BARCELONA — The tree-lined promenade in Barcelona’s middle-class neighborhood of Gràcia is full of people at all hours of the day. In the late afternoon, the place becomes crowded with screaming children, school backpacks still hanging off their shoulders as they run up to various playgrounds. At night, teenagers huddle around park benches drinking beer.

But in the late morning, the pedestrian street is dotted with older Spaniards — some in wheelchairs and others hanging onto canes — catching the first glimpse of the strong afternoon sun. And beside them are their caretakers, who are mostly women from Latin America.

“We end up getting to know each other really well because we’re always here accompanying the men and women we take care of,” says Zuny Acosta, 48, from Paraguay. She and a group of five other women — from Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador — have been meeting at a park off the promenade nearly every day for several years.

The promenade in Barcelona’s middle-class neighborhood of Gràcia. (Lucía Benavides)
The promenade in Barcelona’s middle-class neighborhood of Gràcia. (Lucía Benavides)

On this particular morning, it’s Marlen Rosales’s 55th birthday, so the rest of the women have brought a sash and a crown for her to wear, and cake for everyone to eat. It’s an unlikely scene: a group of 30- to 50-year-old Latin American women loudly singing “Happy Birthday,” while the 90-something-year-olds by their sides clap or snooze under the warm spell of the sun.

As Rosales helps the 99-year-old man she takes care of eat his slice of cake, she explains that she works 11 hours a day, six days a week.

“I started working for him seven years ago, eight hours a day,” she says. “But as the years went by and he got older, his family started stacking on more hours, and now I’m completely full.”

Rosales says she barely has enough time for herself; her only days off are Saturdays, but she usually spends them running errands.

“I’m lucky because the family I work for pays me well and lets me eat at the house,” she says, adding that she’s heard of families not allowing caretakers to eat with them or obliging them to work longer hours.

Suddenly, the old man, with the help of his cane, stands up angrily as quickly as his body allows him to. He demands that they go home if she continues talking about her work.

Migrant women working in Spain’s domestic care industry face exploitation and abuse, according to experts and reports. They work long hours, get paid below the minimum wage and often find themselves isolated and alone. According to an Oxfam study, they have the highest poverty rate among Spanish workers — and it’s the only job industry in Spain where, even under a contract, workers don’t have access to unemployment benefits, according to experts.

“There are very high levels of precariousness and exploitation in the sector,” says Zenia Hellgren, a sociology professor at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University who worked on a study about migrant domestic workers from 2013 to 2017. “We found that the situation is more complex because you cannot accuse the families of being exploiters, it’s not that easy. They’re also under a lot of economic pressure. There is a huge deficit in elder care in Spain that is not covered by public funds, unlike several other European societies.”

In the end, it’s cheaper to hire a caretaker, she says. And although undocumented women can be especially vulnerable, Hellgren says even women who are legal immigrants don’t have much bargaining power when it comes to negotiating pay and benefits.

“They have the rights to pension and vacations, but in practice, it’s always negotiated with your employer,” she says, adding that only about half of domestic care workers have contracts. “You’re working in a private household; you don’t really have anywhere to go and complain if your employer doesn’t respect these regulations.”

Hellgren continues: “Undocumented women are working under conditions that in a way resemble slavery, and no one really knows what’s going on in there. We just scratched the surface with our study.”

A typical salary in the domestic care industry — whether it’s taking care of older people, cleaning houses or babysitting — can range between 600 and 800 euros a month, below the minimum wage of 900 euros, says Hellgren.

It wasn’t always this way, according to domestic workers. Acosta, the woman from Paraguay, says that when she moved to Barcelona 15 years ago, she was earning 650 euros a month. Now, many of her friends earn 600 euros. As the cost of living in Barcelona has increased, the wages have stayed the same, she says.

“It was different before,” Acosta says.

“There were more jobs, and they paid well. Now, you sometimes stay where you are because you don’t know if you can find anything better.”

Acosta and the group of women say their work duties often get blurry. While they’re hired to take care of the elderly, they end up doing chores that don’t fall under this category, such as ironing clothes, cleaning the house or cooking for family members when they visit. They say having each other for emotional support helps them get through it all, especially since many of them left their own families back home.

