· Published in Cities versus multinationals

Defending Life in Cities through Feminist Action. Taking care services out of corporate hands

Care activities essential to city life, such as personal services or cleaning, are increasingly monopolised by large companies offering poverty wag- es and draconian working conditions. But their employees — women who are often discriminated against because of their origin, skin color or age — are fighting back.

On 5 March 2007, employees of the company Clece in the city of Girona, Spain – entrusted with cleaning public hospitals [1], schools and other municipal buildings – began an indefinite strike that would not be forgotten. Strikers were very clear about what they wanted: the (re)municipalisation [2] of the cleaning services. The strike lasted for 37 days and some of the workers’ demands were met, such as the conversion of part-time contracts into full-time contracts, and an increase in permanent staff.

More than ten years later, women who work for Clece are still protesting and taking action throughout Spain [3]. The demands of these workers have not changed. Unfortunately, neither has the abuse committed by the company which, if anything, is getting worse.

Several violations by the company were publicly reported over the first nine months of 2019. One example is quite recent; in September, several employees working at the Royal Palace in Madrid complained that, under their contract with Integra, a subcontractor of Clece, their working hours exceeded those set out in their contracts – 11 hours a day, for which they received 545 euros a month – among other infringements. Furthermore, these female workers had been diagnosed with diverse disabilities and were entitled to modified working conditions.

Profiting from care: the case of Clece

If you live in Spain, it is practically impossible not to have some experience of the “care” that Clece wants to provide you with. It is a multi-service company that has been operating in Spain since 1992 (and more recently in the UK and Portugal) and a subsidiary of Grupo Actividades de Construcción y Servicios S.A. (ACS), owned by Florentino Pérez, also President of the Real Madrid Football Club. It operates in the socio-medical, hospital, education, hotel, sports, airport, industrial and financial sectors. Effectively, it provides services of care, maintenance, cleaning, catering, gardening, internal logistics and security to hospitals, schools, nursing homes, immigrant reception centres, social services, hotels, airports and banks, among others. It often operates in contexts of exclusion, from homeless people to women who suffer gender-based violence, and even provides security services in temporary detention centres for immigrants (CETI) in Ceuta and Melilla [4].

Much of what happens in a city is based around care; it is this, effectively, that sustains life. Clece is well aware of this and has developed an extensive network to “meet” these needs. In fact, the company’s motto is: “a company formed by people, for people”. Florentino Pérez has even defined it as “an NGO (...) dedicated to giving satisfaction to people who need it [5].”

Clece manages people’s lives: it has gradually taken over all kinds of services related to social reproduction. It wins many local, regional and state government contracts for basic services (to the tune of €1.2bn in 2018 – 80% of the company’s turnover) [6]. When it submits tenders, its bids are impossible to match, behind which are extremely low wages paid to the female workers who provide the services. In recent years, it has ousted many nonprofit organisations that previously provided these social services [7]. The truth is, we all finance Clece’s profits with our taxes.

Florentino Pérez’s so-called “NGO” is certainly one of the most profitable, and has transformed care services into a valuable commodity. In 2018, Clece recorded a total turnover of €1.504bn. Its profits have grown at a steady pace in recent years. In 2018, the company’s workforce numbered 74,411, 82% of whom are women, 49% aged between 45 and 60. In other words, a feminised staff close to retirement age, tasked mostly with cleaning and social services, the most labour-intensive activities, representing 77.6% of all Clece’s staff.

Clece boasts that it employs women who have suffered gender-based violence, persons with various disabilities and women in the 50-plus age group “because of the difficulties they face in finding work.” Under neoliberal capitalism, female employees of corporations such as Clece, are not only being excluded, but are also seeing the rights diminished by the recurrent abusive policies of their employer. Clece is notorious for dismissals, insecure working conditions, low wages, staff shortages and inadequate resources, as demonstrated by its long history of complaints by its female workers.

The women who sustain cities, and who sustain life

Most of those who clean, feed, care for and thus maintain life in European cities are impoverished, immigrant, racially-discriminated women. Anonymous women from faraway places and peripheral countries who work in the care sector for low wages and who, in turn, have left even poorer women to carry out these tasks in their countries of origin. This is what is known as the “global care chain”, reflecting a sexual and international division of labour within a global capitalist system.

This is evident in the case of domestic work and care in homes and private establishments, which is extremely feminised in Spain, and where more than 42% of all persons affiliated to the Special System for Household Employees are foreign women. The wages paid to female workers in this sector is 59% less than the total gross average wage, and the average pension is also the lowest in the entire Social Security System [8].

