Pandemic upends lives of Latin America's domestic servants

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A woman wearing a face mask and gloves walks past Nossa Senhora das Gracas cemetery during the COVID-19 pandemic in Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, April 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

MEXICO CITY – The coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of many of Latin America's household maids, leaving them without work or government assistance or effectively trapping them inside the homes of their employers because of government-ordered lockdowns.

Millions of domestic servants are woven into the fabric of family life throughout the region, where even lower middle-class families often have hired help. They are paid as little as $4 per day, under the table, with no benefits.

Servants frequently care for their employers' children as much or more than they can care for their own, as depicted in the 2018 Oscar-winning movie “Roma.” Maids sometimes live in rooms on the roofs of their employers' homes or rent rooms atop tenement apartment buildings.

Now the virus has resulted in hundreds of thousands of domestic workers being let go or unable to leave their employers' homes, even on days off or to visit their own families.

One 35-year-old Mexico City maid, a single mother with two children, had worked for the same family for seven years until March, when they told her she was no longer needed.

“They only paid me the last week of work, and now I don’t have money for even the basic necessities for my two little kids. Even when I was working, I was living hand to mouth,” she said.

She feels trapped. She cannot go out looking for a new job because it would risk exposing herself and her family to contagion. And with no job contract, health care or formal employment history, she isn’t eligible for most government aid.

“In Mexico and around the whole world, there isn’t just this one pandemic, there are two: COVID-19 and inequality, and it’s the inequality that has me more isolated than ever,” said the maid, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared being denied references.