By Dora González and Maryórit Guevara

Each month Aurora Hernández takes a quick break from her work to go to the Locutorio, a convenience store that offers the remittance services she needs to send her husband and two children 900 of the 1,100 Euros she’s paid each month. Aurora works doing 24 hour care for an 85-year-old woman in Bilbao, Spain. Her work schedule begins every morning at 7:30 a.m. and if she’s lucky she finishes a 10 o’clock at night.

Aurora migrated to Spain in 2017, after working as a bookseller, an auxiliary accountant and a domestic worker. When she lost this work she decided to migrate in order to keep her kids in school. Four years later she says the difficult labour conditions as a 24-hour carer have worsened. She has now lost Sundays as her only free day. The elderly woman she cares for is unable “to adapt to another person” which means Aurora is attending to her 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  

“I accepted the conditions they demanded because I had a debt in Nicaragua and I spent three months in Spain without work”, she comments. She acquired the debt of three thousand dollars – which she has paid off at twice that amount – in order to cover the cost of the journey and the first days after arriving. She landed in the Basque country, the area of the Spanish state with the largest number of women migrants of Nicaraguan origin. 

Care work is the only kind of employment she’s had in Spain, a common denominator among migrant women, who like Aurora, lack residence papers. The women end up trapped in the system of 24 hour carers, which means their labour rights are completely unprotected and they are often exposed to violence, while they are forced to live in hiding from the Spanish state. These are the reasons why domestic and care workers’ organisations call it “modern slavery”. 

Even though the elderly woman that she cares for is independent, Aurora’s work schedule is stretched to 15 hours a day, during which she covers the woman’s basic needs, keeps her company and does all the domestic work to keep the house clean and tidy. She has no time to go out on the weekends, except for certain times when the older woman watches television of takes a nap.

At these moments Aurora manages to visit the apartment that she shares with other women in exchange for 60 Euros a month from the 200 remaining after she has sent the remittance to her family in Nicaragua.

“You’re supposed to work 40 hours a week, but this isn’t respected for 24 hour care, because we women work up to 60,70 or 80 hours a week. Double the hours because you have to be available 24 hours a day for the employer” Edith Espínola complains. Edith is a Paraguayan migrant worker and spokesperson for the organisation SEDOAC (Active Domestic Service), that demands an end to the 24 hour domestic service regime.  

In this process, the regular or irregular legal situation of the women takes on a particular importance, because of the 580,500 people working in this arrangement, 80% are migrant women, according to the Spanish Social Security system data and of these only 68% are registered, that is are paying into the system.

Sexist, classist and racist legislation.

In November 2011, Spain approved Royal Decree 1620/2011 that regulates the employment relationship of family domestic services. While its approval represented an advance with respect to the previous 1985 national legislation, in which domestic workers and caregivers were left out of coverage under labour laws, the current law still denies basic rights to people working in this sector, pushing them into informal and illegal employment relations.

The lack of recognition of the right to strike, or to unemployment coverage is the principal discrimination embedded in the legislation, in comparison with other employment sectors. The law also sets a very different standard for the payment of compensation; it fixes a maximum limit of payment much lower that other forms of employment and leaves a legal void in terms of night shifts and the overnight 24-hour regime.

Faced with this reality, the organisations that are defending domestic and care workers’ rights are demanding that the Spanish state ratify the International Labour Organisation’s ILO Convention no. 189 on decent work. This international agreement obliges the state to guarantee rights such as unemployment benefits and others that  are not covered for women doing care work.  

 “The historical undervaluing of social care work and domestic labour, and the need for the capitalist, patriarchal and racist system in which we live to keep part of the economic iceberg invisible, means that this area of work has always been informal, undervalued, disparaged and dominated”. This is according to the study Who and how is care being done in Vitoria-Gasteiz: approximation of the situation of domestic employees (¿Quiénes y cómo cuidan en Vitoria-Gasteiz? Aproximación a la situación de las empleadas de hogar’), published in 2018 by the NGO consortium Zentzuz Kontsumitu. The qualitative study draws on the testimonies of 19 women migrant workers about their domestic and care work.  

Many women like Aurora take on large debts in order to finance their initial journey and other costs, which means they end up needing to find work at any cost. This pressure increases if they need to send remittances to their country of origin to guarantee their family’s survival, or to cover medical or educational costs as is the case of Virginia González.

In November 2018 Virginia arrived in Spain after having resigned from her call centre job that paid her a monthly salary of U$368 dollars ( 301 euros). The salary in Nicaragua wasn’t enough to cover the maintenance of her three children of seven, six, and three years old, nor allowed her to improve her basic housing located in the Hugo Chavez neighbourhood of the capital, Managua.

