Providing care
on the other side
of the Atlantic

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Thousands of migrant and exiled women make up the care drain from Latin America to Spain. Employed as domestic workers in the most casual circumstances, they alleviate the growing difficulty of providing care and being cared for in our immediate surroundings.

130 million hours a day

in unpaid care work in 2018.


of the time devoted to unpaid care work in Spain is taken on by women.

More than 600,000

are domestic workers.

More than 1 million jobs

could be created by the Spanish state in the care sector if investments were increased by 109% compared to 2015 levels.

7 out of 10

live-in domestic workers are migrant women from outside the EU.


of women employed as live-in domestic workers are responsible for duties of care.


of women from abroad working in the sector come from Latin American countries.


International Labour Organization (ILO)

ATH-ELE Statistics 2018

Workers' Commissions report on the employment of the foreign population in Catalonia in 2017



Bogotá (Colombia)


Tarragona (Catalonia)

8.444 km

Trayectoria desde Bogota a Tarragona


Caring for another family has been the path María Osorio has forged to help take care of her own. Fifteen years away from home is the price of being the main breadwinner, one that María accepts, she says, "so that they don't miss out on anything". Having attended her mother's funeral by video call, she has also accepted that spending the most recent years of her father's life away from home is the way she can provide him with a more comfortable life on the other side of the Atlantic. There, the day-to-day responsibility of providing care for the elderly in the family has been passed from one sister to another. At the moment, it's Alejandra's. In Bogotá (Colombia), for 12 hours work going from house to house cleaning and caring for children, she earns about 13 euros. "I'm more of a help if I stay here", concludes Maria.

There are tens of thousands of migrant and exiled women from countries in the global South, principally Latin America, who, like María, find employment in the domestic care sector upon arriving in Spain. In many cases, they are hired through the "live-in system" (meaning they live in the house where they work), taking care of for children and, above all, people in situations of dependency due to old age or illness, “the most poorly paid work" according to María. “Caring for an elderly person 24 hours a day can sometimes mean not sleeping day or night; it means being there for that person 100%", she remarks. According to the study Economia de les cures i política municipal: cap a una democratització de la cura a la ciutat de Barcelona, work in the domestic care sector entails poor working conditions that often do not allow women workers to provide meaningful care for their own families or themselves.

The widespread entry of women into the labour market and the aging population –in Europe in general, and Spain in particular– represent the care crisis' big bang, an upheaval in which the difficulty of caring for and being cared for in a socio-economic system that does not prioritize people's needs against those of the markets to accumulate capital is exacerbated, affecting wider sections of the population and revealing a care deficit.

The underdevelopment of the fourth pillar of well-being, one example of which would be the inadequate dependency law, in tandem with the limited coverage of alternatives aimed at nationalizing the responsibility of providing care to children, the elderly and the sick, as well as the lack of men sharing the burden of unpaid vital care work, has turned the “substitution of one woman for another woman” into an individual strategy for reorganizing daily care and meeting the need for it within families.

Outsourcing care work to less well-off women is an individual strategy that has been on the rise since the 1990s in Spain.

This formula for outsourcing care work, which has been on the rise since the 1990s, has been pursued particularly in the southern states of Europe, according to the 2018 CIDOB Immigration Yearbook, and has been underpinned by the transfer of responsibility onto women with less opportunities. That is, of course, when there is enough money in the home to do so. Sometimes, a pension is the only income, explain several workers consulted.

According to figures from the International Labour Organization (ILO), about 70% of the time dedicated to unpaid care work in Spain is provided by women, and one in four of working age state that they are unavailable for employment or are not seeking work due to having to take on care work. “In developed countries, the hiring of migrant women from Latin America allows many women to develop their careers, as they have another woman who undertakes cleaning and care work, without them having to question the unequal distribution of tasks within their home”, observes Morena Herrera, activist with the Feminist Collective for Local Development in El Salvador. At the same time, the work of tens of thousands of migrant women employed as domestic workers in poorer conditions compared to other sectors "acts as a buffer in the face of the lack of action from governments in meeting the need for care policy", she says.

“There is an international, sexual and racial division of labour, according to which a white woman from Spain is worth much more than a non-white woman from abroad, which means that migrants end up stuck in these low-quality jobs", considers CIDER researcher Camila Esguerra.

According to the Workers' Commissions’ report on the employment of the foreign population in Catalonia in 2017, about four out of ten women from Latin America work in the domestic sector, and make up three quarters (73.7%) of the women from abroad working in it. "There is an international, sexual and racial division of labour according to which a white woman from Spain is worth much more than a non-white woman from abroad, which means that migrants end up stuck in these low-quality jobs" says Camila Esguerra, researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Development Studies at the University of Los Andes (CIDER).

María fa una videotrucada a la seva germana Alejandra, a Bogotà, on també treballa al sector domèstic.

María makes a video call to her sister Alejandra in Bogotá, where she also works in the domestic care sector.

