Francisca, al inicio de una línea de producción de una maquila en la que trabajó tiempo atrás.

La historia de Francisca es una historia de constancia, de resistencia. Su memoria parece uno de esos álbumes de fotos que guarda con meticulosidad. Nació hace 47 años en Mazatenango, en el departamento de Suchitepéquez, y cuando apenas levantaba un palmo del suelo, su familia migró a Petén. Con 13 años, a inicios de los 80, una Patrulla de Autodefensa Civil (PAC) mató a su padre. “Mi papá no era guerrillero”, cuenta sin poder aguantar las lágrimas, golpeada por el recuerdo.

Simone Dalmasso

Comenzó a trabajar muy niña, a los siete. Primero vendiendo comida en los buses.Cuidando niños, fabricando zapatos, y sirviendo comida en un restaurante después. A los 16 se fue a vivir con el padre de sus hijos. A los 22 llegó el primer trabajo en una maquila. Y a los 36, empezó a trabajar como operaria en Koa Modas, S.A., una fábrica de capital coreano ubicada en la zona 7 de Mixco. Su pareja y los golpes que le propinaba se quedaron en el camino.

Francisca, al igual que sus compañeras, gana el salario mínimo estipulado para las maquiladoras por el Ministerio de Trabajo. Q.2,758.16 al mes, más de Q200 menos que el sueldo mínimo general.

Con esta cantidad, las trabajadoras de Koa Modas apenas pueden permitirse alquilar un pequeño espacio que en ocasiones no supera dos metros de ancho por tres de largo. Algunas mujeres logran rentar un espacio mayor con apoyo de sus parejas, pero la mayoría están solas a cargo de varios hijos y deben hacer números para llegar a fin de mes.

Es el caso de Zaily Janeth Mejilla, que vive con dos de sus hijos en la colonia Berlín, en la zona 10 de Mixco. Los tres comparten un cuarto ocupado casi en su totalidad por una litera. La habitación se encuentra en la parte trasera de una imprenta. Las paredes, de madera, están roídas por las ratas que se pasean con la libertad que les proporciona la penumbra del lugar. La parte superior del cuarto está forrada con cartón, que se empapa y se hincha con la fuerte lluvia que cae afuera. “Pago Q200, una parte del alquiler —cuenta—. Mis papás me ayudan con el resto. No es lo mismo que pasan otras compañeras”.

Otras mujeres están completamente solas. Dejaron sus municipios de origen y migraron a la capital, con la propuesta de un trabajo fijo y la promesa de enviar un porcentaje del sueldo para mantener a sus familias.

Muchas optan por alquilar pequeños cuartos en las calles aledañas a la fábrica: unos espacios angostos, con una puerta, y, con suerte, una ventana que da a un patio común. Josefa Poncio López es una de ellas. Llegó de Santa Cruz del Quiché hace 17 años, cuando comenzó su trabajo en una maquila de la zona 3 de Mixco. Hace 11 años empezó a trabajar en Koa Modas. Paga Q350 al mes por el lugar que renta, una habitación dentro de un terreno en el que viven otras mujeres y hombres, la mayoría trabajadores de la fábrica. Su hija, de nueve años, y su padre viven en Santa Cruz.

Los alquileres aumentan conforme el lugar queda más próximo a la maquila. Magdalena Marcos Raymundo llegó de Nebaj, Quiché, hace 20 años. La humedad que impregna su cuarto se cuela por las fosas nasales y humedece el pelo de Magdalena que, cohibida, muestra el humilde espacio que comparte con dos de sus hijos pequeños. Dos camas imperiales, una estufa de gas oxidada y un armario de madera. Q525 al mes.

Francisca, Zaily, Josefa y Magdalena narran la misma realidad. La vida en la maquila no es fácil, aseguran. Largas jornadas de trabajo, horas extra no pagadas y un problema que afecta a una buena parte de las trabajadoras: el impago de las cuotas del Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social (IGSS) por parte de la empresa.

Hace unos años, decidieron organizarse para tratar de detener estos abusos.

La organización

Sentada en la silla frente a su vieja máquina de coser, con la que de vez en cuando hace algunos encargos, Francisca narra los abusos verbales y físicos, el acoso sexual y las amenazas directas que se daban —y se siguen dando— día sí día también por parte de los superiores y del jefe de personal de Koa Modas, S.A. Cuando se enfrentaba con sus supervisores, al principio, Francisca lloraba. Le temblaba el labio inferior, las piernas, y un sudor frío recorría su espalda cada vez que levantaba la voz. Pero la unión con varias compañeras y compañeros la fortaleció. En 2011 decidieron, al fin, sindicalizarse. Nacía el Sindicato de Trabajadores de la empresa Koa Modas, “Sitrakoamodassa”.

La sindicalización en Guatemala puede llegar a ser un desafío, por desconocimiento y reticencia de los empleados. En el sector de maquila todavía más complicado. Las trabajadoras consultadas hablan de acoso, hostigación y amenazas en los inicios de la organización.

El Ministerio de Trabajo ha registrado la creación de 47 sindicatos de maquilas entre 2012 y 2017. Sin embargo, Francisco Sandoval, viceministro de administración del trabajo, hace hincapié en que la organización no tiene la obligación de anunciar a la cartera si se da de baja o sigue vigente. Por ello, desconocen el número real de agrupaciones activas.

En la Central General de Trabajadores de Guatemala (CGTG), donde dan seguimiento a este tipo de informaciones, Lidia Cardona, secretaria ejecutiva encargada de actas del Sitrakoamodassa, cuenta que a la fecha únicamente hay tres sindicatos de maquila operando en Guatemala.

