Here you’ll find an introductory selection of the five main chapters of “Bio-syndicalism from the Domestic Territories. Our Reclaims and Our Ways of Doing”, written by Rafaela Pimentel Lara, Costanza Cisneros Sánchez, Amalia Caballero Richard and Ana Rojo Delgado in dialogue with Territorio Doméstico, illustrated by Ana Peñas and now translated by Liz Mason-Deese.
The research and writing process of the booklet were funded by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Madrid Liaison Office and the Foundation for Arts Initiatives.
We hope you’ll enjoy the translation and find it useful in your struggles.
What is Territorio Doméstico?
Territorio Doméstico is a collective space of struggle and empowering women, mostly migrants and domestic and care workers. The important thing, which brings us together, is that we are women who do a hard, enormous, and invisibilized job: the work of caring for people and homes. From that starting point, we created a space in which to feel listened to and valued, to support one another and fight for improving our lives and also building a more liveable world for everyone. We fight for the recognition of our rights as domestic workers and carers, but also for the visibilization of the care work that sustains life and the urgent need to socially reorganize care.
We are a diverse, mestizo and transborder collective. Territorio Doméstico is made up of women from different origins: Dominican, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Romanian, Spaniard, Senegalese, Bangladeshi, Bolivian, Moroccan, Nicaraguan, Peruvian, etc.; women who defy borders in search of a better life. Women with different visions of life, beliefs, and even religions – feminist Christians, Muslims, Latin American women from ecclesial base communities in our countries of origin, and non-believers committed to feminisms and social movements – all come together in Territorio Doméstico.
Territorio Doméstico also includes some women that, without being domestic and care workers, as feminists, antiracists, and anticapitalists feel interpelated by the collective struggle to render visible the centrality of care work – whether remunerated or not –, against the perversion of immigration policies and an economic system that plunders territories and human rights, commodifies the right to migrate, and privatizes people’s right to be cared for.
In the diverse space that we create, we help each other, as one of our compañeras puts it, to “not forget who we are and that we have a history and valuable life project, which is what has brought us here, even if it has gone through many ups and downs”. Many of us are women with activist trajectories in our own countries: struggles for water, health care, land. When we migrate, although we do so to subsist and support our families there, we each bring a project with us, which, for many of us, includes studying and continuing to educate ourselves. However, the migration policies that we suffer, tied more to the economic needs of States than to the human rights of those of us who migrate, limit our life and work projects, and domestic work is practically our own option to obtain documents. It is a job that absorbs our energies and almost all of our time. With all of this, we are jugglers of life, and, despite the difficulties, we become experts in making time when there is not any, stealing time from sleep and rest, stretching out Sunday as a free day to meet and organize with other women.
We are the protagonists of global care chains and, when we talk about them and their consequences, we do so in first person. Global care chains are a perversion of the system that, faced with a global care crisis, continues using women and labor from countries of the Global South to cover that care, countries that the same system systematically plunders to satisfy the needs of the countries of the North. Global care chains transnationally transfer care work from certain households to others. Millions of women migrate to other countries receiving a miserable paycheck as household employees and we, those who migrate, in turn need other women – our mothers, sisters, aunts… – to care for our families that we leave there. We are paid care workers in conditions of precarity and exploitation here, in Spain, working as household employees, and unpaid care workers both when we come home everyday and in respect to our families that live in our countries of origin, since we continue being responsible for their support and care. Phone booths and internet cafes are a symbol of the transnational care that we continue providing from here and that is frequently invisibilized and naturalized in our own places of origin as part of our role as women, without valuing the effort involved in regularly sending those remittances that we save even if means not meeting our own needs, and also being burdened with the guilt of often being seen as bad mothers who abandoned their children. Thus, these care chains continue to constantly reproduce a feminine subject who cares, but does not recognize her right to self-care or to simply not have to take on all the responsibility for care alone.
We put life in the center in everything we do. This has many meanings for us and one of them is that we start from our own lives, our own experiences and knowledges, not as theories, but as events and lived experiences that we have gone through and been affected by. Putting life in the center also means taking care of ourselves, taking care of the everyday that does us good, and fighting and defending our claims by making creativity and joy into political weapons. When we meet, it is not only due to the pleasure of being together, but also to strengthen ourselves and provide ourselves with the affection that nourishes us to fight politically and in everyday life.
