Thursday, August 18

A space for migrant women dedicated to care: “In my country I am a lawyer and here I can only clean bathrooms”

Alexa’s energy runs through the phone. After five years struggling, she has obtained a residence and work permit. She came to Spain from Colombia to request international protection. The journalist received death threats from narco-paramilitary organizations when she worked in the High Council for Peace, Victims and Reconciliation of Bogotá, created to advise those fleeing from organized gangs that committed crimes in the country’s neighborhoods. Despite the persecution she suffered due to her activism in favor of peace, her asylum request was denied for lack of sufficient evidence to prove the danger she suffered in her country of origin. The administrative limbo in which she fell from her pushed her to work in precarious conditions as a domestic worker. “I didn’t feel like anyone,” she says.

Now she lives in Gran Canaria and is looking for a space in which to share and empower herself with other migrant women dedicated to care. The Archipelago has always been a gateway to Europe for many people who move from other continents such as Africa or Latin America. However, and although care has been one of the sectors to which more migrant women have been forced, it has not been until now that the Islands have begun to take their first steps towards the creation of safe spaces, accompaniment and dialogue for domestic workers.

Natalia Oldano is a pedagogue and specialist in care policies with a gender perspective from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences. The researcher is also part of Mosaic Social Action and the Social Action and Research Network, located in Tenerife. “We have created a space for dialogue with migrant women and native women who work in the field of care. We realize the urgency of joining forces and creating synergies because what is happening with domestic work is very serious”, she points out.

“Care is very present in political and media discourse, especially since the pandemic, but the reality is that this society does not take good care of those who need it and does not take care of or dignify the work of those who care,” says Oldano.

The Canary Islands have important references that are already strong in the Peninsula. Among them, the association Sedoac (Active Domestic Service), based in Madrid. Sedoac was born to promote the empowerment of domestic and care workers through legal, labor and psychological care. Its president, Carolina Elías, recognizes that associationism was the burning nail that she grabbed to avoid sinking emotionally. “Belonging to Sedoac and the Latin American Women’s Network kept her from falling”, she recalls in an interview granted to this newsroom.

The main reason why domestic employment is, in many cases, the only option for migrant women is the Immigration Law. Foreigners have to wait three years to regularize their status and during that time they cannot sign an employment contract. In the meantime, they continue to have to care for their families back home. This drives women into the black economy and having to accept precarious work realities. In the Canary Islands, it is also common for women to fall into networks of sexual exploitation.

Migrants without documentation are “tied hand and foot.” If they try to denounce any violation of human rights, they run the risk of being deported. The president of Sedoac has found several cases that meet this pattern. “Yes, they collect your complaint, but they open an expulsion file for you. This leaves you in a total lack of protection that makes you lock yourself up at work to avoid being deported, ”she asserts.

“The Immigration Law is disastrous. Without papers there is no contract, without a contract there are no papers. Without fundamental rights there is no possible dignity”, concludes the pedagogue Natalia Oldano. “If we change this and give women protection, we will end the shadow economy. The State would earn more money through taxes and we would also benefit from fair and dignified working conditions. Everyone would come out a winner,” she proposes.

Carolina Elías insists that care work is dignified and professional, because “it requires you to know everything.” “It is very important because you take care of the most important thing in this country, the families. But it is so undervalued that no one wants to work.”

A blow to self-esteem

“I have already been released,” says Elías. She has done a master’s degree at the Complutense University of Madrid and works as a research advisor in the field of domestic employment. However, she points out that the consequences on the physical and mental health of the workers do not disappear overnight. “Sexism, racism and classism are so present that they attack your self-esteem,” she exemplifies.

“I was a lawyer in my country, but here I have had to clean bathrooms. I’ve had female bosses with less education than me, but they had the money. I was prepared for something else, but here I have not been able to exercise my career or anything like that. I don’t even have my bachelor’s degree recognition.”

The confinement of women who work as interns is “very hard”. “Especially because of the situations of contempt that you suffer. They make you feel so miserable…” “Be grateful that I am giving you a job” is one of the expressions that Elías has had to listen to the most. In addition to the risks linked to physical health, care work in precarious conditions is a threat to emotional and social health. Some of the consequences are stress, anxiety disorder or depression. “We are facing situations where women explain lack of time for their personal lives, for self-care, and situations of isolation and uprooting.”

Alexa started working as an intern in Italy for eight months. In Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the first job she obtained in this regime was in 2017 in the Schamann neighborhood. She had to feed an independent older woman. In Italy she earned 1,100 euros, but in the Canary Islands she did the same job for 700, despite the fact that she provided services to a wealthy family.

“Relatives who didn’t live there told me to cook whatever I wanted, to eat whatever I wanted, as if I were at home. But the woman I took care of controlled my food or how many times she went to the bathroom, ”recalls Alexa. “I sat with her at lunchtime and when she served me the food that was normal for me, she told me:” Are you going to eat all that? “, She details. “Then I tried to moderate myself a bit, but in my two hours off I went home to have lunch again“, she confesses.

During the months that he worked in that house, he could not sleep well. “She had a separate room, but she had to stay up until three in the morning because the woman couldn’t sleep.

“I didn’t feel like anyone,” he sums up. In some job interviews, the multiple communication tools that Alexa has were a plus. In other cases, a handicap. “There are people who do not hire you to create or think, but to take care.”

Below the poverty line

The researcher Natalia Oldano points out that the working conditions of women who work in care are different in each autonomous community. “Being an indoor space, it is very difficult to know the reality of what is happening in this area. Research is needed to know the reality of those who carry it out and take measures to improve these conditions, ”she proposes.

According to the latest data from the National Statistics Institute (INE), 95.5% of domestic workers are women. Most of them are from Latin America (52%), followed by women from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. “One in four of them lives in an irregular administrative situation. We know that it is an area characterized by informality in hiring, therefore we can say that there are many more people who are working in this sector”, says Oldano.

“Spanish society has outsourced this work considered essential at low cost and in precarious conditions because it is this care work that makes life sustainable,” explains researcher Natalia Oldano. “These are therefore domestic workers who are performing functions of the System for Autonomy and Care for Dependency but that it does not cover, either due to limits on its financing or due to design and execution problems.”

In the spaces created in Tenerife, Oldano points out, domestic workers express that they live below the poverty line. “They do not have the right to unemployment, they are in the Special Social Security System where they do not contribute for their real salary,” he stresses. the pedagogue. They also have no inspections and no protection from harassment, abuse and violence at work. “There is not always respect for their working conditions in terms of hours, salary and rest.” In the case of women who work as interns, they often suffer abusive salary discounts or work in exchange for board and lodging.

The opportunity to join

For the researcher, the Canary Islands are now going through a moment of opportunity to “not return to what we already know”. “It is urgent to bring to light some of the embarrassments of the social organization of care in Spain and the dynamics that build global care chains linked by links of inequality and oppression,” she points out.

In Spain, “the struggle of domestic workers has made visible problems that already existed, organizing from feminist resistance to build social unionism by creating spaces of equality, women’s networks, collective movements and regional synergies to dignify care work ”.

“It is a priority to learn from the struggle of women domestic and care workers. Listen to their uncomfortable stories that question privileges, that promote dialogue and learning and that challenge us for a political, social and community transformation”, says Oldano.