Records of the abuse: The risk of being a domestic worker in Peru

Court records reveal the stories of abuse and crimes that female domestic workers face: from exploitation and the denial of employment rights to sexual abuse and murder. Meanwhile, authorities struggle to oversee a sector whose workers are invisible and mired in precariousness and vulnerability.

Gianella Tapullima 26 de Mayo del 2019

On the morning of Saturday, May 4, 2019, a popular Lima newspaper published on its front page the report of a murder: in La Molina, a residential area in the eastern part of the Peruvian capital, an elderly couple had been shot dead in their home and their bodies burned. The tragedy, which had occurred in the early hours of the previous Thursday, was discovered when police entered the house following an explosion and fire. The body of the female owner of the house lay in a corridor and that of her husband in a bedroom. Police later discovered a third body in the service area: that of Abigail Ramos, employed in the home as domestic help. Amidst the political scandals rocking the country at that time, the story generated little interest.

Abigail Ramos was studying cosmetology and at the time of death was a week away from her twentieth birthday. Her death meant she joined a sorry statistic that illustrates the risks faced by domestic workers: the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Population reports that in 2018 alone it received more than 1,686 complaints of physical and psychological attacks. The 2011 National Household Survey revealed that the majority of live-in female domestic personnel worked for 57 hours per week and that, in a return to centuries-old labor regimes, eight out of ten received payment in kind and nine out of ten earned a salary below the monthly minimum  wage (PEN750—approximately US$230 dollars in current terms). The survey seemed to confirm that the family home is one of the country’s worst work places.

Low wages and excessive hours are only part of the problem. Based on a review of records from the courts, the prosecutor’s office, and supervising authorities, OjoPublico presents four stories that highlight the critical situation faced by many of the country’s domestic employees—abuses of labor laws, situations of violence, and even murder—whilst politicians and authorities continue to debate the scope of their workplace rights.



On the night of July 16, 1992,  as Carmen Almeida was heading home, she heard the most appalling explosion in Lima’s history: two car bombs containing half a ton of anfo and dynamite had devastated several buildings along Calle Tarata, in Miraflores, one of the Peruvian capital’s most affluent districts. The attack affected the lives of many, causing million dollar losses, injuries to over one hundred people, and a death toll of twenty-five. Carmen too was among the casualties: the shock wave destroyed the boutique she managed and thus led to the loss of her job. Aged thirty, and with a newborn daughter, Carmen was unable to find another job; her secretarial studies and work experience in the clothing and transport industries were not enough in a country overwhelmed by crisis. A two-year period of financial difficulty followed, until an employment agency recommended she seek work in domestic service and an interesting live-in possibility appeared at an apartment in the exclusive district of San Isidro.

The employer, Hugo de Zela Hurtado, was a well-known retired diplomat who had served as Peruvian ambassador in six countries and the Vatican. In time Carmen would come to learn about his other achievements: a descendent of a hero of Peru’s independence, Zela Hurtado had received distinctions from various governments and had managed arrangements for the 1985 visit of Pope John Paul II.

INJUSTICE. The judicial system is overwhelming for domestic workers who report their employers. The fallout after a trial can stay with the victims for years.

Carmen Almeida would ultimately work for thirteen years in the ambassador’s home, using her employment to support her daughter and, later, her mother. In an interview for this investigation, Carmen recalled that although her working week exceeded 48 hours, in the beginning the family treated her cordially. Over time, that would change. A series of incidents still stand out in her mind: finding herself locked in a beach house the family rented in summer; being prevented from celebrating her birthday at home with her family; receiving constant insults and mistreatment from the ambassador's daughter, who, on one memorable occasion, threw on the floor clothes Carmen had spent hours ironing. Isolated examples they might seem; but, for Carmen, they are scars from a period of her life that even now she is unable to relive without breaking down in tears. The most distressing part: according to Carmen she was sexually harassed by her employer, at a time when this offense was almost invisible, especially when the victim was a domestic worker.

By 2003 the bill for a Law on Domestic Workers was before Congress. Carmen’s employer had even taken clippings from the newspaper that described its intended scope: remuneration equivalent to half the national minimum wage, vacation leave at half the rate for other employees, and compensation for time served and for arbitrary dismissal. Carmen knew these rights were some still some way off in the future; the ambassador made a point of reminding her that the proposal was yet to pass into law. Still needing the employment, Carmen stayed on a few more years until, in 2007, she resigned. She then sued Zela Hurtado for thirteen years of accrued benefits.