Another Unionism is Possible
Through a proposal from the feminist research space La Laboratoria, we have pulled this thread of putting life in the centre to collectively think about other forms of unionism possible.
These reflections on our relationship with unionism are not new. In all these years of struggle for dignified labour rights for domestic and care work, we have been in contact with different unions. Domestic work is carried out in a different context than that in which unions are used to working: there is not a big company, but rather dispersed households, and, therefore, instead of a large management, there are a lot of individual families; each worker works alone and isolated from the rest, and there are no meeting spaces where workers can come together. Therefore unionism in the sphere of domestic work requires an effort of the imagination, as, on the other hand, we see in many other sectors. However, except for the honourable exception of the CGT, we have not found unions to be willing to rethink practices and modes of organization. Furthermore, despite being workers and having extremely precarious labour conditions, our sector has never been one of the priorities of union agendas. We have even been accused by unions of unfairly competing with care workers hired by elder care facilities or cleaning companies, without taking into account or denouncing the perverse logics of immigration policies, the plundering of raw materials, and working conditions that multinational corporations use to enrich themselves by impoverishing our countries and our peoples.
We have also explored other forms of unionism from the perspective of feminist economics, which proposes a critique of hegemonic economics – based on the financial, the macro, the banks – to turn our gaze to the economy of daily life, the economy of common people, everyday survival strategies that go beyond the market. Additionally, feminist economics questions the traditional conception in which only paid work is recognized as work. The reality is that paid work depends on care work, whether paid or unpaid, whose burden is taken up by women around the world and that, despite being necessary for sustaining life, remains invisibilized, undervalued, and isolated in households.
Faced with the lack of public services, community strategies, and real involvement from men, each woman, often single-handedly dealing with the burden of caring for her family nucleus, finds herself in the position of leaving her job – and thus becoming dependent on someone else’s income – or working outside her home to have economic independence. A woman who has no other options does so by leaving the dependent persons under “her” care unattended. Other women, in better financial conditions, turn to contracting domestic workers, often privately and also, increasingly, through service companies that offer “competitive” prices at the expense of their workers. In any case, the working conditions are more precarious because ultimately wages are based on those of individual workers. If there are women who accept them, it is only because of the situation of vulnerability generated by migration and immigration law. Thus, this privatization of care generates an environment that pits women against one another, each person for themselves.
Based on awareness of this reality that chains us to relations of inequality among women, we not only demand dignity and rights for paid domestic and care work, but also a social reorganization of all care work that would implicate society as a whole. Traditional unionism does not raise any of these issues. With the exception of the women’s areas that many unions have, care work is not part of union action or discourse. Therefore, we feel that the type of unionism that we need, as domestic and care workers and as women who do unpaid care work, must go beyond the strictly labor arena.
Another thing that distances us from traditional unionism is its hierarchical form of organization. For us, it is essential to work based on horizontality, and we always put attention and care into that. Nor do we believe in the logic of paying your dues, voting, having members who receive services, because this ends up generating servile relationships that have nothing to do with the rebelliousness that we want to nourish.
What do mean when we talk about bio-syndicalism?
For all the reasons mentioned above, and without wanting to undervalue the origin and meaning of traditional labour unionism, we have started to talk about bio-syndicalism. We have taken a chance with this word because it inspires us and seems provocative. Rather than a closed concept, it is a research proposal on the terrain between life and unionism.
This bio-syndicalism goes beyond the fight for labour rights: it is a form of struggle for everyone’s right to have lives that are worth living and, above all, the joy of being lived. Because we fight and want to continue fighting for all the rights at stake in everyday life, hence the play on the prefix “bio”.
Thus, as we are building it, bio-syndicalism combines forms of collective organization from so-called social unionism and the political origins of labour syndicalism, encompassing the struggle for wages, the working day and its conditions, but also other rights that we consider equally fundamental: the right to decent housing, the right to basic material conditions for a dignified life, the right to migrate, the right to health and care, the right to pleasure, to live lives without any type of violence, to actively participate in collective life, to live sustainably on this planet with limited and looted resources, etc. In short, the right of all human beings to live lives that, with their natural complexity, since we are not naive, deserve the joy of being lived. We strongly believe that this is possible, but it requires radical changes in how the system in which we lived in organized: a patriarchal, capitalist, racist, homophobic system, a system that consumes lives – of people and all types of species – instead of sustaining them.