This situation extends to vulnerable female workers in all sectors related to personal services. So, companies like Clece, as well as many others such as Eulen, Ferrovial Servicios, Acciona, Sacyr Facilities, OHL Ingesan, Ilunion and FCC – all of them large corporations operating in the sector – reap huge financial profits at the expense of precarious and abusive working conditions. These companies are international in scope and are focussed on accumulating capital, disregarding labour rights and cutting corners on the quality of the services they provide.

How is this possible? Current policies prioritise the repayment of financial debt [9], which entails severe austerity measures and public divestment from areas as important as health, education and social services. This impacts heavily on the population, and involves thousands of extra hours of care work carried out by women in cities, who act as a “cushion” against social cuts. For those who can pay, care work is outsourced and commodified, creating a new market on which to earn profits; for those who cannot pay, care work is internalised, increasing the pressure of working hours in the social reproduction area. In short, there is an increasing trend towards dispossessing women of their time and work [10]. This trend has worsened in recent years, leading to an important care crisis in this stage of financialised capitalism [11].

The “capital vs life” conflict – albeit not recent, as it is intrinsic to our current economic and social system – has also led in recent years to mobilisations by female workers in the care sector against the changes in working conditions. These mobilisations are channelled through workplace organisations, associations and trade unions. The “Kellys” [12] is one such association, set up in 2016 by chamber maids in hotels and tourist apartments with the aim of defending their labour rights. By publicising their working conditions and the reality of their lives, the Kellys have managed to rouse great social support.

Feminist strikes for the defence of life

There have been historical labour strikes in the care sector, initiated and enacted almost entirely by women and which have been highly successful. For instance, nursing home workers in Bizkaia went on strike for 378 days between 2016 and 2017, and managed to gain improved working hours and wages, among other achievements.

Battles are being waged against corporations and their profits in the very places where life is being maintained. The so-called “feminist strikes” of the past few years are examples of this. In 1975, 90% of women in Iceland staged a strike which completely shut down the country. Instead of going to work or doing household chores, the women went out onto the street and protested. The purpose of the strike was to demonstrate that society could not function without the productive and reproductive work of women.

In Spain, the idea of a general feminist strike emerged in 2014 and 2015, as “a strike for all women”, calling for thousands of women to take to the street in Catalonia. The following years, strikes were held on 8 March, International Women’s Day. But it was not until the force of the feminist strikes in Argentina and the “Ni una menos” movement, with its slogan “Si nuestra vida no vale, produzcan sin nosotras” (“If our lives are worthless, produce without us”) that the latest calls to strike, in 2018 and 2019, were extended internationally, with massive success.

The aim of feminist strikes is to demonstrate that women sustain the world, not only through the non-paid household labour they carry out in their homes, but through the precarious salaried jobs that sustain offices, factories, nursing homes, schools and hospitals... entire cities. The feminist movement called for strikes in the production, reproduction and consumption sectors, as well among students. The strike of 8 March 2019 involved picket lines, decentralised actions and other mobilisations in more than 170 countries around the world. The corporate sector was particularly hard hit, with vast numbers of female strikers and a consumer strike that denounced the interests of multinationals and the insecure working conditions behind their products.

There are, however, still a number of challenges. Many women with particularly insecure working conditions, many of them immigrants and/or targets of racism, have not been able to take part in the strikes or have claimed that the demonstrations fail to take their diverse realities into account. Other women have had to face reprisals in the workplace or in their homes for participating in the strikes.

The battle in cities is fought where life is, and this is also where alternatives lie

Instead of a system where care is sold to the highest bidder in the form of a commodity, some of the proposals for valuing care-related services and giving them their rightful place in cities involve (re)municipalisation and public-community partnerships involving autonomous women’s organisations. The battle for (re)municipalisation, the public good and the commons [13] is waged where life is, in struggles for housing, water and energy, and also for other care-related services in cities.

There are examples of municipalities that have taken a stand against management abuses such as that of Clece; for instance, the city of Córdoba sued the company for trying to provisionally stop home care services in the city, leaving staff unemployed, after the City Council pressured the company to accept the demands of female workers providing the service.18

Catalonia is currently facing the imminent approval of a law to outsource personal services (healthcare, education, social care), known as the Aragonès Act, preceded by EU Directive 24/2014 on public procurement. This legislation is aimed at regulating and structuring a model for the outsourcing of these public services – some of which have never been privatised – and does not include public-community options. In short, it would pave the way to even more privatisation and legitimise current privatisation in sectors that provide basic and fundamental rights. Social and alternative trade union movements are currently campaigning under the Plataforma Aturem la Llei Aragonès (Stop the Aragonés Act Platform) to stop this law from being approved.