The most distressing part: according to Carmen she was sexually harassed by her employer, at a time when this offense was almost invisible, especially when the victim was a domestic worker.

Whilst the suit was still at an early stage her former employer became a consultant to the historic lawsuit Peru had filed before the International Court of Justice in The Hague to resolve its maritime dispute with Chile. As he pursued Peru’s public legal case at international level, Zela Hurtado deployed his own private legal resources to avoid paying his former employee a settlement. His efforts were in vain; Carmen refused to give up and, in April 2011, a court ruled in her favor and awarded a payment of PEN13,000 for missed bonuses, vacations and other accumulated entitlements.

The most distressing part: according to Carmen she was sexually harassed by her employer, at a time when this offense was almost invisible, especially when the victim was a domestic worker.

”He appealed several times,” recalls Carmen Almeida, who is now the leader of a union that supports other domestic workers to obtain their rights. 

The case documents—reviewed for this investigation—reveal that over the months following the award, whilst Zela Hurtado was publicly recommending that the president, Ollanta Humala, ratify Peru’s legal team in The Hague, he was privately appealing the size of the compensation payment to Carmen. When the court ruled the time for appeal had expired, the influential diplomat countered by claiming that notification of the judgment, mistakenly addressed to his wife rather than to him, had been late in arriving. The matter ended when the Specialized Labor and Contentious Matters Court concluded that “[...] Mr. Hugo De Zela Hurtado and Eva Martíznez De Zela have the same domicile and it is obvious that in [the] worst case they had still become aware of the content of the sentence [...].” In total, the process had taken seven years.

Carmen’s relentless efforts were finally rewarded when, in May 2014—three months after the decision by the court of The Hague to ratify Peru´s right to a maritime area the size of a small European country—her erstwhile employer paid in full the amount owed.

When approached by Ojo-Pú, Ambassador Zela Hurtado claimed that he paid the full amount of the judgment even though no proof of Carmen’s claim existed. He also noted that Carmen had signed a document acknowledging his compliance with all her legal entitlements, a document dismissed by the judge. “With the amount I had to pay, the matter was settled,” he said. On the matter of the alleged sexual harassment, the former diplomat replied: “It is an argument that they almost always use, and I imagine someone induced her to allege it. I have nothing to say.”

Now a union leader, Carmen Almeida says there is always a personal cost for domestic workers who dedicate years of their lives to other families. This cost is one that money can never compensate. In her case, it was that she had to leave her daughter in her mother’s care rather than raise the child herself.

“We are all left with the aftereffects of our experience,” says Carmen. But they are wounds that, over time, have healed.



One night in February 2004, a domestic worker was arrested for the alleged crime of aggravated robbery in the financial district of San Isidro. Her name was Martha E.Y., thirty-three years of age, who had been working for six months at the home of a businessman in the fruit import sector. The employer, Falconerio Jara, had previously accused Martha of stealing an Omega watch, valued at US$2,600, which, he claimed, had been left on his bedside table. Since he lived alone, he argued, Martha was the only person with access to the bedroom.

From the very start, Martha E.Y.—who agreed to participate in this story on the condition of anonymity—denied the charges. She would later state to police and before judicial authorities that relatives of her employer had also been present on the day of the alleged theft. At that time Jara accused her of removing the timepiece, Martha admitted to having entered the bedroom to tidy, but insisted she had not seen the item in question. Fearing the consequences, Martha searched the house thoroughly over the subsequent days, without success. The situation worsened, in a way authorities would later refuse to accept, when Jara threatened to report Martha to the police unless she agreed to have sex with him. It was not the first occasion that Jara had engaged in sexual harassment. The threats continued: a few days later Jara intimidated Martha by claiming he had called the police and two officers were on their way to arrest her. Two weeks passed from the date of the alleged theft before Jara finally pressed charges. The Prosecutor's Office accepted almost every part of his story.

HIDDEN. The most atrocious crimes are committed in the privacy of the home: according to statistics from the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations, in 2018 alone it received more than 1,686 complaints of physical and psychological attacks against domestic workers.

In September 2008 a court sentenced Martha to three years in prison and a reparation payment of PEN500.  Yet one detail remained unresolved: Jara was unable to demonstrate that the watch had existed. Claiming that it had been a gift from a daughter who lived overseas and who had given him no purchase receipt, the only evidence Jara could provide the court were a watchmaker’s repair notes.