Since arriving in Spain she begin work in Madrid as a domestic and care work  for a salary of 850 Euros a month, which is under the legal limit of the Inter-professional Minimum Salary (Salario Mínimo Interprofesional -SMI) currently set at 1.108,33 Euros a month for full time work or people employed under the 24 hour regime.

Even though she has had employment opportunities which would pay a bit better – doing the same kind of work- she has preferred not to “run the risk”, due to the COVID vulnerability of the elderly, but above all because  she hasn’t managed to establish her legal status, and prefers to stay in the house where she works where she’s been promised a pre-contract that would enable her to aspire to achieving residence due to social roots.  

The Immigration Law known as Constitutional Law 4/2000 from January 11th that same year establishes the “Rights and Freedoms of Foreigners in Spain and their Social Integration”. This sets out the right to apply for resident status based on the establishment of social roots for which people must comply with four requirements:  continuous stay for three years; no criminal record; presenting a pre-contract for employment for more than a year, and a report on family ties or social roots.  

Immigrant women in communities like Madrid or Barcelona live with the imminent risk of being detained by a police officer who requests to see documentation and this implies the possibility of being deported or transferred to an Internment Centre for Foreigners (Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros – CIE). Because of this, the 24 hour regime offers a “refuge in precariousness” favoured by the confluence of the Immigration and Employment Laws, but which turns them into an invisible economic sector without rights, even when these are essential for sustaining life.  

Exploitation works through women’s bodies

Fatima Sierra’s life has been marked by migration. She was 16 when she began the journey from her hometown of Somoto to Costa Rica where her mother was a domestic worker. For more than ten years she lived between Nicaragua and Costa Rica until at 30 years old she migrated to Spain.

In her first year she managed to save for the airline tickets of her husband and two sisters with whom she lives in the Basque country. In spite of having arrived four years ago, being on the housing register and working on with the 24 hour regime for a salary of 800 Euros she still hasn’t achieved the residence requirement of social roots because of the lack of a pre-contract of employment.

The promise they made to her in one house, where she took care of an elderly woman, was not complied with when she tried to first attempted to request the recognition of social roots, and her employers went back on establishing the pre-contract they had offered because it meant recognising her legal rights and paying the social security quota that they had avoided while Fatima’s employment wasn’t registered.

A common violation of Royal Decree 1620/2011 facilitated by the lack of documentation and the economic needs of immigrant women is that employers take advantage to act with impunity. Hence the group of people in Spain who are forced to work in extremely poor conditions under which their labour and general human rights are not recognised, is growing.

The organisations defending domestic and care workers’ rights complain that these conditions are affecting the physical and mental health of these workers, manifested in fatigue, insomnia, stress and anxiety. Fatima has experienced exhaustion and chronic tiredness due to physical over-exertion, and according to her GP this has impeded her possibility for bringing a pregnancy to term.  

“As immigrant women we are dying, but we’re evidently getting ill because of the 24 hour care and domestic work we’re doing because when we migrate we’re  healthy women” says Nicaraguan Jamileth Chavarria from the Migrant Women’s organisation Brujas Migrantes. In Spain, undocumented immigrants have limited access to the public health system that will only attend to them in cases of emergency.

The research study Immigrant women and employment in the home: current situation, challenges and proposals (Mujer inmigrante y empleo de hogar: situación actual, retos y propuestas by the Madrid Federation of Progressive Women (Federación de Mujeres Progresistas de Madrid) in 2020, is one of very few studies that looks into the situation of immigrant women. One of the conclusions is that “the physical damage and mental exhaustion of domestic workers” are not recognised as harm from employment.  

In the meantime, the Labour Inspectors allege that they cannot control what happens inside the home because they are intimate spaces, which means “nobody knows what happens behind closed doors”.

One in ten have experienced sexual violence

In April 2021 the Spanish police authorities detained a couple in Vigo who had subjected seven migrant women to sexual abuse and violence, illegal detention, trafficking and illegal exploitation. Among these women there were Nicaraguans.  

Under the slogan: “I am your domestic worker, not your sexual slave” diverse organisations made manifest their denunciation of the violence that immigrant women suffer as domestic and care workers, made possible by the informality of labour relations, an immigration law that forces them to subsist within this informality, and the invisibility itself of the domestic space as a workplace.