About this Pamphlet
As initial considerations on bio-syndicalism, we wanted to write about the five slogans that have formed the backbone of our struggle and about the methodology that we use to organize and support ourselves, because we have to support ourselves in order to organize politically. We want to share what we have learned and our ways of doing with all the collectives and people that this could be useful for. Both the slogans and the methodology have been built by all of us, with each of our wisdoms, with the diversity that characterizes us as a mestizo collective, with the difficulties we have faced and the lessons learned, with the joy and love that we have placed in our relationships as a political form of constructing the common, of making the personal political, always based on practice and “trial and error”.
When we are asked how many people are in Territorio Doméstico, it is hard for us to respond in quantitative terms. Our strength does not lie in the number of domestic workers who make up our collective, since there are many of us: those of who are here – sometimes twenty and sometimes ninety –, those who were here and went back to their countries, those who come when they can, those who come and go since their life conditions do not allow them to continuously participate in the collective, the ones who keep on arriving, the friends of friends who accompany us in our actions… As one compañera says, “each of us are Territorio, we carry it with us, here and there”. We cultivate that lack of definition, because we do not call roll, we cultivate relationships and sometimes they even expand beyond borders.
We have created an identity that accompanies us, that we create and recreate as we work, as we struggle. Because Territorio Doméstico, more than a place or an organization, is a way of being and fighting together that has to do with how we undersatnd politics and certain ways of doing. It is not a closed identity, but rather something that is open, that is in movement. However, it does have a “DNA”, axes that have shaped it that have to do with the history of the group of women that, in these more than thirteen years, have been Territorias.
Furthermore, our history has always been interwoven with other organizational spaces and complicit collectives, such as Agencia de Asuntos Precarios, Ferrocarril Clandestino, the Red Interlavapiés and Senda de Cuidados, with whom we founded the Observatorio Jeanneth Beltrán de Vulneración de Derechos en el Empleo de Hogar y Cuidados. Much of what we recount here is the result of collective projects and construction carried out with those groups.
We believe that what sets us apart lies in all of this, which we want to share in this pamphlet, something in between the group’s history, an organizational guide, and a political text, speaking of our main demands and our way of doing, of the tools of feminist bio-syndicalism that we practice from our domestic territories.
1. Our Demands
We have chosen five slogans among those that we tend to use due to their power to synthesize and communicate. They are all connected to one another. These slogans also narrate the history of Territorio Doméstico: each slogan emerges from a concrete conjuncture, it is connected to a collective debate. They are not closed or finished, they are trials, slogans that we move through as we produce common discourse and speak in our day-to-day lives.
Nothing from Pity, Everything from Dignity
Domestic workers are stigmatized. Most people think that we are illiterate, ignorant, or uneducated. They think that we are not capable of doing anything for ourselves other than being “their girls”. They do not recognize our knowledges, skills, and wisdom. But each of us has our own history, our own lives and major struggles before migrating and in the very moment of doing so, since the migration process is a daily struggle in itself. But we need to support ourselves among each other, we need collective energy and knowledges to bring out all of our strength. We do not want people to do things for us, we do not want to be considered victims. We do not want any handouts.
That is why we say “Nothing from Pity, Everything from Dignity”. From the very beginning, we have wanted to take to the streets with our power to say loud and clear that our struggle is a matter of social justice, not of charity or social assistance. We tell those who treat us poor little migrants, “We are working on something that is in common with you, that affects you and your family and the whole social structure, why do you start from pity?”
Ultimately, the discourse of poor little migrants is more comfortable because that is how you tend to talk about something that is distant, that does not have anything to do with you, as if it were a misfortune that happened far away, because, of course, people have to flee misery to feed their families. But, if we start from a critical political analysis, things change, it interpelates you, it forces you to think about what position you occupy and what you can contribute or not to this gear of economic relations between “Southerners” and “Northerners”, of migration policies that are useful, very useful, for this part of the world.