The sentence completely rejected Martha’s allegation of blackmail: “[...] the arguments that she was allegedly sexually harassed are not a matter of discussion for the purposes of the case; they should be taken merely defense ploy for the sole purpose of evading her criminal responsibility.” At the time, sexual harassment was not included in the Criminal Code. This gap was not corrected until 2018 and there have since been three sentences handed down. Fourteen years ago, however, Martha’s defense lacked not just a legal instrument but also witnesses and evidence.


“He threatened to report Martha to the police unless she agreed to have sex with him. It was not the first occasion that he had engaged in sexual harassment.”


Yet there was something even worse. On the evening of the alleged disappearance of the watch, Martha took to her bed with a headache and a pain reliever provided by Jara. The next day she woke, still dizzy, and discovered that her shirt and bra were torn and her earrings were on the floor. And it was from that moment that the sexual harassment began. Although she never pressed charges, her recollection of the event appears in the police documents, which subsequently, as so often occurs, were filed away and forgotten. Figures from the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations for the last four years show just thirty-seven complaints by domestic workers of sexual harassment and forty-eight of “acts against modesty”. Other abuses against domestic workers were more widely reported: 698 were slapped, 750 had their hair pulled, and 1,085 were punched. According to official information, 529 domestic workers faced severe risk at the time of filing the complaint.

It was not the first occasion that Jara had engaged in sexual harassment.

Fortunately, in 2014 the Superior Court of Justice reviewed the case and acquitted Martha E.Y for lack of conclusive evidence. By that time, however, she was facing new difficulties: a cancer diagnosis, the death of her father, and the loss of a land parcel in the Lima district of San Juan de Lurigancho.

 “I had to burn everything [the file],” she said in an interview for this report. “It was a way of erasing something that had hurt me just too much.”

Martha still works in domestic service. She received just PEN700—little more than US$200—which a labor court ordered Jara to pay in compensation.

Over the last ten years, more than thirty-two thousand domestic workers have gone to the Ministry of Labor and Employment Promotion to seek help from the Department of Free Labor Counseling and Legal Defense. Their complaints should lead to labor inspection orders, but ministry data—obtained by Ojo-Pú through a freedom of information request—show  that just fifty-six inspections occurred, of which only six led to a fine. For its part, the autonomous National Superintendence of Labor Inspection issued 706 inspection orders and imposed 142 sanctions. 



On the afternoon of June 27, 2005, in an office of the Division for Investigation of Missing Persons, a police officer took the statement of a 16-year-old domestic worker who was reporting being a victim of sexual abuse. The transcript, with its characteristically impersonal police language, is as follows:

“When do you say that you were a victim of sexual harassment by José Antonio Cabrejos Álvarez?  Were you a victim of rape?

“This person raped me when I was 14 years old. It was a Saturday at 23:00. He took advantage of the fact I was alone. He has since been sexually abusing me using blackmail and threats.”

Rosa Ch., brought from Amazonas to work on as live-in help at the age of 13, had never previously reported her plight to authorities. The events took place at an apartment of the Residencial San Felipe, an emblematic middle class housing complex in Lima. The family she served consisted of the home owner, her elderly mother, and her son—who was around forty years old. According to Rosa’s account, she worked seven days a week, from six in the morning to ten at night, for the paltry monthly remuneration of PEN 100—approximately thirty dollars. It was an oppressive regime. The employer mistreated Rosa, insulted her, and kept her locked up so she wouldn’t escape. Rosa would sleep in old woman’s bedroom to attend any need that arose during the night.

It was one evening when the owner and her mother were both absent that the son first entered the bedroom and raped Rosa. The details of that event appear in the transcript of the minor’s testimony with a note by the police officer: “At that moment the teenager began to cry.”

MEMORIES. The diary of Rosa Ch., a 14-year-old domestic worker, who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her employer's son.

 The attacks occurred every week. According to the girl’s testimony, before forcing himself on her the aggressor would force her to watch pornographic movies. But one day the man’s mother returned home unexpectedly and, upon entering the room, discovered the pair. Instead of rebuking the perpetrator, the woman turned on the victim and began beating her.

Eventually Rosa was able to escape. She fled as far as the neighboring district of Pueblo Libre, where, in front of the well-known museum, she met up with a friend who also worked in domestic service. Her friend accompanied Rosa to the Domestic Workers Training Center, an institution that offers legal support for people working in the industry.

“I always asked her how she was, but she never said anything. I am sure she didn't want me to worry,” sighs Rosa's mother over the phone from the Amazon town of Pomacochas. “Many things happened to my daughter that she did not deserve.”

