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We simply said ‘enough’: the story of Spain’s ‘Las Kellys’ hotel cleaners

From gruelling working conditions to more limited access to healthcare, austerity policies have hit women hardest. But they are fighting back.

Las Kellys in a demonstration in Canarias (Spain), 2017. Photo: Myriam Barros. Las Kellys in a demonstration in Canarias (Spain), 2017. Photo: Myriam Barros. All rights reserved.From eight to nine o’clock in the morning, she cleans the hotel’s common areas. Then, she’s assigned around 20 hotel rooms to clean in six and a half hours. If a client has finished their stay, she has to fully dress the room, which takes an hour.  Often, she skips her lunch to be able to finish on time.

“A cleaner doesn’t know what it is to be paid for extra hours”, says Ana Nacher, who has worked as a cleaner for 17 years in Lanzarote (Canary Islands). Workers must finish cleaning their assigned rooms, however long it takes.

Working conditions worsened since the 2012 labour market reform, Nacher added. This reform reduced penalties on employers for unfairly dismissing workers, enabling companies to fire and reinstate them through temporary employment agencies (TEAs) on short-term contracts.

The reform also loosened requirements on companies to abide by rights and wages collectively agreed across the country, granting individual companies the ability to decide on pay and conditions unilaterally.

Nacher has been directly affected by these changes. Now, TEA contracts in Spain’s hotel industry may have a base salary of just €800 (£710) a month, she said, whereas previously hotels paid her according to the sector’s national collective bargaining agreement; about €1,300 (£1,150) a month.

Amid greater insecurity and higher workloads, 96% of maids in Spain suffer from anxiety according to a 2015 study by the CCOO labour union.

But anxiety is not officially recognised as a work-related illness under Spanish law, meaning that workers suffering from this can't access benefits while on sick leave. Nacher said this means many won’t take time off when they need it.

“We keep on going with antidepressants and muscle relaxants. We can’t get sick,” she told me, sure that taking time off for being ill can also result in being fired or not hired again, because workers on temporary contracts are more easily replaceable. “Where you are, there can be another one,” she said.

Fed up with their situation, some hotel cleaners started to share their complaints with each other in a Facebook group in 2016, marking the beginning of Las Kellys – a national association of women hotel cleaners who are fighting to reclaim their rights. Today, this group is increasingly on the national stage.

In April, Las Kellys met with Mariano Rajoy, the previous president of Spain; this month they expect to meet with Pedro Sánchez, the current president.

They've succeeded in obtaining official recognition of work-related hand and arm conditions, though they continue to fight for this recognition to be extended to also cover anxiety, back and spine injuries, and other health impacts of their jobs.

Now, Spain’s parliament is expected to change the workers’ statute to require that TEAs apply collective bargaining agreements to wages and conditions. This change will be thanks to Las Kellys, but it will affect all workers.

Myriam Barros, Ana Nacher and others from Las Kellys when they met President Rajoy, 2018. Myriam Barros, Ana Nacher and others from Las Kellys when they met President Rajoy, 2018. Photo: Ana Nacher. All rights reserved.The so-called ‘Kelly law’ compiles the group’s demands, including regulating their workloads; banning the outsourcing of their jobs via TEAs; an earlier retirement age due to physical exhaustion; and official recognition of all their work-related illnesses.

Myriam Barros, president of Las Kellys, was part of the first Facebook group. When they decided to highlight working conditions inside hotels, she said “it didn’t sit well” with managers, major labour unions and some right-wing parties.

“We were only seeking dignity as professionals,” she added. “These [TEA] companies exist to steal from us, not only money, but also fundamental rights. We were simply women that said ‘Enough!’.”

These companies steal from us, not only money, but also fundamental rights. We were simply women that said ‘Enough!’

Over the past two years, Las Kellys have met with political parties and labour inspectors and have reported their working conditions to the EU Petitions Commission, where EU groups can report rights violations by member states.

At Christmas in 2016, they sent coal to the hotels they considered to have the worst working conditions, following the tradition of giving coal to poorly behaved children.

