On what was probably their only day off all week, two dozen Latin American women had gathered in south Madrid to explain to a UN human rights expert the paradox of their invisibility.
They were of different ages and were born in different countries – Bolivia, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, to name a few – but their stories soon entwined to form a single narrative.
As carers or internas (live-in maids), they are underpaid, overworked, unappreciated, trapped, sometimes scared, frequently disdained and often abused. They should be receiving at least the minimum wage of €950 a month, but many make closer to €800 despite working 18-hour days, six days a week.
“We look after old people, we look after children – we’re responsible for all that’s most precious in people’s families,” said Janina Flores, from Peru. “We act as psychologists and confidants, we double up as seamstresses. But we’re not valued.”
Another Peruvian, Adriana Araujo, added cook, butler and pet-sitter to the list. “We do everything you can imagine and more because we’re seen as the right kind of domestic tool,” she said. “But very often we’re valued less than a kitchen blender.”
When the women had finished speaking, Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told them he was well aware of the irony they had outlined – “that people can rely so heavily and so intimately on another person but, at the same time, not really relate to them as a fellow human being.”
While Spain has largely bounced back from the economic crisis of 2008, the internas’ stories, like so many Alston heard on a 12-day fact-finding mission, are a reminder that the recovery masks deeply entrenched socio-economic problems.
According to figures from Spain’s National Statistics Institute, 26.1% of the population lives at risk of poverty or social exclusion, up from 24.7% in 2008, while the unemployment rate of 14.1% is more than double the EU average. About half the population have some difficulty making ends meet, and poverty is persistently higher among children, migrants, and Roma populations.
Blanca Coronel, a 71-year-old Paraguayan woman who had been in Spain since 2006, said that despite her age and a knee injury she would need to work for another 10 years before she would have accrued enough pension contributions to retire.
Sandra Delgadillo, from Bolivia, recalled being interviewed for a job looking after an old man with a broken hip and being told there would be a bonus if she were prepared to be sexually assaulted.
An hour before he sat down with the women, Alston was given a tour of the Centre for the Empowerment of Domestic and Care Workers, where the meeting was to be held. For the past six months the centre has relied on a €200,000 grant awarded by the last Madrid city council, led by the leftwing former mayor Manuela Carmena.
The money has allowed it to provide legal advice, psychological support, tai chi and drama classes and lessons in cooking Spanish food to hundreds of migrant workers. The centre is also a place where the workers can come to meet so they do not end up isolated and alone.
A spokeswoman for the council said the money had always been a one-year grant that was not eligible for renewal, adding: “There are dozens of local associations that offer charitable support to neighbours and which are able to apply for different kinds of subsidies to fund their activities or running costs. It is in the interest of the new council to ensure that competition for them is free and competitive.”
Before heading off for his next visit, Alston said he hoped the funding “will be reconsidered or replaced by a more enlightened source”. He counselled the internas to be realistic in their hopes. “I don’t think any government in Spain or in most other countries is suddenly going to transform your status because you provide a very low-cost, indispensable service,” he said.
He advised them to choose their issues and battles carefully. “You need a political campaign that will go step by step and identify certain priorities, because to ask for everything usually results in getting nothing.” He paused. “At least until the revolution comes.” The women laughed.
Half an hour later, Alston arrived at a housing estate in Torrejón de Ardoz, a town a little north-east of the capital, where he was offered concrete proof of Spain’s housing crisis. He had always expected the issue to loom large in his research, telling the Guardian – with more than a little understatement – that the country’s economic recovery was more complex than it might appear and that “anyone who reads reports will know that there’s something of a housing crisis in Spain”.
Homemade banners decrying soaring rents hung from balconies, and dozens of locals people had turned out to tell the UN expert how they had been affected by the arrival of investment funds that bought up billions of euros’ worth of housing stock during the crisis.
Rents have risen 50% since 2014, and some residents say they are now being asked to pay big increases by their multinational landlords. The situation has led to the formation of tenants’ groups and the eruption of bloques en lucha – entire blocks where residents are protesting by staying put, paying the previous rental rates and refusing to sign new contracts that they consider to be grotesquely unfair.
A woman from Móstoles, south-west of Madrid, told Alston that most people had to rent as they did not have the savings to put down a deposit to buy. And besides, she added, most of the housing had already been bought up by the vulture funds.
“I’ve got four kids,” she said. “Where does the government want us to go and live? On the streets? Under a bridge? All we’re asking is that they keep the rent at the level it was before.”
Jesús Alcocer, 58, a private hire driver from Torrejón, said he couldn’t hang on much longer. His last flat was repossessed during the crash and he and his partner, Manoli Navarro, were sharing their current one with their three daughters and a granddaughter.
He made around €900 a month, Navarro worked part-time at a nursery, and their children gave what they could. But their rent had jumped from €816 a month to €1,400.
“I just can’t afford it,” said Alcocer. “All I can do is keep paying the rent at the old rate and hope that they’ll agree to that. I’ve always paid but I just can’t afford the rise.”
Alston told the crowd that “something drastic needs to be done”, adding: “Successive Spanish governments have done very little when it comes to housing rights.” His promise to include the issue in his report was greeted with a loud cheer.
What happens next will depend in large part on Spain’s new coalition government. The Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has pledged to bring about a transformation in equality and social justice, and has already moved to cap rent rises. His partner in government, the Podemos party, meanwhile, was born of widespread anger over austerity, inequality and the old political status quo that had dominated Spain for decades.
As the crowd thinned and Alston headed off to his next appointment, Navarro began to cry and then apologised for doing so. The frustration and anger, the injustice and humiliation, were just too much.
“People don’t realise what we’re living through or what it’s like to get back on your feet only to be crushed all over again,” she said. “I just don’t know what’s going on in Spain these days, things are getting worse and worse. We’ve got politicians up to our eyeballs but none of them do anything. It’s just so hard. But I won’t put up with them trying to put my daughters and granddaughter out of our flat. I don’t want to leave. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.”