The report Sexual violence against immigrant women in the care sector (Violencia sexual a mujeres inmigrantes del sector de los cuidados) of the Calala Women’s Fund and the Association Por ti Mujer carried out in 2020 used data from the Macro survey on Violence against Women 2019; the Report on Crimes against Sexual Freedom and Indemnity in Spain, 2018; and the Annual Report from the Network of Women’s Centres 2019. It revealed that “one in every ten women employed in the domestic sphere said she had suffered sexual violence in the workplace”.

María Mendoza Rivera, a survivor of sexual harassment from an elderly man for whom she did care work, points out that the incidence of complaints is very low due to the women’s extreme vulnerability. This makes them put up with all kinds of violence in trying to get hired and hold onto work, violence for which the perpetrators enjoy impunity.

She comments that because of this man’s advanced age she wasn’t too worried, and on the first overnight she slept with the door open, especially because she had to get up every hour when the man called her. Nevertheless, the second night the silence made her more alarmed.  

“I got up and when I put the light on all I saw were the slippers. He had got up and had left the slippers so I would think he was still asleep. But even though supposedly he couldn’t walk he had gone to the bathroom and taken his clothes off along with the incontinence pad, and then walked naked into the room where I was” she remembers.

After that night Maria barricaded herself into the room using a chair jammed against the door handle, but only “half-slept”. For several nights the man – who on top of it insulted her for being a migrant- attempted to force open the door, but was unable to move it. She never denounced him because “I didn’t have a residence permit”, but ended up resigning after a week.

“Unfortunately I went through that situation, but other women have been through much worse things. Now I’m taking care of two men, even when I thought I’d never go back to caring for men, but I’m doing it because this job came up and I needed to take it”, she says while consoling herself with a resigned phrase that can be heard across the whole country: “it’s all the work there is”.

The previously mentioned Who and how is care being done in Vitoria-Gasteiz study explains that “the situations involving male violence and machismo, racism and classism are not isolated or exceptional acts, but in fact characterise labour relations in this sector in which women are exposed to systems of domination, asymmetries  and power relations are exercised and concretised”.

The “Stony road” to achieving ‘social roots’

María has achieved three residence and temporary work permits. She obtained the first three years  after her arrival in Spain. This is renewed every 12 months, as long as the person has been registered for at least nine months with social security.  The second permit gives her the right for two years residence, and the following one covers a longer period up to five years,  but Maria hasn’t managed to get this one.

Although the requirements may seem to be achievable, in the majority of cases after three years of invisibility they often can’t be achieved and the person falls once more into a situation of irregularity. This is also facilitated by the economic situation in Spain in “immigrant women are the low cost solution to the crisis in care services” for which neither the state nor most men take responsibility.

“This is subsidising a private service to attend to people who need care, and leaving it to the private sphere of the family, without “bothering” the masculine gender by insisting men share care responsibilities in a responsible and central, and without demanding that the state develop adequate public policies for the attention and care of the population”, the Who and how is care being done in Vitoria-Gasteiz study argues.

At the moment, now that Maria has been in the country long enough, she has applied for the long-term residence card (five years), but she still only has a permit that is valid for a year. The lack of a full time or indefinite contract prevented it. Many women, even when they have contracts for long hours, they may not comply with the requirement, since the Spanish state requires them to prove they have enough income to sustain themselves economically.

She admits that the document, even while it recognises her as a resident for only one year it does give her the right to access public health care and offers her the possibility of studying, although in reality she hasn’t managed this because her work consumes all her time and energy at present. In addition, she says, the card doesn’t stop employers paying women below the minimum wage, or avoiding registering them in the social security system and often they “offend and mistreat” women workers for being immigrants.

“The racism is far too embedded in this society. And that’s not going to change much even if we denounce it, because it is so generalised”, Maria says with indignation. In spite of not having been able to return or visit Nicaragua in these last eight years she has however managed to bring one of her three children through the figure of regrouping the family.

One good piece of news that seems more like a dream come true, is that in the case of Aurora, she will just have achieved her first residence permit in 45 days after the publication of this report. Even though this won’t change her working conditions, it will allow her, after four long years, to travel to Nicaragua to embrace her children and celebrate her oldest son’s graduation as an engineer.  

Some of the names of the people interviewed for this report have been changed due to their irregular immigration situation and as a form of protection again racism

Video and info graphics: Yordán Somarriba.

Illustrations: Luis González.

This report is part of the publication of Collaborative Journalism (Periodismo Colaborativo) that La Lupa carried out in coordination with Despacho505.

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La Lupa es un medio con perspectiva de género y derechos humanos que surgió en mayo de 2019.