What’s happened to the labour conditions of hotel cleaners like Nacher is an example of wider precariousness for workers in Spain since the 2008 global financial crisis, said Carmen Castro, economist and co-founder of the Gender, Economy, Politics & Development Observatory (GEP&DO).  

According to her analysis, Spain’s 2012 labour market reform has devalued salaries and encouraged companies to break up work into more short-term and part-time contracts. Women have been hit hardest by these changes; as in 2008, in 2018 they comprise the majority of those with low salaries and part-time contracts.

Spain’s 2011 pensions reform also increased the minimum number of hours that individuals must work in order to receive a public contributory pension, which is more difficult for women to reach, given that they are more likely to have part-time contracts – and when they do, they receive a lower pension.

According to Spain’s largest unions, CCOO and UGT, the gap between the amount of money that men and women pensioners receive is now 37%. Ten years ago, that figure was very similar, at 40%. It hasn’t grown, but it hasn’t improved much either.

Austerity-driven budget cuts have also hit the 2006 law of personal autonomy. This was a “pioneering law,” said Castro, “because it considered caring as a right that must be provided by the state.” It called for the development of a public service of carers, and said that those caring for relatives should also receive public pensions.

Official data shows that 89% of unpaid carers in Spain are women. Without the required budget for the public services proposed in the 2006 law, caring remains their responsibility – and they won’t receive public pensions for it.

Laura Martínez, an Argentinian woman who has lived in Spain for 15 years, has also been affected by public service cuts. Before 2012, immigrants like Martínez could access the public health system if they were officially resident in Spain.

A 2012 royal decree denied primary care services to any adult who wasn’t registered as a worker in the National Social Assurance Institute (INSS). Those not registered can only be treated for free for emergency care.

Up to 68% of those excluded from public health services, as a result, are immigrants not legally resident in Spain (with almost two-thirds of them women), according to a 2015 report from the REDER civil society coalition.

Martínez’s mother moved to Spain after the 2012 law was passed. She suffers a heart illness that requires regular examination, but says she has been denied the health service card needed to access primary care.

Martínez met others in the same situation as her mother through the campaign group Yo Sí, Sanidad Universal (YSSU) – ‘Yes, Universal Healthcare’. When the 2012 reform was passed, YSSU campaigned to inform health centre staff of other ways in which they could legally provide healthcare to all patients.

In 2015, the region of Madrid passed its own reform to provide healthcare to all those living there, with or without legal papers. This is a temporary and local solution, however; a person can still be denied care if they move from the region, for instance.

In July 2018, the government passed a new royal decree that promises to restore universal healthcare. But Marta Pérez, from YSSU, says it doesn’t specify how to do this, so regions aren’t required to change their current systems.

The platform Yo Sí Sanidad Universal marches in Madrid. The platform Yo Sí Sanidad Universal marches in Madrid. Photo: Marta Pérez. All rights reserved.The past decade of cuts and reforms in Spain reflects “a neoliberal turn of public policies” according to Castro, the feminist economist.

She says the government has used the excuse of saving money to send a message: equality is dispensable. It even eliminated the equality ministry in 2010 that managed just 0.03% of the state budget. “Was that actually for economic reasons?” she asks.

The past ten years of cuts and reforms in Spain reveals “a neoliberal turn of public policies.”

Against austerity policies which prioritise reducing public debt, Castro proposes feminist economic measures to guarantee “public services that look after people and ecosystems.” For instance, she says that equal, non-transferable and fully-paid parental leave “increases men’s participation in caring tasks.”

Society is on the verge of a profound change, says Castro, and so we must ask ourselves what our goals are. “Do we have the courage to move to a socioeconomic system that supports the sustainability of life,” she asks, “or are we, instead, going to reinforce even more neoliberal belligerence?”

About the author

Rocío Ros Rebollo is a Spanish journalist and entrepreneur. Her startup, Proyecto V, is a digital magazine specialised in feminist journalism. Find her and Proyecto V on Twitter: @rociorosreb, @ProyectoVmag.


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