The story of Liliana Melgar, a Bolivian migrant who left for Spain 15 years ago, mirrors the trajectory of millions of domestic workers like her who clean, wash, cook and take care of children in households around the world.
Except that Ms. Melgar happens to work in the home of Shakira, the Colombian superstar.
Shakira’s latest music video, “El Jefe” (“The Boss”), featuring the Mexican band Fuerza Regida, portrays the life of poor immigrants with big dreams, who are stuck working for bad employers who make lots of money that never trickles down. Toward the end of the three-minute clip, Ms. Melgar makes a cameo appearance as Shakira sings, “Lili Melgar, this song is for you because you were never paid severance.”
The video has thrust Ms. Melgar — who was reportedly fired by Shakira’s former partner Gerard Pique, a Spanish soccer player, before being rehired by Shakira — into an unexpected spotlight and raised the profile of the roughly 76 million domestic workers around the world.
The New York Times tried to reach Shakira, who now lives in South Florida, and Ms. Melgar, but received no response. An agent who represents Mr. Pique did notrespond to a request for a comment.
Domestic workers play a particularly crucial role in households across Latin America and the Caribbean, where about 1 in 5 employed women are domestic workers, according to the International Labor Organization, the second highest rate in the world after the Middle East.
Ms. Melgar’s cameo in the video, which has been streamed more than 57 million times on YouTube, is a sort of vindication following the loss of her job — lifted up by a famous and wealthy female boss. But her case is an exception to how domestic worker have fared in recent years.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, domestic workers in most Latin American and Caribbean countries had gained new rights that set caps on weekly work hours, established minimum wages, created incentives for employers to sign labor contracts and imposed age limits.
But the pandemic, which cratered economies across the region, pummeled domestic workers, causing many of them to lose their jobs. The industry has not fully recovered.
“To us, it feels like we’re still living through Covid-19,” said Ernestina Ochoa, 53, a domestic worker in Lima, Peru, who helped found the National Union for Domestic Workers, an advocacy group. “If you had your salary reduced, you never had it increased again.”
Many of the rights that domestic workers had won before the pandemic were rooted in an early wave of legislation in Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay and Colombia that was spearheaded by workers who organized labor unions.
“Fundamentally, paid domestic work is a job that exists in societies with high economic inequality,” said Merike Blofield, a political science professor at the University of Hamburg, in Germany, and an expert on domestic workers in Latin America.
Access to domestic work is a given “if you’re born into a better-off class,” she added.
While most governments in the region have ratified international agreements ensuring labor rights for domestic workers, advocates say the pandemic weakened accountability for employers who violated laws. In some cases, housekeepers were prevented from leaving homes they worked in over fears that they would catch Covid and spread it to their employers’ families.
The rates of employees who work under a signed contract and are eligible for government benefits and protection — a process known as formalization — is uneven across the region.
A 2020 study by the International Labor Organization found that while Uruguay had a 70 percent formalization rate among domestic workers, the rate in many Central American and Caribbean countries was less than 10 percent.
Ms. Ochoa, who has worked as a nanny, an adult caretaker and a housekeeper, has been a domestic worker in Lima, the Peruvian capital, since she was 11. Ms. Ochoa’s mother, following a familiar path for many domestic workers, moved to Lima from a rural area to work as a wet nurse for a wealthy white family, as well as to clean other homes.
“Back then, we were young girls,” Ms. Ochoa said, “but we would do the work of adults.”
In 2020, a law passed in Peru that requires domestic workers to be at least 18, but Ms. Ochoa said the government had shown little interest in enforcing the statute.
“Right now, we still have girls working, we still have teens working,” she said. “The government doesn’t see what’s happening. There’s no alternative for parents to say, ‘OK, my daughters won’t have to work because the government will help them.’”
The complicated relationship between Latin American families and the workers they depend on has become more openly discussed in recent years, in part because depictions in popular culture, including in music and films, have helped focus attention on a largely invisible work force.
The Oscar-winning movie “Roma,” set in Mexico in the 1970s, featured an Indigenous nanny who took care of a white family in Mexico City and became enmeshed in their daily dramas. The movie, which was released in late 2018, spurred conversations about how Latin Americans consider domestic workers part of their families, even as they are underpaid, exploited or abused.
And in 2011, a photograph was published in a Colombian magazine that featured a wealthy white family sitting on an opulent terrace while two Black maids held silver trays in the background, setting off an uproar and highlighting the racial divisions that exist among many domestic workers and their employers.
Still, history was made last year in Colombia when the country elected its first Black vice president, Francia Márquez, who had worked as a housekeeper.
Santiago Canevaro, an Argentine sociologist who has written about the relationships between domestic workers and their employers, said domestic work was so common in Latin America because there was less access to private or government-funded services, like child care centers or nursing homes, than in more developed regions.
As more women have entered the work force, families have become more dependent on nannies and housekeepers, many of whom are not necessarily aware of their legal rights.
“The employee is treated as a sort of object,” Dr. Canevaro said. “In fact, when marriages fall apart, one of the decisions they make is what to do with the domestic employee.”
And because discrimination against marginalized groups is still prevalent in Latin America, many Indigenous and Black women turn to domestic work as the only viable way to support themselves and their families and are often abused, advocates said.
“It’s a constant battle to advocate for yourself in your workplace,” Ms. Ochoa said, “and say things like: ‘No, ma’am. My ethnicity and my skin color are Black, but I have a name. My name is Ernestina.’”