A miracle for who: Domestic workers invisibility in the formalization of Medellín’s public transportation system

A miracle for who: Domestic workers invisibility in the formalization of Medellín’s public transportation system
By: Valentina Montoya Robledo

About the Author: Valentina is an S.J.D. Candidate and LL.M. at Harvard Law School. M.A., LL.B., B.A. at Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá). Her dissertation “The Invisibility of Domestic Workers in Local Government Law in Latin American cities: A Multilevel Study of Public Transportation in Bogota and Medellin” analyses the situation of domestic workers in Latin American cities from a legal perspective. Researcher, advocate and consultant on: public transportation, women’s rights, human rights, and rights of people with disabilities. Website: https://hls.harvard.edu/dept/graduate-program/valentina-montoya-robledo/


We could say, just to simplify things, that under the name of Medellín there are two cities: the timeless one below, in the valley; and the one above in the mountains, ringing it.  —Fernando Vallejo, Our Lady of the Assassins (p. 88)


For many urban planners and local government officials worldwide, Medellín is the symbol of an urban miracle. After facing a deadly drug lord like Pablo Escobar and being the most dangerous city in the world in the early 1990s, Medellín became the city of innovation, with death rates reducing to one tenth in only 20 years. Urban social interventions in low-income neighborhoods or comunas were at the center of this so-called “miracle”. However, the story of the miracle only partially tells what female domestic workers have to face in their excruciatingly long daily commutes, from the comunas where they live to the high-income residential neighborhoods where they work, and back.

The formal metro transportation system that portrays Medellín as a “miracle city” does not respond to what domestic workers need. Maruja[2], one of these domestic workers, inhabits a comuna where the metro cable line of San Javier is located. Every morning she wakes up at 4:30 am, cleans her house and gets her kids ready to go to school. She leaves her house at 6 am. After walking some blocks to reach the crowded line that allows her to catch the cable, she finally sits down at 6:30 am, waiting to get down the mountain to the metro vehicle located in valley in the center of the city.

She lands in the vehicle in the midst of what many users call a “Tsunami”, sharing the space with other hundreds of users she finally arrives to El Poblado Station, in the valley where the high-income neighborhood of El Poblado rises uphill. She has three options: wait a while for an integrated bus that will drive her uphill; switch to a traditional bus and pay for an additional ticket; or walk fifty minutes up the mountain in a neighborhood built mainly for private cars that most high-income residents own and that lacks proper sidewalks for people like Maruja. She usually arrives at 7:30 am, one and a half hours after leaving her home.


The “Miracle” of Medellín: social urban interventions to tackle inequality and violence

In the early 1990s, Colombian national government created the Presidential Council for Medellín and its Metropolitan Area, trying to tackle the huge inequality and violence in the city. As a result, for the first time, local government officials, traditional businesspersons, grassroots leaders, and scholars sat at the table to think how to bring Medellín “back on track”. After realizing that a great deal of the violence came from the urban exclusion of the poor inhabiting the peripheral comunas, they came up with social urban intervention ideas. Medellín used the public transportation system as one of the main mechanisms to connect slum dwellers with the center of the city.

Medellín is the only city in Colombia with a rail mass transport or “metro” system. It is also the first city in the world that used public cables to connect low income people inhabiting steep mountains with the metro system located in the valley. It has invested in a cycle path network, as well as a Bus Rapid Transit system, and integrated buses that pick up people in the metro station and bring them uphill.

Despite the huge investment in social urban interventions, Medellín struggles with: an increasing number of private cars and motorcycles; persistent traditional buses along its streets that often do not comply with transit and environmental rules; lack of sidewalks in many areas; public transportation that high and medium income people barely use; disconnected and unsafe cycle paths; and constant environmental emergencies due to air pollution.

Not a miracle for domestic workers

Local government officials and urban planners have built the “new Medellín” around particular concepts of citizenship and inclusion. They still plan public transportation systems based on the picture of the daily commuter as an “average user”[3] – a mestizo, conservative, catholic, main provider and man that travels from his house in the mountains to work in the valley and back. This average user does not match the experiences of different vulnerable groups inhabiting Medellín, like domestic workers. They have to go every day from the mountains where they live to the center and then back up to high income residential areas where they work that are located also in the mountains in opposing sides of the city.

Official data shows that there are around 54,000 domestic workers in Medellín.[4] They are often Afro Colombian, come mostly from Urabá and Chocó into Comunas.[5] Many of them are single mothers who must ensure the daily survival of the families they work for and their own families.

According to the 2015 Mobility Survey of Bogotá, by occupation, domestic workers spend the most time daily in public transportation.[6] Though there is no disaggregated data on the subject in Medellín, my interviews show that domestic workers spend between 2.5 and 3.5 hours in public transportation daily. They also spend between 4000 and 8000 Colombian pesos every day in transportation tickets, which represents between 14% and 28% of their daily income,[7] and for those being heads of their households, the daily income of their entire families.

Despite the metro cables and other public transportation interventions in the comunas, Medellín remains two cities: one for the rich and one for the poor. High-income neighborhoods like El Poblado, are mostly built for residents that own private cars, barely walk and have no need for sidewalks. They drive fast uphill, ignoring crosswalks made for people who like Maruja need to cross the streets by foot.

If local government officials and urban planners really want to tackle inequality and segregation, investment in low-income areas will only be a partial solution. A city for everyone is one where even those who do not reside in a particular neighborhood feel comfortable in. Where public space including proper sidewalks, as well as proper public transportation allows them to move around, not only within the imaginary boundaries of their neighborhoods but through the entire city. Building a metro cable in a high-income neighborhood like El Poblado in Medellín can be a big part of the solution.


[2] Maruja is a fictional character created from a combination of stories told by domestic workers, whose anonymity is being protected.

[3] Interview with experts in Medellín, Colombia (Jun. 27, 2017).

[4] Id.

[5] Escuela Nacional Sindical, Diagnóstico de las condiciones de trabajo decente de las trabajadoras domésticas afrocolombianas en la ciudad de Medellín (Cuaderno de Derechos Humanos No. 25, Jun. 2017).

[6] Secretaría Distrital de Bogotá, Encuesta de Movilidad de Bogotá 2015 – Caracterización viajes – Origen/Destino (Updated: Aug. 16, 2017) https://www.datos.gov.co/Transporte/Encuesta-de-movilidad-de-Bogot-2015-Caracterizaci-/mvbb-bn7j

[7] Percentage based on the Daily Minimum wage plus transportation subsidy of 28,000 COP (2017).



A miracle for who: Domestic workers invisibility in the formalization of Medellín’s public transportation system