3.2.1. IL as Servilism: Trapped in a Context of Vulnerability, Exploitation and Abuse
Specific attributes that make an immigrant woman a desirable domestic worker not only contribute to Latin American immigrant workers joining IL jobs, but also impact on the interpersonal dynamics in the workplace. Once participants accessed these IL occupations, they mainly reported precarious, abusive, exploitative conditions or under recognition. For instance, they described situations of working extra hours and performing additional tasks with no increase in salary or any other form of compensation or recognition:
“When they employ you, they employ you as a babysitter…but that is a lie. Of course, you have to babysit, but you have to manage and run the house chores, iron, vacuum, take the kid to her school, shower her, feed her, cook for them [family] for lunch time when they come to eat (…) that’s it, they exploit you and it is an atrocity what they pay: nothing”
(Study 1, Lis)
Excessive demands and/or supervision by employers is perceived as a demonstration of employers’ superior status, which in turn makes Latin American women feel enslaved and subjected to servile relations: “she [employer] would make me clean the floors on my knees, with a brush, you know? And I thought: “the mop exists already [so], why?” (Study 1, Rocio)
“Actually, they treat you like a slave (...) that is what bothered me, being told that ‘you have to be at my entire disposal’, it is like saying ‘you have to be here enslaved, doing what I say’. And, of course, because you have no other job, you have nothing else, well, it is kind of accepting it, of course, you have no option but saying yes”
(Study 4, Lucía)
These situations cannot be reported to authorities, since IL usually occurs in the context of the informal economy, without a legal recognition of employment or workers’ rights. These power abuses are naturalised by employers as part of IL, and seen by most women as part of the abusive employer–employee relationship for the specific context of being an immigrant woman in IL in Spain: “Employers think that they can command people with their money “(Study 1, Teófila).
Participants explain how employers, aware of workers’ precarious immigration status, explicitly or implicitly threaten them (Study 3). This participant described her employer’s words to her: “You need the money. Then I pay you. You have to send [back home] it [money] for your kids. You shut up (...) you need the money, then you work. If you leave here [this job], where are you going to get the money to send to your country?” (Study 3, Rosalba)
Participants “have to endure and endure” (Study 4, Maria) the negative impact of servilism in their lives, since the alternative is “nothing”: “women working as a domestic worker, if they fire you, you have no right to unemployment benefits(...) they fire you and you are left with nothing” (Study 4, Lucía).
All these make participants feel they are not treated as human beings “they [employers] are using you” (Study 1, Zuleima). For instance, “They [employers] focus only on themselves. You have come from your country, but they never ask you if you are all right, how you are or if you found what you were looking for” (Study 2, Cecilia).
The dehumanisation described seems to be exacerbated when the IL is performed as live-in workers, caring for elderly or disabled people. These live-in workers share house with their employers and/or care-recipients, and must be available 24 h a day to meet employers’ demands: “the husband [in the family] had a little bell and every time I heard it I thought he wanted to urinate and I would get up, sometimes four times in the night, it was killing me” (Study 1, Dinora).
Most of the participants have worked as live-in workers. Consistently, they explained that these jobs are the hardest and would try to search for another option of IL whenever possible:
“because, of course, when you are a live-in worker, people abuse. The bosses, you know? And then they want you to do more hours than those, those that you are supposed to work. And one friend worked till midnight. I wouldn’t have endured it, not even the first day”.
(Study 4, Elena)
Since immigrant women in the IL are not perceived as people with human rights, basic rights such as privacy and personal space are disregarded. Some participants had to “[sleep] in the same bedroom [of the care recipient] (...) they [employers] say I have to sleep there. (...) If she [care-recipient] sleeps, I do not sleep; if I sleep, she doesn’t fall asleep” (Study 1, Isabel).
Dehumanisation is combined with the naturalisation of all forms of caregiving tasks as female work. Expected IL tasks for Latin American women are: cleaning, cooking, emotional support/showing affection, and personal and intimate hygiene, in addition to specific health care tasks, such as healing wounds, giving injections or handling devices to mobilize disabled people.
“I had to take care of an old person and I had to do things that I had never done in my country, such as changing a diaper. And he was ill, the prostate. I was not expecting it”.
(Study 1, Vanesa)
Despite the specialised nature of many of these tasks, with no connection to their previous work experiences, some participants were frustrated because, as workers, they did not receive any specific training for those activities or appropriate supplies, creating hazardous situations:
“I asked them [employers] for gloves, and they didn’t want to provide them. But I always had to do tooth brushing, and all that. I didn’t like it because the person had many wounds (...) and I had to use the hoist to move [the person] in bed.”.