Simone Dalmasso

La organización a la que pertenece Cardona cuenta con 175 afiliados. Unos 50, explica, son hombres. El resto mujeres. A pesar de la gran cantidad de trabajadoras, los consejos directivo y consultivo del sindicato están integrados únicamente por tres empleadas, de un total de 12 cargos. “Es por el mismo machismo que hay en la maquila —explica—. Piensan que es mejor un hombre en un puesto de liderazgo que una mujer, para negociar. Y hasta cierto punto, puede ser cierto. Una compañera que antes integraba la directiva llegó a ser agredida por uno de los jefes de la empresa”.

Cardona explica que la creación del sindicato supuso mejoras, pero remarca que los miembros de la agrupación han sido los únicos beneficiados. Un porcentaje reducido, tomando en cuenta que la maquila cuenta con 1,180 trabajadores.

“Las violaciones, el acoso sexual y laboral siguen dándose, pero sobre todo con gente que no está en el sindicato. Esto también hizo que aumentara el número de afiliados”, cuenta Cardona. “Muchas mujeres son acosadas por los supervisores. La mayoría son madres solteras a las que los jefes les dicen que si quieren seguir en el puesto, tienen que salir con ellos”, continúa.

La Comisión de Verificación de Códigos de Conducta (Coverco) es una entidad privada que lleva 20 años documentando las violaciones de derechos humanos y laborales en maquilas. Homero Fuentes, su director, remarca que en la sindicalización “se ve reflejada toda la cultura de terror que hemos vivido en este país. Cuando violan a una secretaria general de un sindicato, cuando le echan gasolina a una trabajadora, ¿quién más quiere afiliarse ahí? El mensaje está dado”.

Según Sandoval, cuando reciben denuncias de este tipo de abusos y amenazas, el Ministerio de Trabajo investiga si la queja tiene fundamento. “Si se constata este extremo, se fija una prevención a la parte empleadora para que cese con cualquier tipo de discriminación o amenaza. En caso de que incumpla, se pone una sanción y obviamente también la organización sindical o la persona puede además poner la denuncia en el Organismo Judicial a través de un incidente de represalias”, completa.

El despido

Sitrakoamodassa no fue la excepción. En 2013, dos años después de su creación, las 46 trabajadoras y trabajadores que integraban el sindicato fueron despedidos. Los empleados denunciaron a la empresa y un juez ordenó su reinstalación inmediata. Sin embargo, esto no sucedió. La empresa presentó varios recursos legales y retrasó la reinstalación durante dos años, hasta que finalmente fueron colocados de nuevo en sus puestos de trabajo.

El juzgado ordenó el pago de los salarios dejados de cobrar por los empleados despedidos y, según Cardona, de la directiva de Sitrakoamodassa, la empresa se comprometió a ir abonando el dinero en cuotas, ya que, aseguraba, no contaba con la disponibilidad para pagar los más de Q125 mil. Sin embargo, a la fecha esto no sucedió, denuncia la trabajadora.

Gregoria Chacach, tiene 49 años. Llegó hace 25 de San José Poaquil, en Chimaltenango, “por pobreza”, dice. Vive en un cuarto con techo de lámina, donde se respira un calor pegajoso, a pesar del fresco de la tarde. Cuenta la historia del despido y la reinstalación con una precisión asombrosa. “Había mucho maltrato, por eso decidimos armar el sindicato, el 18 de diciembre de 2011. El 28 de junio de 2013 nos echaron a la calle”. Gregoria asegura que ese día llegaron a la fábrica y se encontraron con la puerta cerrada. “Ustedes no entran”, dijo el guardia de seguridad.  “Nos reunimos con la inspección de trabajo, la PDH (Oficina del Procurador de Derechos Humanos), la defensora de la mujer… —continúa—. Se ganó una reinstalación en 24 horas, pero la empresa no la llevo a cabo. Pasaron cinco años hasta el 18 de mayo de 2015”.

Simone Dalmasso

En su cuarto, Florinda Ismalej Jerónimo guarda una copia de la orden de reinstalación laboral que el juzgado de paz de Mixco emitió hace tres años. Florinda lleva 17 años trabajando en el sector maquilador. Siete de ellos, en Koa Modas. Recuerda con tono enérgico, mientras revisa los papeles, que, a pesar de ser reubicadas en la empresa, las empleadas continúan peleando por recibir los salarios. Son más de Q63 mil por persona.

Esta, junto con el pago de las cuotas del IGSS, es la gran lucha de las trabajadoras de esta maquila. Floridalma Ramírez Alonso, una de las más veteranas, con 61 años, parece incombustible. Fue de las primeras mujeres en integrar el sindicato. Vive en la zona 1 de Guatemala, en una pequeña casa que comparte con sus hijos y sus nietos. “Antes vivíamos en un barranco, pero con el huracán Mitch perdimos todo. Fuimos beneficiados con este lugar y aquí estamos ahora”, cuenta. Asegura que ella es la única que, con sus poco más de Q2,700 al mes, sostiene a su familia.

A Floridalma le tocaría jubilarse este año, pero, lamenta, no va a poder. En 2014, sacó su constancia de cuotas en el Seguro Social y le salió a cero. “No tenía ninguna cuota pagada y llevo trabajando en la maquila desde hace 17 años”. Con el pelo teñido de canas, la trabajadora es ejemplo de perseverancia: “Yo les digo a mis compañeras que hay que seguir, en la lucha… Hay que seguir”.

Según el viceministro Francisco Sandoval, están en conversaciones con la empresa y las trabajadoras y trabajadores “para instalar una mesa de diálogo para someter las diferencias, con nosotros como amigables componedores. El impago de cuotas podría llevar a una sanción pecuniaria. Pero al final, la sanción se paga, y el daño sigue estando ahí. La idea es poder profundizar en la situación para exponer ambas partes a través de la mesa de diálogo. En algunos momentos los problemas se agrandan porque no hay estos espacios”.

