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“Our subaltern position is determined by the law!”: the struggle for visibility in Spain

Recent developments in Spanish law have put domestic workers on a firmer footing, but there’s a long way to go before they are treated at equal to workers in other sectors.

"La familia del emigrante", Elentir/Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the last three decades, the number of women migrating to Spain for work in the domestic care sector has increased. Migrant women involved in this sector attend to the pressing reproductive and care necessities of Spanish families within the framework of a dying welfare state. Many of us entered Spanish households as undocumented workers and, in most cases, as live-in employees (or internas in Spanish). The working conditions for domestic workers, and especially for internas, are often exploitative and include:

  • • A lack of a formal labour contract and an absence of employer contributions to social security;
  • • The inclusion of the in-kind income (comprising food and lodging) within the monetary wage, resulting in drastic and arbitrary salaries;
  • • Wages ranging from €400 to €800 a month with extensive working hours, characterised by a demand for the almost total availability of the worker and endorsed under the ambiguous legal figure of "time of presence" , which has institutionalised live-in work. Time of presence is the time in which the worker is present in the employer’s household, outside working hours and without performing effective work, but available on demand. According to the legislation, time of presence must be agreed between the employee and the employer and must be paid in money or in kind, but results in arbitrariness;
  • • A lack of social protections;
  • • Arbitrary payment of dismissal settlements.

While workers in Spain should theoretically be protected from the labour abuses listed above under the Workers’ Statute, this is not always the case in reality.

The Active Domestic Service in Spain

Domestic worker activism in Spain has a decades-long history, but the active participation of migrants in these movements since the mid-2000s has revitalised struggles for extending domestic workers’ rights, while also giving visibility to the subordinate status or devalued citizenship of the migrants within the sector.

In 2005, there was a historical milestone regarding the general regularisation of undocumented foreigners, which led to more awareness around the conditions of migrant workers. Not only did this alert us to the essential value of formal employment status, but it also increased our interest in learning more about migrant workers’ rights. In short, we became aware of the subaltern position of migrant workers under Spanish law. Although almost 32% of documented migrants in regularisation processes were domestic workers, a large number could not be legalised because they had no proof of their employment status.

In 2008, our sense of powerlessness and awareness of our treatment as second class citizens led us to formally establish the Active Domestic Service (Servicio Doméstico Activo, SEDOAC), an association consisting of both undocumented and documented migrant women that aimed to inform, advise, and attend to the needs of migrant domestic workers in Spain. Over time, we have worked with and supported lobbying and advocacy efforts that push for changes in the laws that affect migrant domestic workers. Our organisation does not have public funding. We support our actions through voluntary work, membership fees, and occasionally receive some funding from feminist groups.

Our sense of powerlessness and awareness of our treatment as second class citizens led us to formally establish the Active Domestic Service.

SEDOAC’s first steps overlapped with the beginning of the Spanish economic crisis, which generally worsened the working conditions of domestic workers. Many workers who had acquired legal residence were not able to meet the social security contribution payments required to renew their status. Although social insurance is to be paid by employers, many migrant employees ended up paying for it out of pocket for fear of losing their legal status.

Progress, but still a long way to go

Given this context, migrant domestic workers’ claims became stronger and were integrated into the political debate for domestic labour law reform. Although an improved regulation was approved in 2011 (Royal Decree Law 1620/2011), it left aside important issues, such as the right to unemployment benefits; the abolishment of in-kind income; and the creation of an effective labour inspectorate. It also opened the way for private recruitment agencies to commodify the sector and reduce our capacity to negotiate our conditions. Additionally, the law does not fully guarantee protection against abuse and sexual harassment, and it was not accompanied by any attendant occupational risks prevention regulations for this sector.

The Royal Decree Law 1620/2011 on domestic work in Spain revokes 26-year-old legal regulation and was approved five months after the adoption of the ILO Convention 189 for Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The Spanish government has yet to ratify this convention.

Our struggle is ongoing and the migrant women's movement has been gaining strength and visibility.

Currently, it is estimated that there are around 600,000 domestic workers in Spain; approximately 90% are women and 50% are migrants. Despite the Royal Decree Law 1620/2011, the sector is still characterised by temporary employment, labour fragility, social devaluation and, at times, irregularity and exploitation. Around 30% of the workforce is not registered and therefore does not have access social security benefits. Because of this, our struggle is ongoing and the migrant women's movement has been gaining strength and visibility.

Aware of the importance of networking for advocacy, SEDOAC joined 16 other organisations across the country in order to create the Turin Group in 2012. In this context, the organisation demands the immediate ratification of ILO Convention 189 and equality between domestic labour and other sectors of the workforce, thus overcoming the gaps established by the current legislation in the country.

In October 2016, the Turin Group led the National Congress on Domestic and Care Work in Spain in Madrid, which was attended by around 150 participants. The congress brought together a large number of organisations in support of the struggle for domestic worker rights, which agreed on a political agenda for the coming years. There is much to be done, but the conditions are right for successful advocacy and political mobilisation on this issue.

About the author

Ana Carolina Elías Espinoza is a lawyer from El Salvador who has been living in Spain since 2009. She has been an advocate for women's rights in her country of birth and she is currently an activist for the rights of migrant domestic workers in Spain. In 2015 she was appointed President of Active Domestic Service (Servicio Doméstico Activo, SEDOAC).


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