'We are enslaved': Low-paid women and the fight against job insecurity

Cleaners and care workers are among women at bottom of labor market coming together to condemn abuse and exploitation at work

Staff of the CLECE company, who provide services at the Can Ruti hospital (by Àlex Recolons)
Staff of the CLECE company, who provide services at the Can Ruti hospital (by Àlex Recolons) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

March 6, 2020 12:17 PM

Women who care for elderly people for 300 euros a month or who clean more than 25 rooms a day for 600 euros are examples of the types of workers who have begun to get organized in order to fight back against the lack of security in their jobs.

The Sindicat de Cuidadores sense Papers, a union representing illegal migrant women who act as carers, or Las Kellys, a statewide association representing women who clean hotel rooms, are two such organizations.

The wage gap continues to increase for these women on the low end of the earning scale, and according to figures from 2017, women on the lowest salaries earn over 34% less than men at the same level.

Many of these women will join the general stoppage planned for International Women's Day on March 8, although they also point out that it will not be a day off for many of their colleagues in the sectors of hospitality, retail, customer service, hospitals, and transport.

Care work, cleaning, or waiting tables are the types of jobs at the low-end of the market that are most often done by women. They are also subject to what is known as the "sticky floor" phenomenon, in which there is almost no opportunity for promotion.

Work by women is undervalued, says professor

"All of the inequalities we see in the labor market feature the undervaluing of female work, neither care work nor the feminized sectors are valued," says Raquel Serrano, Doctor in Law and Associate Professor of Labour Rights and Social Security at Barcelona University.

The future of the feminist movement lies in organizing and mobilizing, argues Vania Arana, spokeswoman for Las Kellys, giving as an example the association's demonstration in 2016 that led to small improvements in employment contracts in the hospitality sector.

The work done by Las Kellys and other women in the lowest-earning jobs do not even enter the "sticky floor" category of workers, according to Arana, who says: "We can't even reach that level, because we are enslaved."

In their struggle for better working conditions, Las Kellys have bypassed the large traditional trade unions, which Arana says are "exclusively led by and are for men," and which she says have done "nothing" to help women in insecure jobs. 

Foreign domestic workers take the initiative

The Sindicat de Cuidadores Sense Papers, which was set up in February by a score of migrant women, has also steered clear of the big unions in its efforts to help foreign women doing domestic tasks for low pay.

According to the Labour Force Survey carried out by the statistics institute, of the 105,200 people who are designated as doing domestic work, some 65,000 are migrant women, many of whom have no family network to rely on in Catalonia.

Flavia Ovejero, one of the union's founders, says that in her first job when she came to Catalonia she was subject to sexual harassment and that when she decided to leave, her bosses refused to pay her for all the hours she had worked.

"They think that if you have no contract and no papers, then you have no rights, but that is not how it is," she tells the Catalan News Agency.

The women who set up the union want it to act as an office to make claims about rights: "We have to fight, we are only beginning, but we have to show them that we're not afraid. We've shown our faces and we will keep going," says another member, Sílvia Sánchez.

Sánchez saw in the union a way of "getting emotional support," of becoming informed about what to do to get work permits, as well as gaining a political and media profile to help defend against "the gender abuse" that goes with working without a contract.

Hospital cleaners call for return of rights

Another example of a group of low-paid women who have unionized are the workers of the Germans Trias Hospital, more commonly known as 'Can Ruti'. Linked to the UGT trade union, the workers are protesting their loss of rights taken away during the financial crisis.

The cleaning staff of the CLECE company that provides services for the hospital is calling for better working conditions, including the right to be paid when ill or on holiday, as well as a reduction in their daily working hours. 

Yet, added to the low-paying jobs mostly done by women, whether cleaning or looking after children or elderly people, is the care work also done mostly by women that is not paid at all, and which accounted for almost 15% of Spain's GDP in 2018.