Cardona no se muestra muy esperanzada al hablar de estas mesas de diálogo. “Llevamos 35 audiencias en el juzgado de Paz de Mixco para ver lo de la reinstalación, pero la mayoría son suspendidas porque no está la jueza, o no llegó la intérprete, o la dueña no aparece. También tenemos entendido que el IGSS obligó a la empresa a pagar las cuotas pendientes, pero pusieron recursos y ahí se quedó estancado”.

Se trató de obtener por vía telefónica la versión de Koa Modas, S.A. en varias ocasiones, pero en la fábrica alegaron que los responsables no se encontraban disponibles para hablar.



Durante los dos años en los que la empresa no reinstaló a las trabajadoras y trabajadores, Francisca Alvarado puso en marcha su máquina de coser manual. “No tiene luz, pero puedo enhebrar la aguja con los ojos cerrados”, asegura. Vendió prendas que confeccionaba ella misma e hizo algún que otro arreglo en la ropa de sus vecinos, para poder llevarse algo a la boca y a la de sus dos hijos, a los que mantenía sola después de abandonar a un esposo alcohólico y maltratador. Y en medio de la tormenta, volvió a estudiar. Primero terminó la primaria. Después se metió con básicos y bachillerato. Hoy está graduada en hotelería y turismo. “Yo no voy a depender de nadie, no voy a depender de ningún hombre”, asiente, orgullosa.

El asunto de los pactos colectivos en la administración pública de Guatemala

El asunto de los pactos colectivos en la administración pública de Guatemala

Alejandro Argueta.

Guatemala, 26 de febrero de 2018.

Preliminares para ubicar la crítica en la posición correcta

Existe un relevante nivel de crítica ciudadana a la situación institucional que deriva de la suscripción y vigencia de no pocos pactos colectivos en la administración pública. Este reclamo se basa en la percepción sobre la existencia de abusos en dichos acuerdos que, de manera directa e indirecta, debilitan las capacidades institucionales de la administración y por lo tanto reducen las oportunidades de acceso a seguridad, desarrollo y bienestar. Las percepciones van desde las que nacen del puro “sentido común” popular y generalizado, hasta opiniones políticas y técnicas de sujetos socialmente acreditados e instituciones ciudadanas.

Sin embargo, para construir una crítica sostenible, es necesario plantear que muchas buenas intenciones han caído en profundizar el problema al formularse desde visiones reduccionistas y, en el peor de los casos, basadas en prejuicios políticos e institucionales con relación a la existencia del reconocimiento del derecho fundamental de negociación colectiva y libertad sindical en la administración pública. Esto debe sustentarse no solo en razones universales de justicia y probidad, sino principalmente en argumentos jurídicos e institucionales pertinentes que conduzcan a la construcción de los necesarios consensos que se requiere en este tipo de situaciones, para la formulación de soluciones que permitan avanzar a la sociedad en su conjunto a un nivel de desarrollo superior.

Dicho en pocas palabras, la condición para hacer bien una crítica de este tema se resume en la frase: “Nosotros no somos antisindicales, somos anticorrupción” de la doctora Lucrecia Hernández Mack, Ministra de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social 2016-2017.

Este paradigma implica un punto de vista diferente al que tradicionalmente se sostiene en este tipo de asuntos. Normalmente se ubican los abusos en los pactos colectivos en el Estado como un asunto solamente laboral (posición reduccionista), con lo que se oculta la verdadera naturaleza del problema.

El asunto de estos abusos implica tomar en cuenta lo siguiente:

  1. El Estado tiene la obligación de proteger y promover la negociación colectiva (artículo 106 de la Constitución). Por lo tanto, cualquier crítica o propuesta de solución a esta situación tiene que formularse, necesariamente, bajo el paradigma de fomento y defensa de este derecho, no en su limitación, obstrucción o erradicación.


  1. El principal punto del problema en estos abusos no es la existencia de los sindicatos, ni mucho menos la institucionalidad de la negociación colectiva y el producto de su realización, que son los convenios y pactos colectivos. El problema radica en la forma en que los funcionarios ejercen el poder público. Es decir, es un problema de arbitrariedad en el ejercicio del poder y no solo de corrupción.


  1. En un modelo de negociación colectiva, la dinámica básica de relación entre los actores es que la organización de empleados hace una petición (mediante un procedimiento legalmente determinado) y el funcionario encargado de la entidad pública accede o niega el otorgamiento de lo pedido. Por lo tanto, el problema está en la legalidad del acto administrativo de otorgamiento: si este se realizó dentro del marco de la competencia legal del funcionario, no habrá problema alguno con lo otorgado, pero si de alguna manera dicho funcionario se excede, omite o tergiversa el ejercicio de sus funciones legales, entonces lo otorgado carecerá de pertinencia legal y por lo tanto es un acto nulo. En pocas palabras, el asunto es de “legalidad”: los funcionarios y empleados públicos solo pueden hacer lo que la ley les permite, excederse de ese límite es causa de responsabilidad y omitir el cumplimiento de lo que la ley les impone también es causa de responsabilidad (artículos 152 al 155 de la Constitución).

Con esta introducción, la ruta a seguir consiste en que cada pacto colectivo debe ser analizado con la pertinencia jurídica que corresponda según los niveles de competencia legal de cada funcionario que suscribió dicho acuerdo. Existe una metodología especializada para realizar este análisis de pertinencia. En este documento se brindarán algunos ejemplos con relación al Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social.