(Study 1, Nuria)
There was a marked contradiction between employers’ naturalisation of all care activities as proper work for the caregivers and the workers’ understanding of IL as a job which should entail respect for workers’ rights.
The dynamics and conditions of IL as servilism, mediated everyday relationships between employers and participants, generating what participants call “abuse”. This abuse took different forms that sometimes overlap; for example, the aforementioned working conditions, employers’ threats, disregard for basic needs, such as private space, sleeping hours or safety, among others.
“the abuse had already started, [the employer] already started to abuse, to treat me badly. I went to sleep late, I had to get up early because I woke up the kids, got them dressed, I virtually did everything”.
(Study 1, Eliana)
Often, forms of abuse included explicit forms of violence, such as physical violence. For instance, the children one participant cared for would hit her with no repercussion or limits set by the parent: The kids hit you… and it was very, very… [frustrating]. (...) You come here, you are the employee and that’s it (...). Children mistreated me and their mother… [consented] (Study 3, Rosalba).
Participants also reported attempts of sexual abuse from male employers. Some of them expected sexual intercourse as part of the job. Participants clearly identified that being an immigrant woman made them more vulnerable to suffer such abuses. They explained Spanish men sexualized Latin American women due to their exotic condition.
“(...) due to being an immigrant, due to being a woman. They think every Brazilian woman comes here to be a prostitute, you know? One day, I went for cleaning [a house], and a guy told me: “if you come and spend time with me [have sex], I will give you 50 [euros]”. Then I said: “No. I do not do that” and he said: “but everyone [immigrant woman] does it”.
(Study 3, Lilian)
These women felt unprotected towards abuses, especially if they did not have a work visa in Spain:
My boss’ son wanted me to... he wanted to take advantage of me [sexually] (...) But I could not do anything, I have no papers. Who can I go to? I was a bit afraid. Who can I go to ask for help? I … I didn’t know what to do. I was also beginning [in this job], I didn’t know what to do, what to say, out of embarrassment.
(Study 1, Claudia)
All these forms of abuse are underpinned by the intersection of different and intertwined oppression categories: race/ethnicity, gender, and social class. Some participants clearly identified discrimination based on race/ethnicity, gender, and social class as the root cause of their experiences of abuse, while others referred to them as the generic term “discrimination” or “racism”: “there was some racism (...) they [employers] humiliated me, mostly” (Study 3, Estela).
3.2.2. Neocolonial Logic: Health Consequences for Latin American Women Working in IL
IL is a form of servilism that negatively impacts Latin American women’s health and wellbeing. Participants described a myriad of negative physical, psychological and social health consequences. Table 2
presents the main health consequences described by the participants.
Latin American women attributed many symptoms they experienced to the tasks they had to carry out; for instance, the lack of specific training or injury prevention, repetitive physical strain that cleaning and mobilising disabled people required, and other very demanding physical activities:
“they are elderly people that are sick, in bed. Then, you are going to be exhausted because you have to lift them, dress them, lift them again, transfer them to the chair, move her from the chair to another place…”.
(Study 1, Alba)
These physical demands are paired with lack of time for personal rest and physical recovery, as one participant explains: “I did not rest, not even…, not even half an hour, I didn’t rest because I had too much work”, and difficulties for eating properly: “I had no time to eat. I started to slim down and I got sick. I got sick and I was hospitalized for a month (...) you cannot live without sleeping … I was debilitated, very skinny” (Study 1, Isabel).
Despite the importance of IL physical consequences, for participants the worst impact was on their mental and emotional health. Sometimes, the physical consequences are understood as part of the job: “Well, it is normal, when you take care of children, you will have back pain, some ache in your legs. It does affect you (...)” (Study 1, Zuleima). This statement shows how participants tend to normalize the physical impact of IL. Nevertheless, they went on to emphasize the emotional burden as the most significant consequence: “(...) It does affect you, but I think what affects you the most is the emotional [aspect]” (Study 1, Zuleima). “For your mind, it is much worse” (Study 3, Rosalba).
summarizes the mental health issues experienced by participants. IL demands on mental health were heavy and difficult to deal with. Some examples were living and taking care of people with cognitive impairment, the death of clients or managing all the abusive conditions. Participants expressed feeling burnout, stressed and depressed as consequences on their mental health: “She was a person [employer] one of those always quarreling. At the end of the day, even though you did nothing, you end up psychologically ...pufff! shattered
” (Study 1, Alba).
The emotional involvement of caring as part of IL, that is the personal and intimate closeness of workers with the persons they cared for, is highlighted as a key stressor often neglected by employers, and with a high impact on participants’ emotional wellbeing:
“because they [employers] pay you to clean the glass, and they pay you to scrub the pots. But becoming fond of the person you care for, the psychological support that you give [to that person], nobody pays that. That makes you leave [the job] with your head like a drum [exhausted]”.