“We tell each other about job possibilities, or even help out financially if someone is going through a hard time,” Acosta says.

The importance of community is palpable at the collective Sindihogar, Spain’s first union of domestic workers founded by female migrants. It started in 2011 with the intention of gaining political leverage as an organized, official entity — they hold rallies, speak with politicians at local, regional and national levels, and inform domestic workers of their rights.

On a recent late afternoon, the organization’s president and co-founder, Elizabeth Romero, slumps into a coffee shop’s lounge chair and lets out a long breath, as if she hasn’t sat down in ages. Romero, 58, has just gotten off of work. Her eyes look weary; she says she hasn’t had a day off in over a week.

“The employer controls the lives and hours of the women, especially if she lives with the family,” says Romero, who’s originally from Paraguay. “There’s a lack of empathy towards domestic workers.”

Romero is with vice president and fellow co-rounder Isabel Escobar, 63, who’s from Chile. They say that exploitation of domestic workers has increased since they arrived in Spain in the early 2000s. And things only got worse when, in 2018, a policy slated for review that would expand the rights of workers in the domestic field — including giving them unemployment benefits — was postponed until 2024.

Spain’s only domestic workers union founded by female migrants, Sindihogar, meets every Thursday in their Barcelona office. (Lucía Benavides)
Spain’s only domestic workers union founded by female migrants, Sindihogar, meets every Thursday in their Barcelona office. (Lucía Benavides)

“We’ve lost a lot,” Escobar says. “Salary decrease, cuts in public health care. We can get fired from one day to the next without any payoff.”

“It’s a private household; there’s no one to oversee what’s going on, so no one knows what happens behind closed doors,” she adds.

During the eight years that they’ve been a union, Escobar says she’s heard countless stories from domestic workers of all ages and backgrounds. Despite their particular differences, most of the cases of exploitation are fairly similar: There’s a lot of emotional and verbal abuse from employers, according to Escobar, such as patronizing comments and threats to deport those without papers. She has also heard of various cases of sexual abuse.

But most of the time, this abuse goes unreported. Escobar says women are afraid of losing their jobs, or having trouble being hired later.

“Without us, society wouldn’t function,” she says.

“These jobs need to be recognized, because we’re taking care of people’s lives.”

Romero adds that domestic workers can get emotionally attached to the elderly people they take care of. When she first moved to Spain, Romero worked for a family for 11 years, first looking after an elderly woman with Parkinson’s and then, when she passed away, taking care of her husband. When he died, however, Romero was left jobless and scrambling to find work.

“I didn’t want to complain to the family, because I didn’t want to tarnish the memory of him,” Romero says, tearing up. “I cry every time I think of him. He was like a father to me.”

Despite having had a contract, Romero didn’t have a right to unemployment benefits when the old man passed away. Hellgren, the sociologist, says this relationship with the employer can put a worker in a vulnerable situation.

“It makes it almost impossible to complain, because all you can do is leave the job if you’re not pleased with the conditions,” she says. “If you look at just the legal part of it, then there’s been progress. But then if you look at the practical situation, there’s still a lot of informal work.”

Hellgren says, in the end, it’s up to the families themselves to provide better work conditions.

Back at the park, the birthday party only lasts a brief hour. After taking photos together and dividing the leftover cake to take home, several of the women express concern over their employers’ health as a chilly spring breeze starts to pick up.

On her way back to her employer’s apartment, Acosta passes by several other Latin American women walking arm-in-arm with older men and women; she says hi to them. It seems most of the domestic workers within this five-block radius know each other.

“There are more women now and less work, so there’s competition,” Acosta says. “I have friends getting paid 700 or 800 euros a month, working internally and with only one afternoon a week off. But I’m doing pretty well, I have papers now. … And we’re a family here.”

Can loitering and napping in public be acts of resistance?

‘Why should any woman have to justify being out on a street?’

Here’s why Olympian Kimia Alizadeh’s defection from Iran matters

The history-making athlete’s decision is not insignificant, given the country’s recent protests

With Harry and Meghan’s transition, is the royal family finally prioritizing personal happiness?

Queen Elizabeth II has perspective that other royals lack