Entonces, un pacto colectivo de condiciones de trabajo es “abusivo” cuando el funcionario titular de la entidad administrativa establece cláusulas cuyo contenido fue acordado faltando a su deber de cumplimiento de la legalidad. Por lo tanto, es el actuar del funcionario lo que determina esa ilegalidad y es él el primero en responder por sus consecuencias. Los sindicalistas pueden estar asociados a dichos abusos, pero no responden en primera instancia porque no son los empleados públicos los que tienen las competencias legales formales para poder decidir la aceptación de la propuesta del pacto o acuerdo. Puede criticarse la pertinencia legal de su propuesta, pero en un orden de relevancia es más grave que un funcionario público decida aceptar la propuesta y la otorgue, ya que el deber del funcionario es mantener la legalidad de los actos administrativos que le competen.

Esto es relevante ya que cualquier crítica a la negociación colectiva en el Estado debería empezar por tener claro al sujeto responsable ya que cuando se construyen juicios de valor u opiniones responsabilizando solamente a una de las partes de la relación (solo sindicalistas) y exonerando a la otra (en este caso al sujeto principal de la responsabilidad), entonces se ha realizado, en lugar de una crítica constructiva, un comentario u opinión antisindical que es técnicamente considerado como comportamiento de discriminación. Este tipo de conductas, lejos de constituir la solución, profundizan la situación problemática e invisibilizan las principales responsabilidades, favoreciendo un sistema de arbitrariedad y corrupción. Por eso no es deseable un planteamiento erróneo de la crítica, ya que empezaría mal y producirá estigmatizaciones o etiquetas negativas a la persona u organización ciudadana que tenga el deseo sincero de contribuir a la formulación e implementación de soluciones.

Un ejemplo de esta limitación es cuando la ciudadanía realiza señalamientos de como “debe ser” la negociación colectiva en determinado órgano administrativo y propone el contenido de pactos o convenios cuando esa acción está reservada a las partes. En este caso lo apropiado es hacer un análisis negativo de la situación de suscripción del acuerdo y reclamar directamente al Estado, y a sus funcionarios, los errores y abusos que se detecten. Otro ejemplo es cuando se afirma que el sindicalismo se ha deteriorado por prácticas obscuras de clientelismo, pero se omite hacer mención que quien promueve, fomenta y protege, esos pactos clientelares son los funcionarios responsables de la administración pública.

Lo más importante es señalar la existencia de un modelo cultural arbitrario en la administración pública con relación a la forma de ejercer el poder político, que produce un sistema ineficiente e ineficaz. Una serie de procesos de normalización de prácticas ilegales y administrativas irracionales marcan la cotidianidad de funcionarios y empleados: las personas se “acostumbran” a hacer incorrectamente las cosas y, ante la degradada situación económica de la mayoría de personas contratadas en el Estado -bajas remuneraciones y malas condiciones de trabajo-, cualquier beneficio es apreciado sin considerar la forma en que se obtuvo. Las personas pasan a identificar en su subjetividad que esos beneficios -insostenibles desde el punto de vista legal, financiero y administrativo- son sus derechos “legítimos” y se olvidan del paradigma legal que prescribe que “el error no es fuente de derecho, pero si lo es de responsabilidad” (Dr. Edgar González, Viceministro Administrativo de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social 2016-2017). Así, las personas pierden la posibilidad real de mejorar su situación de empleo por medio de formas y mecanismos legales y defienden, en algunos casos, lo indefendible, contrastando al Estado con derechos fundamentales como la libertad sindical.

Sin embargo, lo más grave con relación a lo anterior, es la creación de instituciones informales que sustituyen a las formales (régimen de legalidad) y que se “legalizan” con una gran cantidad de actos de otras instituciones que, al omitir la debida rectoría de sus competencias, otorgan validez formal a los acuerdos colectivos que contienen vicios de ilegalidad. Es el caso de dictámenes de la Oficina Nacional de Servicio Civil y de la Contraloría General de Cuentas, decisiones de la Junta Nacional de Servicio Civil, opiniones y actos de la Inspección General de Trabajo y hasta decisiones de los Tribunales de Trabajo y Previsión Social, incluyendo la Corte Suprema de Justicia, la Corte de Constitucionalidad y el Ministerio Público. Un ejemplo paradigmático es la sentencia colectiva o laudo arbitral emitido por los tribunales con relación al conflicto colectivo en el Hospital San Juan de Dios. En esa sentencia, revisada en todas las cortes (con participación incluso del Ministerio Público en acciones de amparo), fue confirmado un contenido que trata:

  1. la creación de un fideicomiso para el pago de deudas personales de los empleados públicos,
  2. otorgamiento de un espacio para la instalación de una agencia bancaria dentro del hospital nacional,
  3. el manejo de la planilla del total de empleados (escogidos arbitrariamente por la persona nombrada por el Ministro de Salud Pública y el representante de la coalición de trabajadores sin realizar procesos de licitación), y
  4. un aumento salarial solo para los empleados de ese hospital.

El contenido o las peticiones de los trabajadores coaligados debía haber sido analizado desde la primera instancia, pero los integrantes del Tribunal de Conciliación dejaron de lado el apropiado examen de la legalidad y aprobaron lo solicitado. Luego, todos los demás tribunales superiores que conocieron el caso también aprobaron el contenido y omitieron denunciar o tomar acción con relación a ilegalidad que resulta evidente. El resultado final es una sentencia firme o ejecutoriada que tiene validez formal a pesar de que su contenido es ilegal.

En este punto de deterioro del sistema institucional con relación a la legalidad de los actos de la administración pública y la utilización de la negociación colectiva como una sofisticada forma de extracción ilegal de fondos públicos, es donde la intención de las partes puede volverse criminal al buscar la apropiación de patrimonio público, o la distribución de poder, para el establecimiento de redes o relaciones clientelares como, por ejemplo, el otorgamiento de plazas fantasma.

