“I wonder if I’m a slave”: Domestic workers in a state of modern slavery
Testimonies from women who are facing the pandemic while trapped in "self-isolation" for months on end.
“I have to hang up. The baby woke up, I have to give him milk.” It’s shortly after 9pm on a weeknight in early March. Mary* speaks in a soft voice and tells us she can’t continue our call on WhatsApp. She’s from Sierra Leone and works as a nanny in a home in the northern suburbs of Athens. During the call, we could hear the baby crying in the background.
A friend had to convince Mary that it would be ok to talk to us, without getting into any trouble. In recent months, due to the pandemic, she’s been forced to remain in the house where she works. “I can’t go out, because I’ll lose my job. I wonder if I’m a slave or something,” she texted later that night on WhatsApp.
The lockdown in Athens has lasted for months and those who have been greatly affected are the most vulnerable groups of people. Many immigrant women who worked as domestics and babysitters have lost their jobs. Though their employers might not have been concerned about coronavirus transmission, the neighbors in the building would protest about “the foreigners who come and go on the buses and then come into our apartment building.”
A more vulnerable category of women, the “live-ins”, are required to remain in the house where they work, on the pretext of preventing the spread of the virus. They are not allowed to even take a walk around the block or go to the supermarket. These are women who, in recent months, have been living on the verge of conditions that resemble trafficking.
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Mary has been living in Athens for ten years and from the beginning she has worked as a domestic and nanny. “I got a job through employment agencies,” she says. “There’s one in Maroussi and one near the Hilton.” The agencies keep a percentage of the contract. She doesn’t know how much her employer paid the agency, but she knows the amount that’s withheld from her wages. “For a salary of €800-€900, the agency receives €350.”
Prior to that, she worked for another family. “During the first lockdown, I was asked to take a day off. When I returned to work, I was told that they had found another woman, and if I don’t mind, to stop working for them. I was paid and I left,” says Mary. They didn’t say it explicitly, but she believes the whole thing was an excuse. “I know they’re afraid because of the pandemic.”
Her new job seemed like a good opportunity. She would have insurance and live on the ground floor of a home, the family recently had a baby. “The first time, I left the house five times and before I came back, I had to take a covid test. During the second wave of the pandemic, taking days off was not allowed. “We aren’t talking about that,” she texted to us on WhatsApp. “Now I have to stay in, otherwise I’ll lose my job.”
“It’s exhausting. It’s like you’re a slave. Even now that we’re talking, it’s a problem. It’s forbidden.”
Our communication with Mary is via WhatsApp and always after 9pm, when she finishes work and goes to her own room. What she texts is very charged, and other times the conversation ends abruptly. One night, before we ended our conversation, she sent a video from her room. We could see the books she was reading and the notes she kept in a large notebook.
Mary tells us that she knows of other women in Athens who are in the same position she’s in.
In a recent study by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on the effects of pandemic restrictions on domestic workers, it is estimated that one in two immigrant women in Greece works in care and domestic service positions. This is one of the highest rates among European countries, however no public authority or government agency in Greece seems to have real information on the number of women employed in these positions.
Representatives of the Ministry of Migration & Asylum and the Ministry of Labor confirmed this to Solomon. A senior executive of the Labor Inspectorate, speaking on condition of anonymity, reiterated that there was no clear picture regarding domestic workers. “We cannot carry out inspections at people’s homes. We don’t keep statistics, but the cases are minimal or at best, very rare,” he said. “Most, if not all, work uninsured. It’s a condition that benefits both parties − employer and employee.”
The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation study shows that many domestics are currently in “self-isolation” with their employers. “They’re cut off from their support networks and friends, the people that they only had access to on their days off, a few days a month,” the report states.
“The fact that these few lifelines have suddenly ceased to exist can have a very negative impact on the mental health of women working as live-ins, not to mention their inability to escape the psychological abuse or sexual harassment that they are subjected to by their employers.”
Lawyer Danai Angeli, a researcher at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, has conducted the most comprehensive study to date on domestic workers and human trafficking in Greece. The study states that in 15 years of police records (from 2000 to 2015), only one case of human trafficking in domestic work has been documented. The case involved a woman from Africa, who worked in the home of a diplomat.
Two additional cases which were reported before 2010 are mentioned in a research by the Churches Committee for Migrants in Europe (CCME). In one case, an Ethiopian girl worked in the home of a Pakistani family living in Athens; the father was an executive of a multinational company. The girl’s salary was $110, but she never received any money, and in addition the family took her travel documents. The girl was seriously injured when she fell from a window in the home. The family claimed it was an accident that happened while she was cleaning the windows.