Fortunately, more positive models for defending the public and the commons exist, including (re)municipalisation and direct management of services. These significantly improve the working conditions of female workers, including wage increases, greater stability, and benefits added to their contracts. In addition, the services and resources they provide are carried out with quality and kindness, which in turn benefits those they care for. It is important to highlight that (re)municipalisation processes have been driven by the very same female workers who provide these care services and who decided to fight back and take action.

Over the last five years, a number of care services have been remunicipalised in Barcelona. These include three nurseries, a home medical care service (weekends and on public holidays), women’s support and information points (PIADs), as well as shelters and care for women who are victims of gender-based violence. Other cities have followed the same path with their Home Care Service, such as Pamplona, Chiclana, Jérez de la Frontera, Atarfe and Albolote. Similarly, in recent years, certain cleaning services (roads and public facilities) have been (re)municipalised in several Spanish cities.

(Re)municipalisation can be managed by citizens or cooperatives of the social and solidarity economy, through public-community-cooperative partnerships. It requires the mutual commitment of institutions and citizens, through partnerships that ensure the communities’ independence and guarantee that resources are going towards the public good. Such an approach ensures accessibility, sustainability, regional anchoring and democratic governance of public services and commons. They are therefore the opposite of public-private concessions, which are basically another form of privatisation [14]. One example is the home care services cooperative, SAD Mujeres Pa’lante, created by an association of women in Barcelona, formed mostly of immigrant women who are subject to racism [15].

The development of these alternatives to private management by companies such as Clece has no doubt been achieved thanks to female workers standing up and fighting for decent wages and quality services. Faced with the growing commodification of care and of cities, we can look to the social and feminist economy for proposals to defend lives worth living.

By Blanca Bayas Fernández

Blanca Bayas Fernández (@blancabf_) is a member of the Debt Observatory in Globalisation (ODG), Barcelona. She investigates the impacts of privatisations and other attacks of the capitalist and patriarchal system. She has written several articles on these topics and is the author of «Care debt: patriarchy and capital on the offensive, feminist economics as a proposal».

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti.

Photo: Garabata CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

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[1 Josep Trueta and Santa Caterina Hospitals.

[2Throughout this article we will use the term (re)municipalisation to refer to both services that were formerly under government control with the idea of them once again being subject to such control (remunicipalisation); and to services that were never under public control in which public control is now sought.

[3In Zaragoza, Valencia, Madrid, Córdoba, La Rioja, Las Palmas, Granada, A Coruña, Badalona and Viladecans, among other cities.

[4Clece is focussing more on security services, with 38.7% more staff working in this area than in 2016, primarily in the temporary immigrant holding centres (CETI) in Ceuta and Melilla.

[5Appearance before the Committee for the investigation of the Castor Project, in the Catalan Parliament, on 17 June 2019.

[680% of the company’s business comes from the public sector and 20% from the private sector, according to information provided by the company itself.

[7This was the case of the Home Care Service (HCS) in Barcelona in 2016, when the NGO Asociación Bienestar y Desarrollo (ABD) – which specialises in providing care to groups in insecure situations – lost the public tender to Clece and Valoriza, which belongs to the Sacyr Facilities group, another large multi-service company.

[8Data from a recent report by the trade union UGT.

[9Such as the reform of Article 135 of the Spanish Constitution in 2011 by the PSOE and the PP, and the Montoro Act on the “Rationalisation and Sustainability of Local Government” in 2013.

[10A concept coined by geographer and theoretician David Harvey, who reveals how the predatory practice of accumulation and, hence, concentration of capital in the hands of a few is maintained, and even increased in contexts of over-accumulation, depriving large segments of the population.

[11For more information see here.

[12The name “Las Kellys” comes from a popular play on words: “la Kelly, la que limpia” (“the Kelly is she who cleans”).

[13Common property, goods and services that are collectively owned, democratically managed and accessible over the long term to all members of a society. It is different from public property, which places the management and decisions relating to those who may access the property in the hands of governments.

[14Public-private concessions are a threat to public finance, democracy and fundamental rights. For more information, see here.

[15The cooperative also provides catering services, has a dressmaking shop and runs various training sessions – gender-based violence, intercultural mediation and feminist economies – among other activities.

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