Teniendo claro este punto de partida es posible hacer un esbozo de las características de los abusos que determinan la crítica de los pactos colectivos en cuanto a su pertinencia legal, financiera y administrativa.

Breve descripción de los asuntos cuestionados de nulidad en el pacto colectivo del MSPAS

La acción judicial de nulidad que tuvo su origen en la demanda planteada por el Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Salud de Guatemala -SNTSG- se presentó en dos momentos: en la audiencia judicial laboral del 21 de febrero de 2017 y en una ampliación realizada el 2 de mayo de 2017.

Los principales puntos en los que se plantea la nulidad son los siguientes:

  1. El contenido del numeral 1 del artículo 43 del pacto colectivo. Entre lo que sobresale:


  • El bono de antigüedad real, debido a que el Ministro de Salud Pública que lo autorizó omitió realizar, previamente a la autorización del bono, los estudios financieros correspondientes a la viabilidad y sostenibilidad de esa prestación y estableció una escala con tasas acumulativas de aumento de salario por motivo de antigüedad (que contradice el régimen de legalidad establecido en la Ley de Salarios de la Administración Pública).
  • Se dividió el salario, fraccionando cuatro bonos que deberían ser incluidos en el monto de la retribución total, en contradicción con la Ley de Consolidación Salarial.
  • Se continuó la misma fórmula de cómputo para el pago de un bono por trabajo decente, en donde se distribuyen incorrectamente “economías” presupuestarías, cuando el régimen de legalidad establece destinos específicos que está prohibido modificar.
  • Se crea un sistema de contratación totalmente informal, con el objeto de trasladar a personal temporal a puestos definitivos, sin considerar los procedimientos establecidos en el sistema de servicio civil y que desembocó en la creación de miles de plazas y el otorgamiento, bajo serias dudas de transparencia, de varios miles de estas. La informalidad de este sistema se observa en el acuerdo suscrito entre el mismo Ministro de Salud que suscribió el pacto y el representante sindical, en octubre de 2013, en donde establecen que en cada unidad ejecutora -por medio del visto bueno de tres personas (delegado sindical, encargado de recursos humanos y director de área)- se seleccionará por medio de listados firmados por esas tres personas a los que -estando contratados en renglones temporales- opten a un cargo público definitivo o permanente.


  1. El contenido del numeral 3 del artículo 43 del pacto colectivo con relación a un reglamento de viáticos. Esto resulta ilegal por que un Ministro de Estado no tiene competencia para modificar un asunto de la administración pública, en donde el único funcionario facultado legalmente para determinarlo es el Presidente de la República a través de un acuerdo gubernativo, conforme el inciso e del artículo 183 de la Constitución Política de la República. En este caso el Ministro de Salud aprobó un reglamento que aumenta las tasas de viáticos y establece privilegios precisamente para el Ministro y los directivos del sindicato de empleados públicos.


  1. El artículo 51 del pacto colectivo, en donde el Ministro de Salud Pública aceptó pagar directamente el monto de “honorarios” por servicios profesionales de asesoría al abogado del sindicato de empleados públicos. Este asunto tiene varios detalles:
  • Las entidades públicas no pueden pagar directamente a los proveedores de servicios de personas particulares,
  • la tasa de honorarios fue establecida de forma que no se hace según el verdadero valor del servicio prestado sino por medio de un mecanismo que se establece en forma incierta y exponencial al vincularlo con el resultado del aumento de los beneficios económicos establecidos en el propio pacto colectivo suscrito entre las partes; incluso incluyen el bono de antigüedad real en el cálculo de esos honorarios cuando no lo incluyeron para las prestaciones de los trabajadores. Esto fue pagado parcialmente a la persona indicada en el pacto colectivo -son más de veinte millones de quetzales- y, si continua la validez de esa norma, aún queda un saldo pendiente.
  1. El artículo 20 del pacto colectivo relativo a licencias sindicales. El Ministro de Salud Pública se extralimitó en sus funciones al otorgar licencias con goce de salario por un año fiscal completo a un número indeterminado de servidores públicos. La incertidumbre sobre el número de personas que pueden gozar de este privilegio se encuentra en el hecho que la fórmula de cómputo se hizo incierta en el sentido que es el sindicato el que decide cuántas personas pueden ser, ya que es esta organización, y no la administración, la que establece el número de filiales que puedan existir. El sistema legal de servicio civil establece un límite para el otorgamiento de licencias con goce de salario y ningún funcionario está facultado para variar esa disposición.


  1. Los artículos relativos a Junta Mixta y sistema disciplinario, que tienen relación con la destitución de empleados públicos y la resolución de conflictos individuales.


Sacked pregnant worker loses European court case

The EU’s top court has ruled that firms can dismiss pregnant workers as part of general staff cuts, despite legal protections for pregnant women.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) defended the position of Spain’s Bankia – a bank that was bailed out – over its dismissal of a pregnant woman in 2013.

In her case, it said, the dismissal was not connected to her pregnancy, so did not infringe EU law.

Jessica Porras had been notified of the reason for staff cuts at Bankia.

EU Directive 92/85 prohibits the dismissal of a pregnant worker, at any time from the start of her pregnancy to the end of her maternity leave, but allows exceptions under national law unconnected with the pregnancy.

The Catalonia high court had asked the ECJ to clarify the EU rules on pregnant workers’ rights, after Ms Porras appealed against a court ruling in Mataró, near Barcelona.

Read more on this topic:

EU law requires an employer to state in writing the reasons for making a collective redundancy, and to inform the pregnant worker of the criteria chosen for identifying those who will lose their jobs.