(Study 4, Olivia)
The isolation and lack of freedom for those live-in workers also contribute to these negative feelings and to a lack of social participation.
“in the beginning I had a rough time, because from having freedom to go outside whenever I wanted, now I couldn’t do it. I had to be with the lady from Monday to Saturday. Saturday at lunchtime my day off started till Sunday evening. But from Monday to Saturday, a whole week inside the house. Well, I could go out to buy bread or something she needed… the change was super shocking, it was really difficult (...). The first two weeks I cried everyday...because it was heavy”.
(Study 1, Carolina)
3.2.3. Perceived Positive Elements Buffering IL Health Consequences
In some cases, some participants, in some of the jobs they have had, encountered better working conditions or perceived some positive elements IL could bring to their lives. For example, good relationships with employers or fair remuneration, among others, were positive elements for participants. Since Latin American women were aware of the vulnerability that the combination of IL and being an immigrant woman entailed, when experiencing these positive aspects, they felt lucky or thankful. These positive features buffered the negative impact of being an immigrant woman performing IL but do not change the intrinsic colonial dynamics that characterised IL for participants.
Most of the positive aspects of IL pivoted around having good relationships with employers and their care recipients (seniors or children): “Many times we are fine, happy. There are also very good people, I have had [as employers] very good people and they know me and love me very much. I am very grateful for those people. But... there is a bit of everything.” (Study 4, Sara)
These positive relationships were experienced as different forms of support. For instance, “they [employers] arranged my paperwork [migratory status], they helped me a lot.” (Study 1: Silvia). Some employers also fostered the opportunity to negotiate working conditions: “the lady [employer] I am with now; she gave me the freedom to cook what I want. I call her by her name; I do not call her ‘Mrs’. She told me to sit on the couch with her, not like other people who [want to keep] distance” (Study 1, Dinora).
Another IL feature highlighted as positive by participants was the emotional ties with the employers’ families. Workers experienced affective interdependence with their employers and their relatives. A participant told that her employer described her job in these terms:
“I do not pay for your time; I pay for the love that you give to my children and for the way you are with my children ... that is what I pay you for.”
(Study 3, Piedad)
“[before, in the country of origin] I had a good job, totally impersonal. And here I learned to be a person and to have feelings for people who I didn’t know, to love people, people who, without knowing who you are, they do everything for you. Simply, because the girl [employer] thought that I was a good woman. The ties that you create are of affection.”
(Study 2, Mariana)
The care work provided by participants becomes a labour of love when bonds of affection were established with the people cared for (children or seniors); a good relationship with their employers makes them feel like family.
“the children always cried with the possibility of me returning to Colombia... they got sad, they asked why would I leave someday. Then, it is like that really impacted me, but I got adapted [to the job in Spain] easily because of them. Because I never felt neglected, I always was one member more of the family.”
(Study 1, Piedad)
Relationships with the employing family based on love were especially positive for the women who migrated alone: “And, if I need support, or if I need to talk, I talk to them and for me that is... If I do not want to feel lonely, because that’s what one feels the most here [employers are there] (she cries). Especially, because I have no family here.” (Study 1, Silvia)
Being involved in a loving family in the host country helped Latin American women to adapt to the new country and prevented them to feel alone missing their families abroad—” she always saw me as a granddaughter. It was like finding a family” (Study 2, Mariana)—or even to compensate at some extent the lack of their family: “I took care of them as if they were my kids.” (Study 1, Eliana)
Participants described situations when mutual affection between them and the people they cared for grew on them, compensating some of the IL sacrifices. IL was then perceived not as a regular job with a predefined schedule, but something more meaningful, not only fueled by remuneration, but by their sense of responsibility and compassion for the care recipients. This might entail putting forward their employers’ requests and postponing their own needs.
“There are other times that it very much makes up to you because if you are a good carer (...) the children will love you very much and that helps you very much. For example, when I had my lows (..) the love they gave me. One smile made it all up.”
(Study 1, Margarita)
Despite the positive aspects of having good relationships with the employer’s family, IL would still entail isolation and personal considerable emotional labour to support care recipients, what can be detrimental to participants’ emotional wellbeing. For instance, dealing with the specificities of cognitive deterioration such as mood alterations: “I work with an old lady, right? I am fine with her, wonderfully. Although her temperament impacts me, right? That change in her temperament it impacts on me.” (Study 1, Lisethe) or witnessing their deterioration or even death: “that was the first sadness here, it was when the lady died” (Study 1, Silvia). “It made me suffer, you know? (...) it was very hard to see her everyday there, she lasted twenty-one days without eating and then she died.” (Study 1, Mercedes)