Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Slave Masters in Buenos Aires

Most middle class porteños and expats in BA take advantage of the availability of domestic helpers. Our domestic goddess is truly a Godsend; Guillermo and I treat her as our family and she is avuncular towards us.

While our Graciela has passed child-bearing age, we feel we are responsible for her welfare and are ready to step-up. (In fact, we paid her in full during the 10 weeks we were away in Sydney). Hence, I was really disturbed to read the following email circulating among a group of expat women.

The email is written by a U.S. trained lawyer who is married to an Argentine lawyer, in response to a question posted to her about whether maids are entitled to maternity leave.

"...D (the husband) and I (the U.S. trained lawyer) looked over the law. It is true that maids are not entitled to maternity leave. I don't know if you do or don't want to give it to her.

1. If you don't want to, when she asks for one you can say she is not entitled and that she has to quit if she wants to leave. You wouldn't owe her anything in that case. Although our experience is they don't quit and instead start doing things to piss you off so you are forced to fire them and pay them a severance payment.

2. If you want to, you can always pay her for a month or whatever you feel is a reasonable leave and then take her back afterwards. Of course you run the risk of her keeping the money and not coming back..."

I was disturbed by the reference to the law. All employees working en blanco are entitled to maternity leave. Should a person be employed en negro, like many in this city are, the employers have already broken the law so it is ironic that they look to the law to protect themselves from coughing up maternity leave payment for their employee. I have been told that a separate, Dickensian law exists and applies to maids, working en blanco, which still strips them of the benefit of maternity leave.

My personal opinion is that the law should, by all means, be respected. I am also of the humble opinion that, as human beings, we can sometimes do more and above what the law (the lowest common denominator) expects of us; I'd like to call that a moral obligation.

The writer of this email referred to her personal experience of refusing her maid maternity leave, thus resulting in the maid pissing her off to get severance. Well, all I can say is if one cannot treat one's maid with the common decency one should show towards another human being, despite the protection given by a defect in the law, one has got one's just dessert.

Lastly, the writer warned the employer asking this question that if the employer decides to pay the maid, she risks the maid running off with the money and not coming back after giving birth.

I was stunned by the mean-mindedness of this last bit of advice; this woman maybe a damn fine lawyer but what a human being! Most of these domestic helpers are working as such because they desperately need money and they have no other skill; it is not like the maid has plenty of job offers to choose from and the world is her oyster.

When I examine my lifestyle in BA carefully, I am truly thankful to those who have made it comfortable for me. I have also come to appreciate that I am in a fortunate position and should never take it for granted. Today, I feel disgusted as I have witnessed those around me who are choosing to use their relatively advantageous financial position in exploitation of others...and the worst is that they feel no shame or guilt since "the law" is on their side! What has this world come to?

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