The ECJ says Bankia had consulted workers’ representatives about the looming job cuts and had sent Ms Porras a letter explaining its reasons. She had been given a low score in a company assessment, the ECJ said.

Female labor force participation in developing countries

Elevator pitch

While women’s labor force participation tends to increase with economic development, the relationship is not straightforward or consistent at the country level. There is considerably more variation across developing countries in labor force participation by women than by men. This variation is driven by a wide variety of economic and social factors, which include economic growth, education, and social norms. Looking more broadly at improving women’s access to quality employment, a critical policy area is enhancing women’s educational attainment beyond secondary schooling.

Gender disparities in labor force
                        participation rates

Key findings


Female labor force participation is an important driver (and outcome) of growth and development.

Women join the workforce in developing countries as a coping mechanism in response to shocks.

The participation of women is the outcome of various macro and individual factors.

Access to quality education (beyond secondary) is critical to improve employment outcomes for women.


In developing countries, high female labor force participation rates typically reflect poverty.

Women earn less than men and are more likely to be engaged in unprotected jobs, such as domestic work.

Education raises the reservation wage and expectations of women, but it needs to be matched by job creation.

Underreporting is common, so data on women’s participation rates do not accurately reflect women’s work.

Author’s main message

The relationship between women’s participation in the labor force and development is complex and reflects changes in economic activity, educational attainment, fertility rates, social norms, and other factors. Standard labor force participation rates paint only a partial picture of women’s work. More important is understanding the quality of women’s employment. To achieve gains in employment quality, policies need to focus on both labor demand and supply dimensions. Expanding access to secondary and higher education is particularly relevant.


Women’s participation in the labor market varies greatly across countries, reflecting differences in economic development, social norms, education levels, fertility rates, and access to childcare and other supportive services (see Defining the labor force participation rate). The relationship between female labor force participation and these factors is complex. One dimension that has been widely examined is the U-shaped relationship between economic development and women’s labor force participation (see What is the U-shaped hypothesis?[1]. Focusing on these issues is critical because female labor force participation is a driver of growth, and thus participation rates indicate a country’s potential to grow more rapidly. It is also important because in many developing countries women’s labor force participation is a coping mechanism in response to economic shocks that hit the household. However, beyond the numbers is the far more important concern with the quality of work that women are able to engage in.

This paper highlights the complex nature of female labor force participation in developing countries and presents findings on the key trends and factors that drive women’s engagement in the labor market and access to employment, especially the role of educational attainment. It examines specific insights from different developing countries, including Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey. Above all, what comes through is the importance of looking at the quality of employment and the need to focus on promoting better outcomes for women in the labor market.

Discussion of pros and cons

Development, as seen during the Industrial Revolution and more recently in East and (parts of) Southeast Asia, has involved two related transitions: the movement of workers from agriculture to manufacturing (and more recently services) and the migration of people from rural to urban areas. These transitions were associated with rising levels of education, declining fertility rates, and shifts in other socio-economic drivers of labor force participation, with specific implications for the role of women, especially in the labor market.

Female labor supply is, therefore, both a driver and an outcome of development. As more women enter the labor force, economies can grow faster in response to higher labor inputs. At the same time, as countries develop, women’s capabilities typically improve, while social constraints weaken, enabling women to engage in work outside the home. For this reason, policymakers need to understand the nature of women’s labor supply and to monitor women’s labor force participation. Ultimately, labor force participation is the outcome of not only supply-side factors, but also of the demand for labor.

The relationship between evolving socio-economic and demographic factors and how women participate in the world of work is multifaceted. In particular, whether a woman is working may be driven, on the one hand, by poverty (as evident in low-income countries) and, on the other, by women’s increasing educational attainment and the opportunities to work that are made available in a more modern economy. Moreover, during periods of crisis and in response to economic shocks, women are often required to take up (typically informal) employment to smooth household consumption. This occurred in Indonesia in the wake of the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–1998 [2].

Beyond analyzing labor force participation, it is also important to look at the nature of women’s employment. In general, when women work, they tend to be paid less and to be employed in low-productivity jobs. Educational attainment is a major driver of better employment outcomes for women in both developed and developing countries.

Aggregate trends mask large differences in female labor force participation rates

Over the last two decades, the global female labor force participation rate has remained fairly stable, declining slightly for the total female working-age population (15+) from 52.2% in 1992 to 51.4% in 2012 (based on ILO estimates, Though 370.5 million women have joined the labor market in the past 20 years, women still account for just 39.8% of the global labor force. Moreover, the gap in participation rates of men and women has narrowed only slightly, from 27.8 percentage points in 1992 to 26.0 percentage points in 2012 (15+). However, as education enrollment rates have risen, participation rates have fallen among school-age youth (a positive trend). Looking at just the 25 and older age group and abstracting from the effect of rising enrollment in education reveals a rise in the global female labor force participation rate, from 53.1% in 1992 to 54.2% in 2012. At the same time, the gender gap for the adult working-age population 25 and older has fallen from 32.5 percentage points in 1992 to 29.5 percentage points in 2012.

At a more disaggregated level, the participation of women varies considerably across developing countries and emerging market economies, far more than the participation of men. In the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, less than 40% of women aged 25 and older participate in the labor force (Figure 1). However, participation rates have increased in the Middle East and North Africa from 1992 to 2012, while they have fallen in South Asia. In all three regions, conservative social attitudes toward women in the work place prevail [3].