“It was one evening when the house owner and her mother were both absent that the son entered the bedroom and raped her for the first time. She was 14 years old. ”

The trial prolonged Rosa’s agony. The questioning forced her to relive the rapes and abuses. Citing love letters and Rosa’s choice of clothing, the defense lawyer sought to discredit her testimony. He speculated that she had had other sexual partners and cited intimate details from Legal Medical Certificate.  Despite the evidence of sexual abuse contained in the psychologist’s report, the judge concluded that the prosecution’s case was insufficient, and, in April 2007, acquitted Cabrejos Álvarez of the crime of rape.

It was one evening when the owner and her mother were both absent that the son first entered the bedroom and raped Rosa

The Public Prosecutor’s Office appealed the judgment. Another seven years would pass before Rosa’s attacker was finally sentenced: six years of imprisonment and a civil reparation of PEN5000. But justice was late in coming. That same year Rosa died in suspicious circumstances. According to one version, she committed suicide. Her mother believes Rosa was more likely the victim of a femicide. None of the people we interviewed for this investigation know for certain how she died.

Three years later José Antonio Cabrejos Álvarez—who ignored our request for an interview—obtained the privilege of day release for good behavior. That same year, 2017, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Population registered thirty-one cases of sexual abuse against domestic workers.



At 7 p.m. on January 29, 2008, police in Chaclacayo received news of a macabre discovery: the gardener at a residence had found the body of a woman submerged in a well. The victim was 26 years old. Her name was Irma Gárate, a domestic worker, and she had been missing for eight days. Forensic experts would later find knife cuts to her body, which a cement block had dragged to the bottom of the well.

The murder occurred at the home of Leoncio Jáuregui Maldonado, a legal advisor to the Ministry of Justice. The property consisted of a two-story house, gardens, a swimming pool, and a sports field with artificial grass. Gárate worked for Jáuregui and his 78-year-old mother. The young women, born in Moyobamba, had been employed there for almost a year. The other employees were a driver and a gardener; the latter would become the main suspect in the homicide.

In the victim's room, which had remained closed since her disappearance, the police found some glasses and beer bottles. From witness accounts, they established that on the night of the crime there had been a farewell party for the gardener, Alejandro Ramos, due to leave the next day. Jáuregui would declare that the following morning, when Irma failed to prepare breakfast in the usual way, he found her room locked from the outside. He requested the new gardener to force the door and once inside found just a few of Irma’s belongings. As it was not the first time she had left unannounced, Jáuregui concluded Irma would simply return after a few days.

VICTIMS. Buscador gathers stories of crimes and abuse committed against domestic workers in Latin America:  sexual abuse, murder, false accusations of theft, and court cases.

Frightening details emerged following discovery of the body. The police had already detected reddish spots on the walls of Irma's bedroom, the first indication of how she had died. A week later, forensic experts using luminol uncovered the brutality of the murder: the reagent showed bright spots scattered throughout the room and along a trail that led to the well. A participant in the investigation that we interviewed for this report recalled a detail would shake her forever: traces of the victim's hands along the ground, as if she had been dragged along by her murderer.

 “That is the image that has most shocked me,” says Leddy Mozombite, a domestic worker who now runs one of the industry’s main unions. “I think she died feeling, like many of us, that she had no family here.”

Despite the violence of the murder, the employer said he heard no noise on the night of the crime. Suspicion fell almost immediately on the now departed gardener. Charged with the murder, Ramos was later acquitted for lack of evidence. Some interesting details did however emerge during the trial. In particular, Jáuregui testified that he had supervised repairs in the gardens of the house near the well some five days after the murder without noticing any odor or any other unusual detail. The prosecutor’s office considered this claim suspicious and, in September 2011, recommended an investigation into Jáuregui’s role in the murder. The case was shelved in March 2012. We were unable to locate Jáuregui for comment.

 “It was not possible to reach the end. The crime remained unpunished.” says lawyer Gustavo Reyes, who worked on the case.

Irma Gárate was indeed very alone in Lima. A vigil took place at the union’s office in the district of Breña with Irma resting in a coffin donated by the Public Charity, which also arranged a niche in the Presbítero Maestro cemetery. The coffin was carried by her mother, sister, a lawyer, and member of the union.

Stories like these pass from police section of the newspaper to the state archives amidst widespread indifference. In the last four years, some five thousand domestic workers have suffered physical or psychological abuse by different aggressors, from individuals ranging from their own family members to their employers. Many more cases remain hidden.