Inés Pérez and Elizabeth Hutchison
The regulation of labor relations and social rights substantially changed workers’ lives over the course of the 20th century. Domestic service, however, was only poorly and belatedly protected under labor law, and its incorporation proceeded in a slow, ambiguous, and nonlinear manner. The specific ways in which domestic service regulation emerged in Chile and Argentina, respectively, offer insight into this process and also present some important contrasts, despite the nations’ geographic proximity. In Chile, although the rights recognized for household workers were limited, the Labor Code of 1931 included an article on domestic service. In Argentina, the first comprehensive regulation for this sector was a special statute sanctioned by decree in 1956. In both cases, the “special” nature of such regulation was attributed to the place of domestic service in family life. As domestic labor was reconceptualized through legislative reform in each country, household workers gradually came to enjoy some, but not all, of the rights guaranteed to other workers.
Since the mid-19th century, Argentine society has undergone significant demographic shifts. The expansion of capitalism and the growing complexity of the state apparatus increased the social importance of occupations that are usually considered to be part of the middle class, especially in the Pampas. There was a rapid increase in salaried labor and income distribution worsened significantly. A consumer society arose amid this climate and a good portion of the new trade opportunities rested in the hands of European immigrants, therein generating a complex panorama of both new and old forms of inequality. At the same time, various middle-class trades began to organize themselves in order to mobilize their specific demands. Nevertheless, they did not develop ties of solidarity between one another, nor a unified “middle class” identity. Such an identity would begin to form much later within the political sphere. Starting in 1919, politicians and intellectuals became concerned about the expansion of revolutionary ideas and labor activism, and in order to counteract this, they began to encourage pride in a middle class identity within the public sphere. The historical evidence suggests that from that time on, some members of the common people began to identify as middle class, thereby slowly transforming the perception of social difference that had up until that moment still been binary. A middle-class identity definitively took root after 1945 as a part of the political experience of the middle strata. Peronism, for its plebeian elements and for the social and symbolic space it granted the lower classes, posed a profound challenge to the concepts of hierarchy and respectability that had existed until then. This challenge paved the way for vast sectors to embrace a middle-class identity and to distinguish themselves from the pueblo peronista, as well as to assert their right to a central role within their country. In this context, the middle-class identity in Argentina assumed some characteristics unique to the region, weaving together narratives of nationhood that placed the middle class, the supposed descendants of European immigrants (the implication being “white”), in a place of preeminence as the champions of “civilization,” and therein, as enemies of Peronism and the cabecitas negras, or the “little black heads,” that supported him.