Regional estimates of female labor force
                        participation rates, 1992 and 2012 (adult population 25 and older)

But even within regions where overall female labor force participation rates are low, there is considerable diversity (Figure 2). In South Asia, female participation rates range from around 20% in Pakistan to almost 80% in Nepal, which can be explained by differences in social and economic factors. Women in Nepal are less constrained by social norms, though they work mostly in subsistence agriculture, which is driven more by poverty than by choice. Bangladesh is one of the few countries in South Asia that has experienced a rapid increase in women’s participation in employment, due to growth in the readymade garment industry and a rise in livestock rearing (linked to access to micro-credit) [4]. Despite strong improvements in social indicators, female labor force participation rates in Sri Lanka, a middle-income economy, have remained fairly stable, averaging around 33% over the decade 2003–2012 [5].

Gender disparities in labor force
                        participation rates in selected developing countries, various years

Trends in female labor force participation rates in India have been particularly puzzling. Female participation rates fell from 34.1% in 1999–2000 to 27.2% in 2011–2012. Research has posited several reasons behind this decline in India, from increased school enrollment of girls and young women and lack of job opportunities for women to the income effect (see below) and mismeasurement of female labor force participation (see, for example [6][7]).

Though the trend in India is considered puzzling, India is not an isolated example. Turkey has experienced declines as well, with female participation rates dropping from 36.1% in 1989 to 23.3% in 2005. This downward trend has been explained by rising urbanization and structural transformation: as households moved from rural to urban areas, husbands shifted out of agriculture, resulting in a withdrawal of women from the labor force (reflecting women’s increased engagement in domestic duties) [8]. Since 2005, however, a period of better macroeconomic conditions, Turkish women have rejoined the labor force. Participation rates rose to 29.5% in 2012. Other countries in the Middle East and North Africa have similarly low rates of participation but have not experienced such strong growth in recent years.

In Latin America and the Caribbean the female labor force participation rate has risen considerably over the last two decades and is estimated at 54.2% in 2012, higher than the global average (see Figure 1). For example, female labor force participation rates in Brazil rose from 54.1% in 2001 to 57.9% in 2009, while rates in Chile rose from 33.9% in 1996 to 47.8% in 2012. In Brazil, the increase in women’s participation was driven by both pull and push factors, partly reflecting trade liberalization and the accompanying sectoral transitions [9].

In contrast to South Asia, in East and Southeast Asia women’s participation in the labor market has historically been higher. As countries in these regions developed rapidly in the twentieth century, workers, including women, transitioned from agriculture to manufacturing. Overall, improvements in educational attainment and expansion in export-oriented manufacturing pushed women into newly created jobs in these economies [3]. Indonesia, with a lower rate of female labor force participation than other Southeast Asian countries, is often cited as an example of the added-worker effect. In the wake of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998, many male workers lost their jobs in the formal sector. To smooth household consumption, women increased their labor supply, though mostly through jobs in the informal sector and agriculture. As a consequence, the female labor force participation rate in Indonesia rose from 49.9% in 1997 to 51.2% in 1999 [2].

Empirical evidence: Factors and determinants

Given the complex nature of female labor force participation in developing countries, it is important to highlight how socio-economic factors affect the decision and ability of women to engage in the labor market. The key, often overlapping, dimensions considered in the literature include [3][10]:

  • Level of economic development.
  • Educational attainment.
  • Social dimensions, such as social norms influencing marriage, fertility, and women’s role outside the household.
  • Access to credit and other inputs.
  • Household and spouse characteristics.
  • Institutional setting (laws, protection, benefits).

This section focuses on the first two dimensions.

Is the U-shaped relationship between development and female labor force participation more than a stylized fact?

The most discussed hypothesis in the literature, explored in a large number of studies, is that there is a U-shaped relationship between economic development and women’s participation in the labor force [1]. The basic, stylized argument is that when a country is poor, women work out of necessity, mainly in subsistence agriculture or home-based production. As a country develops, economic activity shifts from agriculture to industry, which benefits men more than woman. Subsequently, education levels rise, fertility rates fall, and social stigmas weaken, enabling women to take advantage of new jobs emerging in the service sector that are more family-friendly and accessible. At a household level, these structural shifts can be described in the context of the neoclassical labor supply model: as a spouse’s wage rises, there is a negative income effect on the supply of women’s labor. Once wages for women start to rise, however, the substitution effect will induce women to increase their labor supply.

Data for a large set of countries for 2010 show (weak) evidence of a U-shaped relationship between the log of GDP per capita (in purchasing power parity-adjusted 2005 constant international dollars, a proxy for economic development) and the female labor force participation rate, though the nonlinear trend line is not a very good fit for the data due to outliers (Figure 3). Some of these outliers, including India and Turkey (discussed above), have far lower participation rates than most countries at the same income level. In contrast, outliers at the other end of the distribution, such as Brazil and China, have higher female labor force participation rates than the average for their level of economic development.

Data for 169 countries show a U-shaped
                        relationship—a decline and then a rise in female labor force participation
                        as economies develop (2010)

Despite the apparent U-shaped relationship evident in Figure 3, there has been debate on the validity of this hypothesis, particularly on its robustness to different data sets and methodologies. One study finds that the U-shaped relationship is not robust once dynamic generalized method of moments (GMM) panel data techniques are employed [3]. Moreover, earlier findings were sensitive to the use of more up-to-date and accurate labor force data. Clearly, not all countries have followed such a U-shaped path as the economy has grown. 
For example, the female labor force participation rate rose from 23.9% in 1990 to 36.0% in 2010 in Bangladesh, a low-income country, while it stagnated or declined in India (especially in rural areas). Thus, ascribing the complex evolution of female labor force participation in developing countries purely to changes in per capita GDP oversimplifies the reality of multiple forces at play.

Does education increase the likelihood of a woman’s participation in the labor force?

One of the strongest determinants of labor market outcomes in both developed and developing countries is educational attainment [2]. From a supply-side perspective, education has an important impact on an individual’s decision to participate in the labor force. Education is a key factor behind the U-shaped hypothesis: women’s education lags improvements in educational attainment among men, but once women’s education levels catch up and job opportunities emerge, women start to participate in greater numbers.

