Elizabeth Quay Hutchison

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

Duke University Press, 2022

228 pages


Reviewed by Ali Eren Yanik

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have witnessed significant questionings regarding one’s socio-political identity. “Am I not a man and a brother?” asked British abolitionists. “Ain’t I a woman?”, echoed Sojourner Truth across the ocean. In the twentieth century, with a particular dimension of modernity emerged another voice that has found echoes up to our age: “Am I not a worker?” And no, they were not; they were perhaps everything but a worker. Having been denied a proletarian agency through the legal and socio-political norms of the time, they were not allowed to claim such an existence. But who were they? They were the servants of twentieth-century Chilean households. They were called Elba Bravo, Bernardino Piñera, Aída Moreno, Marcela and other names unknown to many labor historians.

Workers Like All the Rest of Them is Elizabeth Quay Hutchison’s attempt at challenging both the historical and political invisibility of these people. By shedding light upon the struggle of these workers, she manifests an unconventional voice in the field of labor history. Her work challenges the invisibility of domestic workers as politically recognized and organized agents in twentieth-century Chilean society and also illustrates the importance of living archives formed by the experiences of empleadas (domestic workers) and activists. Accounts obtained from figures like Bravo, Piñera, Moreno, and Marcela, among others, prove crucial in revealing hidden histories over the conventional and reactionary archival sources purporting the erasure of such histories. Hutchison’s living archive is largely based on the members and retired leadership of Chile’s most active labor organizations for domestic workers: SINTRACAP (Sindicato de Trabajadoras de Casa Particular) and ANECAP (Asociación Nacional de Empleadas de Casa Particular). Through these people and their experiences, Hutchison recounts a significant struggle for visibility; that is, for being recognized as a class-conscious and mobilized category of workers—like the rest of them. 

The first chapter unpacks what constitutes the political recognition that these workers fought for, and it is mostly about attaining labor and citizenship rights, including suffrage, which would characterize their transition from servants to workers. These rights principally include the “legal right to contracts, hour limits, minimum wage, severance pay, accident protection, and the right to strike.” Although Allende’s socialist government proposed legislation that would enable these rights to be allocated to the empleadas, Pinochet’s CIA-backed military coup ended any debates on such allocation, and the return to the neoliberal economy and supposed democratic rule did not democratize labor rights. Empleadas, however, were able to attain at least partial recognition by the state and basic labor rights through their activism, which is demonstrated by Hutchison as she explores the legal and political status of domestic workers and how they changed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Hutchison then moves on to give an account of the debates surrounding the idea of subjecting domestic service to state regulation in the following chapter. Despite their exclusion from the workers’ association in the nineteenth century, the domestic workers over time were able to “organize collectively and protest their working conditions in newspaper articles and petitions to parliamentary representatives.” Hutchison primarily investigates the activity of the Independent Union of Household Employees of Both Sexes, which was founded in 1926 in Santiago. This union “addressed petitions to parliament and the Ministry of Labor; sent representatives to workers’ congresses; documented cases of employer abuse; donated funds for other striking workers; and pursued cultural and social activities to strengthen their association.” While these efforts of the union were absolutely fruitful in capturing the attention of the journalists and state officials and mobilizing them—since they often protested alongside the domestic workers against the injustices that these workers experienced—Hutchison inquires about the extent of their success in challenging the state of exception wherein the domestic workers were bound, which varied from one context to another.

The next chapter is an account of the Catholic clergy’s political support and rather indirect involvement in contributing to their public visibility, especially to the state officials as it helped with the issues such as those concerning social security and labor inspections. With a specific focus on the leadership of Father Bernardino Piñera, Hutchison demonstrates the formation of “a movement that would outpace secular union efforts and later withstand the challenge of military rule.” She also pays particular attention to Catholic activism in the 1950s and how it was popular between the domestic workers and contributed to the radical politicization of the conjoint movement in the 1960s thanks to the leaning of the Catholic activists towards liberation theology movements.

The fourth chapter is concerned with how the domestic workers’ struggle was affected by the politics of the Cold War and the political rule of Salvador Allende. Although he was not a popular figure among the empleadas, as Elba Bravo’s testimonies indicate, his inauguration translated into “the best time” for their struggle, and “even his critics recognized the transformative impact of the new regime on social and economic relations in industry, agriculture, and service.” Hutchison, furthermore, delves into what has not been studied by the scholars of Cold War Chile and presents a historical treatise on the political poles and social mobility of the period. And how these, along with ideas from the liberation theology, “created new opportunities for the visibility and empowerment of domestic workers, empleadas who had long operated on the margins of formal politics.” 

The final chapter of the Workers Like the Rest of Them features the episode of Pinochet’s military coup and his dictatorship that succeeded it as part of the US-funded Condor Operation, and Hutchison underlines “how the violently anti-political regime actually provided new opportunities for political alliance, and for collaboration across class and political lines, networks that would install domestic workers’ rights as an irrefutable aspiration of the emerging democratic regime.” What is quite thought-provoking in Hutchison’s accounts is that she does not necessarily portray a merely resilient and persistent picture of the domestic workers but rather highlights the continuity and adaptation of their struggle in the face of the challenges they encountered, which perhaps is what made the struggle attain a certain degree of success, however minor it may be. She concludes this chapter by connecting the struggle of the empleadas to “the broader processes shaping human rights, labor, feminist, party, indigenous and religious activism in the same period,” which presents a fruitful (re-)articulation of Marxist intersectionality.

Hutchison ends her book by underlining the importance and impact that domestic servants’ historical struggle has on navigating contemporary debates concerning the empleadas of our century and the politics of labor in general. She offers Marcela’s experience as a Chilean domestic worker who has lost her job due to COVID-19 like more than half of her peers. This narrative that originated with the global pandemic has not been exclusive to domestic workers; however, Hutchison underlines that many of them, like Marcela, were laid off precisely because their employers refused to recognize their status as workers and exercise what the respective labor code demanded of them. With this example, Hutchison shows that she rejects closure and justifies the urgency of further research on domestic workers in the twenty first century as she demonstrates that the historical causes dating back to the early years of the past century are still responsible for the present social inequalities experienced by empleadas. Hutchison’s work, therefore, could provide a solid base for those who would like to inquire further into the contemporary political rights and practices of the empleadas within the present contexts of Chile and other Latin American countries.