Statistics from the Association of Domestic Workers of Biscay (taken from a consultation of more than 500 women during 2018) indicate that seven out of ten non-EU migrants are employed on a live-in basis, the vast majority (95.88%) responsible for care work, in almost all cases, of dependent persons. Eight out of ten live exclusively with the person or people they care for. "Talking about the importation of women sounds coarse but would be correct, because the work of migrant women as live-in caregivers has been transformed into a form of slavery that satisfies the need for care here, and into a great loneliness which ties in with the other great loneliness emerging from the care crisis: that of the elderly” explains Wendy Espinosa, project coordinator for Mujeres Pa'lante.

The migration of women, unlike that of men with dependent relatives, is tied to a care drain and has a domino effect. Just as many migrants and exiles employed in the domestic sector in countries such as Spain fill a gap traditionally occupied by unpaid women from within the family, in their country or place of origin the care deficit left behind following migration is often picked up by other women from within their own family circle. Grandmothers, aunts and sisters, among others, take on in situ care work “without security, because they don't have time, because they are very old, because they are very tired”, says Herrera.

Immigration law renders live-in work a pseudo-refuge laden with abuse, lack of protection and isolation, in the face of the need for accommodation and the risk of deportation.

There are cases in which the care deficit, exported to the place of origin of the woman who has migrated or exiled to Europe or the United States, is filled by another migrant from the same country or a neighbouring one, who is also employed in domestic work "in even more insecure conditions than those faced by those who migrate from the South to northern countries", says Esguerra. "98% are from a rural background, many Black or indigenous, who come to the cities to do care work because it is the only sector that will take them on", she says. This same sector, in our part of the world, is usually reserved for those who have "neither the capital of whiteness, nor of being Western, nor of masculinity, nor of having regularized documentation", comments the CIDER researcher. With immigration law that pushes migrants towards at least three years working in the underground economy, live-in work becomes a pseudo-refuge laden with abuse, lack of protection and isolation in the face of the need for accommodation and the risk of deportation.

Alejandra i el seu pare

Alejandra is the female Osorio family member who has taken responsibility for caring for their father.

For eight years, during which time she was unable to formalize her residency, Maria was afraid to go out and could not visit her family. In fifteen years, there have been only two reunions. "Leaving is a difficult decision, but sometimes the circumstances force you to. That, or the opportunities”, María posits. She says that, for the most part, she has been treated well by the people she has worked for and that, for her, the elderly people she cares for have come to mean a great deal to her. Moreover, in terms of her work, she says that she has experienced humiliation and a loss of freedom, and her wish would be to return to Colombia and be close to her father, now that he –like the people several Catalan families have left in María's care in recent years– is in his 80s.

According to the report of the XIX Ruling made by the Observatory of the National Association of Social Services Directors and Managers, about two out of ten people (19.2%) with a recognized dependency in Spain do not receive support payments or services from the care system. 250,000 people are affected, with 98,000 in need of extensive and sometimes continuous support. Although the support payment for care of a family member was conceived as an exception, it became the norm, something the document describes as "failure of the system", revealing "a lack of flexible services, or an absence of services altogether”.

The report also considers across-the-board professional recognition for personal care practitioners "long overdue". It states that domestic service contracts "which do not reflect the work required, nor take into account professional qualifications, and clearly leave workers vulnerable and without the right to unemployment and baseline social security contributions" are unsuited to meeting this challenge, and as such the relevant authorities “should not endorse [them], and should enable others as a matter of urgency”. “Welfare states have exploited women in their own country through [domestic and care] work that does not figure in national expenditure, and moreover have overexploited migrant women; they are welfare states thanks to the geopolitical relationship of exploitation between countries”, Esguerra points out.

"It’s cheaper to pay for a person at home than in a care home. If we all refused to provide care, what would they do?" asks María Osorio, a domestic worker who migrated from Colombia.

Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia… many of María's acquaintances in Tarragona have migrated from abroad. Except for her, they all have children, many in their country of origin, and almost all, says María, are employed providing care for the elderly. “If we weren’t here to care for the elderly, what would their children do? Sometimes we talk about it in our group of friends. It's cheaper to pay for a person at home than in a care home. If we all refused to provide care, what would they do?", asks María.

María xerrant

María spending free time with a friend who –like her– is a migrant from Latin America, also employed in the domestic care sector, and also with little of her own free time.



Lima (Peru)


Barcelona (Catalonia)

10.024 km

Trayectoria desde Bogotà a Tarragona


Like many of the women from Latin America who, against a backdrop of abuse and social neglect, alleviate the crisis of care in our part of the world, Rocío Echeverría has higher education qualifications. In Peru, she worked in communications. In the years she has been living in Spain, she has not left the domestic care sector.

Her more-than-passable German, a result of her first port of call in Europe, made her the stand-out candidate to care for one family's children. And, remarks Rocío, to clean their house, do their ironing, cook, and "whatever else was needed" to boot. It was her first job after weeks and weeks queuing up outside a parish church alongside dozens of other migrant women without legal status, for hours at a time, with the aim of being referred to homes in which they could work.