Education levels of girls and young women have improved considerably in many developing countries in recent decades. However, the remaining disparities within countries play a critical role in determining labor market outcomes for women. A nonlinear (at times, U-shaped) relationship between educational attainment and participation of women in the labor force is evident in many developing countries. The most uneducated women in poorer countries are the most likely to participate in subsistence activities and informal employment, while women with a high school education may be able to afford to stay out of the labor force. Once women have more than a secondary school education, higher wages encourage women to join the labor force, particularly if appropriate jobs are available.

Indeed, there is a U-shaped relationship between educational attainment and female labor force participation rates in a number of countries. Based on National Sample Survey data for India for 2011–2012, the lowest participation rates for women occur for those with a higher secondary school education (12 years of schooling), at 11.9% in urban areas and 19.3% in rural areas; rates are higher among better-educated women, for example 27.4% in urban areas and 32.7% in rural areas for women with an undergraduate degree. As other countries have experienced, there is, therefore, a threshold suggesting a payoff in the labor market only for women with more than a secondary education.

Participation is only part of the picture: The quality of employment for women also matters

While studies of female labor participation rates that cover dimensions such as cross-country differences, country-level trends, and factors driving participation are informative, they often fail to go beyond the binary nature of this labor market indicator. But in developing countries, it is crucial to understand not only whether women are working but also what the employment outcomes are for women who do enter the labor force.

Overall, the quality of employment and opportunities for better jobs continue to be unequally distributed between men and women, even in countries where there is close to parity in the labor force participation rate [11]. In most developing countries, when women work, they tend to earn less (the well-known gender wage gap), to work in less productive jobs, and to be overrepresented in unpaid family work and other forms of vulnerable work. Employment segregation by gender is prevalent in all countries [10]. Ultimately, engaging in employment that is vulnerable is unlikely to improve the economic empowerment of women; rather, it is often a reflection of the subordinate position of women in the household.

In terms of employment status, more women than men work as contributing family workers, which adds to their labor market vulnerability. In 2012, an estimated one-third or more of working women in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia were engaged in unpaid family work, which typically places women in a subordinate and more vulnerable position [11]. In many developing countries, especially in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, a high proportion of working women are active in the agricultural sector, though the shares in this sector have fallen in recent years as more women have taken up work in the services sector (and in the manufacturing sector in a few countries, such as Bangladesh).

As is well documented in the literature, women typically earn less than men, even after controlling for differences in observable worker and job characteristics. Based on a large sample of countries, a review paper finds that the earnings gap between men and women with similar characteristics ranges from 8% to 48% [12]. The study also notes that there is not a robust relationship between economic development and declining wage disparities.

As is the case for labor force participation, education plays a critical role in determining the nature of employment taken up by women. Education raises the reservation wage (lowest wage at which a person would accept a particular job) and changes the preferences of jobseekers. For example, one study of women in Indonesia estimates that, compared with having a junior secondary education, having a college education increases the probability of working in a regular job by 25.6% and having a senior secondary education increases it by 10.3% (based on an analysis of 2009 labor force survey data). Women with at most a primary school education were less likely to be regularly employed [2].

As studies have found in several developing countries, women’s education needs to expand beyond middle school (junior secondary) for their participation in the labor force to increase, especially if they are to work in better jobs. At higher levels of education, potential earnings act as a pull factor, helping overcome economic and social constraints.

Limitations and gaps

The literature has (and, increasingly, policymakers have) long recognized that women’s participation in the labor force is poorly measured and underestimated [13]. Though data collection has improved, this remains a major obstacle to the analysis of official statistics collected through labor force and other household surveys. Another limitation arises from survey enumeration. Because of poor training of enumerators, labor force surveys underestimate the participation of women. Enumerators often fail to adequately probe for the economic activities of female members in the household, a problem that is compounded by the fact that men are often the survey respondents in countries where female labor force participation rates are low, as in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

Time-use surveys have been proposed as a means of gathering more accurate and insightful data on the nature of women’s work in and out of the household, especially in subsistence production and informal employment [13]. The challenge, however, is that time-use surveys are costly and thus cannot be used as regularly as standard labor force surveys.

Summary and policy advice

The changing nature of women’s participation in the labor force has been a critical dimension of the development process since the Industrial Revolution. However, the relationship between participation and economic progress is far from straightforward. Though cross-sectional data do indicate that there is a U-shaped relationship between female labor force participation and GDP per capita, this relationship is not robust and it is not a consistent trend at the country level. Ultimately, women’s employment is driven by a range of multifaceted factors, including education, fertility rates, social norms, and the nature of job creation.

Beyond standard labor force participation rates, policymakers should be concerned with whether women can access better jobs and take advantage of new labor market opportunities that arise as a country grows and, in so doing, can contribute to the development process itself. For this reason, policies should consider both supply- and demand-side dimensions, including access to better education and training programs and access to childcare, as well as other supportive institutions and legal measures to ease the burden of domestic duties, enhance women’s safety, and encourage private sector development in industries and regions that can increase job opportunities for women in developing countries.

Particular emphasis is needed on keeping young girls in school and ensuring that they receive a good quality education, beyond junior secondary level, and are able to take advantage of training opportunities. That, in turn, will increase their chances of overcoming other barriers to finding decent employment.


The author thanks two anonymous referees and the IZA World of Labor editors for many helpful suggestions on earlier drafts. The responsibility for opinions expressed in this paper rests solely with the author, and publication does not constitute an endorsement by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Competing interests

The IZA World of Labor project is committed to the IZA Guiding Principles of Research Integrity. The author declares to have observed these principles.

© Sher Verick