Interview with Edith Espinola, spokesperson for the SEDOAC Association (Active Domestic Service) in Madrid.
Association website: https://sedoac.org/

“The situation of domestic workers in Spain, in itself is an inequality, because they do not have the same rights as any other employee registered with Social Security System. We are in a Special Regime and this means that we do not have the right to unemployment, there is no law for the prevention of occupational risks, there is a lower pay when there is compensation when you are fired and there is the figure of so call "withdrawal" that says that if an employer has mistrust in you, he can fire you in a moment without giving any explanation. In addition, there is a lack of control of working hours, because as it is a job within a private home, the inspections are not effective either. And all this refers to women who work with a contract and their papers in order. But, a big percentage of domestic workers work in the informal economy: or because they are in an irregular administrative situation or because for some reason their employer does not want to make a contract for them. They are even more exposed to abuse. And it is an important problem taking into account that about 70% of the women who work in domestic employment are migrant women. 

According to the Immigration Law, in order to be a resident person with a work permit, you have to have social roots of about three years. Once you meet this period and present an employment contract, you can start the permit processing, not before. So migrant women, most of them from Latin America, know that they have to stay here for three years before they can regulate their situation and they look for a job that does not expose them to possible police control in the street, a fine or expulsion. In these conditions, practically the only thing they can do is housework in the intern regime.

And it must be said that this regime is a field of abuse. We say "intern work - modern slavery", because there is no control there. Even if the person already has her papers in order and has a signed contract of 40 hours a week, in reality her usual workday is much longer. The law stipulates 8 hours a day to which, in our case, 4 additional hours when you have to be available, so we already have a minimum of 12 hours a day. Supposedly, we are entitled to two hours of daily rest, but many times this is not the case. I have worked as an intern and I have worked from 7 in the morning to 11 at night every day, from Monday to Friday and on Saturdays I worked from 8 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon and had to return on Sunday at 9pm. In neither of my job as an intern I have had my 36 hours of rest that supposedly by law corresponds to me. In reality, women who work under this regime are at the disposal of their employer 24 hours a day. It is a physical and mental exhaustion.

Many hold on because employers promise that they will make contracts and papers for them. When the woman completes three years of work for an employer, many times instead of proceeding contract and papers for her, the employer fires her and finds another one, because he doesn't really want to sign any contract. Supposedly the woman fired like this could make a complaint, but many fear expulsion, reprisals and we must think about something else: women who work as interns, when they are fired, they find themselves on the street, because the place where they worked was also their home.

During the pandemic, many people understood what confinement is, not being able to go out freely, what it means to be afraid of going out on the street ... That is what a domestic worker who works as an intern and is undocumented experiences every day. She is at total disposal of her employer. And the big problem is that the employer does not perceive her as a worker with rights, he perceives her as an object, his property. Many times employers say: "we love her like a family member" ... Well, they love her like a poor family member, because they have her exploited and in unfair conditions.

During the pandemic even more abuses were added to all this. The demand for internal workers with very low wages has skyrocketed, who often do not even reach the minimum wage. Many of the employees were fired and were left with nothing, even those with contracts / papers, because anyway according to the labor law in Spain, we do not have the right to unemployment benefits.

Everyone talks about the importance of care and everywhere it is said that we are essential, that without us nothing can be done ... And it is true, we are essential not only because we take care of life, but because with our work we allow all other sectors to go out to work. We take care of your son, we take care of your grandfather, we clean the house, make sure that you will have your world well ordered so that you can continue doing your things. If we're not there, everything stops, that's why we always say this phrase: without us the world stops. Even so, when it comes to talking about our rights, we realize that we are still second-class workers, unprotected and exploited, without real outside support to make things change.

During the state of alarm, the government put out packages to support different groups of employees and we were left with nothing. After a lot of media pressure from all the workers' associations, the government finally released an extraordinary subsidy for our sector. However, this subsidy is temporary, it covers only the time of the state of alarm and only the employees registered within Social Security System could present the application. And what about those who work in the informal economy? Well, they were left with nothing, and it is not a low percentage ... It is estimated that some 630,000 people work in domestic employment in Spain, of which only 371,000 are registered within Social Security System. More than a half are working but they are in the underground economy and these people did not have access to any subsidy or institutional support.

But even among those who were entitled to claim the subsidy, the task was very difficult. The form itself was very difficult to fill out, the employers had to sign it and give you the certificates, and many did not want to do it. Apart from this, the entire process was done online and in this sector there is a significant digital divide. A domestic worker generally uses only a mobile phone, she does not have access to a computer or a scanner, which means that she had to pay someone to complete the application and scan the documents. Consequently, and despite the great efforts of many associations, only 56,000 applications were submitted and to date (end of November 2020 - h.j) of the 56,000 only about 23,000 have been paid. And we don't know when the rest will be paid. Tell me, during all this time, how does this worker, who everyone considers so essential, is supposed to survive, eat and pay her bills?

That is why we ask for our rights now, we cannot continue to carry out this very important work in so discriminative conditions. Many structural problems must be changed, deeper than those caused by the pandemic itself, and as long as this has not changed, we will continue to be second-class workers. We demand to be included in the General Social Security System, so that we have the same rights as any other worker in Spain. We demand that Convention 189* be ratified, something that current government has on its agenda, but the question is, when? Think that once it is ratified, the implementation process takes one or two years, so if they don't ratify it now in the middle of the pandemic, when are they going to sign it?

We do our part. All associations together we demand, fight, ask for meetings, but until now nobody has taken us into account. We want to be at the negotiating table as experts, we are the ones who know and live in our own flesh what is going through us. Generally they always call large unions that work with the masses, with companies, with ERTES** and we stay on the side. Why?, because our sector is informal and nobody wants to touch the issue and really fight for a change. There is a lot of submerged economy and a lot of people who are in an irregular situation, it is a very wide bag of problems that nobody wants to touch. They leave it aside and do not want to risk taking the step forward. That is why say we have to be present during negotiations, because we have been dragging these demands to change the laws in our sector for many years.

The care system in Spain is broken and many things need to be changed. There are employers who could ensure decent working conditions for their domestic workers, still they prefer to exploit them and keep them in an irregular situation. But there are also families that do not have the resources to develop the care they need, especially when they have a dependent person or have young children. The government should have public policies of care that society deserves. You cannot demand this quality care from an exploited woman, with horrible hours and a salary that does not match the service she is doing. As long as these policies remain unchanged, we will continue to exploit and abuse the work of the people who care for us.

So it is now and at this moment that we have to continue fighting and insisting, but what more pressure can we do if society does not take our side either? Society should go out and demand these changes together with us, because it is something that matters and that impacts us all. As a person I have to demand decent care and for that the person who works for me has to have decent conditions because if not, I am a part of that exploitation. We do not ask for charity, we ask for social justice. You cannot speak of rule of law while still maintaining the exploitation of the people who are working."

*Convention 189 on domestic workers of the International Labor Organization, 2011; it has not been ratified by Spain yet. 
** ERTE - Temporary Employment Regulation - is a measure approved by the government in Spain during the pandemic to protect jobs from layoffs. 

Hanna Jarzabek - Photography & Documentary Storytelling

Documentary photographer and Multimedia Storyteller specialized in projects addressing discrimination and societal dysfunctions, with accent on Europe.
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