The situation seems to be somewhat better for domestics from the Philippines, mainly due to their strong community organization, Kasapi (Unity of Filipino Migrants). The study by Angeli, which includes testimonies from Kasapi members, states that Filipinos come to Greece legally and have visas, but the visas have nothing to do with their actual jobs. Often, they are declared as employees of offshore companies. In practice, this means that it is difficult to identify who their employers really are.
The international anti-trafficking NGO, “A21” has created a national human trafficking hotline in Greece, 1109, and the NGO has told Solomon that since the beginning of the pandemic, they have not received any reports of a domestic worker being forced to remain indoors.
They explained that the 1109 hotline, in the context of human trafficking, does record instances of domestic servitude. There must be specific indications of abuse, for example employers withholding travel documents, or not allowing the employee to leave the house unaccompanied, threats, violence or retribution if a domestic wants to quit the job.
There is a legal criterion, but it is crucial in cases where a domestic is forced to remain inside the house where they work. The criterion is the ability to resign from the job or leave the house, and this distinguishes cases involving human trafficking from those involving breaches of labor law. The line, lawyers explain, is not always clear, even in cases of immigrants who do not have legal documentation.
According to the 1109 hotline, human trafficking is a very well-hidden crime and this is why it’s estimated that only 1% of the victims manage to escape. Thus, in cases of possible domestic servitude it is very difficult for the victims to find help, for such cases to come to light, and be recorded.
Jane Yianoi is from Kenya and has been living in Greece for 19 years as a domestic and nanny. When the pandemic broke out, she was working for five families. A year later, she is virtually unemployed.
“During the first lockdown, three of the families terminated my employment immediately because they couldn’t take the risk of having me going in and out of their home. They had children and I was in contact with other families,” she told Solomon, as we sat in the center of Athens, in Koliatsou Square, near her house.
“Only one of my former employers calls me, when she feels she can’t deal anymore: ‘Jane, you can come for a few hours to watch the kids, I can’t deal anymore.’ I would describe our relationship as a ‘mutual family’ – I’ve been working in their house for nine years. They tell me, ‘Ok, Jane, we’re trying our best to keep you working until the pandemic is over, this is what we can offer, and if you need anything else, let us know’.”
Her income has dropped to one-fourth of what she was earning before the pandemic. “I pay my rent, the landlord is a very kind person. Forget about electricity or the internet, this has been cut. I have to go to the supermarket, I have a 19-year-old son and we have to eat,” Jane says.
“I may be lucky, but I see people living through crazy things. People crying, they don’t have enough food, some have lost their homes, others live in houses without electricity, it’s crazy,” she says. “How’s my social life? Boring. Ok, I’m introverted, I would go out for a walk or sit in a cafe, I miss that. Sitting in a cafe, relaxing and looking at the people around me. When you sit at home and stare outside at a wall, it’s depressing.”
“One year after the first lockdown, we’re back at ground zero. Back to the bottom of an empty bottle.”
It’s crowded in Koliatsou Square and everyone seems to be in a hurry. Immigrants, mostly men, pass us and walk up to Kypseli. Patision Avenue, despite the lockdown restrictions, is filled with traffic. We ask Jane if she has any friends who are live-in domestics and are confined to the houses where they work.
“I have friends who have been confined in houses for a long time. Many of the families they work for have elderly people and children and they don’t want to take the risk, so they tell them they can’t leave the house. It’s not a matter of choice. If you want to leave the house, you will lose your job. They choose to stay in, so that they can at least keep a job.”
Jane believes that there should be a union in Greece, that could cover all domestics, because, as she says, at the end of the day, they are not acknowledged by anyone. This can be done through the creation of a registry, she explains, through which they will, for a start, be made visible to the official state.
“When I heard the prime minister announce the first lockdown, I felt like smashing the TV. Why have you forgotten us? Who cares about women who work as domestics and have to go out?”
Jane says she feels lucky to have kept in touch with at least one of the families she worked for before the pandemic. “The problem is the neighbors who see me entering the building. They say they’ll call the police, they ask ‘why does she come here, after she’s been on the train?’ “
“A few days ago,” she says, “the neighbor’s kids stopped my employer’s kids and told them that Jane is spreading the virus.”
* Actual name is not used, in order to protect the source.
The article is published in the context of Solomon’s in-depth series of reports on “Migrant workers in Greece in the time of COVID-19 ″ and is supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Office in Greece.
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