Unlike many of her fellow domestic workers and carers in the Sindillar-Sindihogar union, Rocío did not migrate out of a need to improve her family’s quality of life, nor did she cross the Atlantic with her daughter as a dependent. It is very common, she explains, for women from countries in the global South to make the decision to look for a source of income in Europe while their children are still young. Paying for their studies is a recurring motivation, says Wendy Espinosa, project coordinator for Mujeres Pa'lante.

Infringements of the right to access quality education, health coverage and social security, such as the pension system, are a key part of the care work domino effect.

Against a backdrop of expanding privatization, and diminishing opportunities for decent work –that which can be undertaken in accordance with fundamental working rights, and which provides a fair income proportionate to one's effort without discrimination, as defined by the ILO– migration is seen as a means of increasing one's economic resources and, in turn, improving the quality of life of those who remain in their place of origin. There are cases where it represents none other than a strategy for a family's survival.

"Despite not being homogeneous experiences, there is a shared point of challenge for Latin American women in the face of difficulties in their countries of origin" says Sara Cuentas, an activist with the Migration, Gender and Development Network. "If the way to make money means traveling and being alone, they do so, regardless of the dangers and conditions they encounter, because what matters is earning money, which means that many women accept very unfair conditions, without social security coverage and with everything under the table, as live-in workers 7 days a week for €400 or less ", she explains. Having children to care for is a factor reported by the organizations consulted for this report, and which makes negotiating working conditions more difficult, given the urgent need to earn money, not only to live on individually, but also to provide for the people left behind in their country of origin.

Many women migrate alone, with a view towards family reunification, and become the breadwinners of transnational families as a result of the remittances they send back. “Many countries have realized that the population is content with the money that comes from the casual work of migrants in the global North, which contributes to the national GDP in a very significant way, which is why governments are interested in their staying there as an essential solution to part of the poverty problem”, says Cuentas.

Alongside so-called economic migration, women who move away from home for their own safety, sometimes fleeing to safeguard their own lives –as is the case of human rights defenders and exiled groups– often also find themselves trapped in the domestic sector following their arrival in Spain. “The circumstances that drive us out of our everyday environments are connected to the lack of opportunities and the effects that land seizures have had. Such expulsion is further stimulated by the demand for cheap labour in undervalued sectors such as care work in the countries of arrival, which provides a draw for the victims of this expulsion" says Mercedes Rodríguez, member of the Refugee, Exiled and Migrated Women's Collective in Colombia, one of the countries with the largest diaspora in Spain.

foto d'assemblea

Rocío is a member of the Sindillar-Sindihogar domestic and care workers' union, which meets in La Bonne to organize advocacy and self-help initiatives.

Megaprojects bearing the hallmarks of the West bring with them an increase in the violence suffered by communities and thousands of impoverished, exiled and displaced people.

News of companies “doing business in the midst of poverty and violence”, as described by a delegation from the Taula Catalana per la Pau i els Drets Humans a Colòmbia in reference to the Catalan company Grup TCB in Buenaventura in 2016, is nothing out of the ordinary in Latin America. Western-style megaprojects such as the expansion of the port of Buenaventura or extractivist operations bring about, in many cases, an increase in the violence suffered by communities and thousands of impoverished, exiled and displaced people, in the form of threats towards and assassinations of those who refuse to accept community and human rights violations.

The multinationalization of care should be understood as "an updated form of colonial relations", suggests CIDER researcher Camila Esguerra.

The multinationalization of care which these women from the global South embody should be understood, according to CIDER researcher Camila Esguerra, as “an updated form of colonial relations” – an expression of the power of those countries which have enriched themselves through the extraction of raw materials over the countries that have suffered (and are still suffering) from such plunder. "At the time of migration, colonial relations are renewed on a micropolitical level, in the bodies of the people who experience not only the racism of the state, but also that of the people who hire them, and that of the environment that they find themselves in”, she says.

There are many occasions on which Rocío has sought to provide support and alleviate the distress of colleagues engaged in domestic work and care caused by the treatment they receive from the families employing them. She advises them to take it for what it is: a job. But caring can never be normalized as if it were like any other job, she says. "It is almost impossible to see it as a source of income and nothing else. You get involved even if you don't want to, because you take care of them, you feed them, you start to know what their habits are... You become emotionally connected, especially with children and the elderly, those who depend on you the most”, she explains.

The guilt of ‘neglecting’ their families while, far from home, they care for others, is a patriarchal millstone placed around migrant women's necks.

Some have migrated first from the countryside to the city; others, directly to Europe. Some have previously experienced intracontinental migration; some have moved various times within the country itself. Among these stories there is usually a common thread of feeling guilty for neglecting their own while, away from home, they care for others: a patriarchal millstone, placed around the necks of migrant women.

Les treballadores de la llar i de les cures a la manifestació del 8M

Domestic and care workers at the International Women's Day rally.

Text: Meritxell Rigol
Photography: Montse Giralt
Video: Núria Gebellí