Pity, at its core, is traversed by the imaginary of maids, with the idea that, due to being Indian, or Black, or Mestiza, due to being from an “underdeveloped country”, that is their destiny, that is their lot in life. From that starting point, it quickly goes from “poor little immigrants” to “immigrants are invading us”. There are people who think that they are doing you a favor when they contract you for four hard hours or when they give you clothes that nobody wants anymore: in their hearts they think they are helping you. We can think of a typical headline in the news: “The poor woman fell from the fifth floor because she was cleaning the window of an executive’s house”. It seems like a natural disaster, as if it were inevitable, as if the executive in question had nothing to do with it.
We do not want anyone to feel sorry for us, because we want to break with that miserablism. We want to break with the covert racism and classism hidden in those types of discourses, with that paternalist way in which, at our jobs, they often explain to us what a washing machine is and how it works. Or in which they characterize us according to our nationalities: “Ecuadorian women are very good for children because they are very affectionate”, “Romanian women are great for cleaning because they are very strong”. We are not a feather duster: we are domestic workers and much more.
Don’t do me any favors. Feel affected by this global situation in which we all participate from unequal positions. See me as an equal, distinct and diverse, but a person just like you.
Slavery Ended, in Domestic Service as well!
We understand that domestic work is a type of slavery in the 21st century. It is not the only one, but it is currently one of the most intensive and extensive forms. Intensive because in the case of live-in domestic workers, it involves twenty-four hours a day and six days of the week; extensive because it is normalized, it is a mechanism in which many people are involved and it is normalized. Nobody is scandalized if someone says they have hired a live-in person. They even say it as if it were nothing, “I have a live-in” or “Get a live-in”, like you buy a bag.
There are many elements of the slave relation that creep into domestic work. First, the way in which, when speaking of you, they say “my girl”: they infantilize you and, at the same time, they refer to you as if you were their property. It is like time travelling centuries in the past. Racism and classism are intertwined to not recognize the full human being that each of us are and to reduce us to being that, “their girls”, even if we are more than thirty, forty, or fifty years old.
There are also elements of slavery in the way in which they dispose of our energies without the need to negotiate anything: they contract you for a house, but they end up sending you everywhere – the office, the mother-in-law’s house or to their son’s who recently moved out but never learned to clean his boxers –. When the contract is being signed, they often minimize the work: “You will have to take care of the children and if you have extra time, then clean a bit”. That “clean a bit” becomes running the whole house, with all its responsibilities, endless tasks: “Make me a tortilla”, “take out the trash”, “clean the windows”… As if those tasks did not take time and effort, as if your working day were a bottomless sack. Only a slave can do all that!
In the case of workers in a live-in regime, this dynamic is taken to the extreme. It is difficult to set limits, because you are in their hands. The way in which they treat you, how they expect you to assimilate to their behaviours, even to their tastes, the room that they choose for you – always the worst in the house – says everything about the relationship of servitude that they expect.
The uniform is a whole symbol in this sense. They are often expensive uniforms because, in some way, you become a symbol of their house and they do not want you to clash, as if, we were another item of household decoration, an article that speaks of the family’s status. Now, do not go in street clothes, they will tell you: “You look like a lady”. Excuse me, we are ladies! Or, even better, ladies with arms to take up.
They Wanted Arms, People Came
When we get a job, whether caring for children or elderly people, we dedicate ourselves to it; we are humans willing to give the best that we have and we try to make sure that our work is satisfactory for the whole family. If we become attached to the kids or if an elderly person we are caring for and with whom we have been living dies, we feel pain and go through mourning; but, on the other hand, nobody recognizes these emotions in us: they dehumanize us once again.
They also deny us all rights. They deny us the right to get sick: “If you knew that you were going to get sick, why did you look for work?” The idea of a domestic worker who takes her own children to the playground is unfathomable. Or who wants to go to the movies or have a drink in a bar. They see us as pure labour to be squeezed, someone who goes from home to work and back, and nothing else, for whom a corner with a bed and a television is enough. They do not realize that those hands that they use belong to someone and are not separated from our head, our heart, our body, that we are entire human beings and, like everyone else, we need health care, education for our children, housing, free time… Yes, even free time: having a social life, friendships, relationships, and moments to have fun.
That is what we are talking about when we say “They wanted arms, people came”. We are also talking about immigration law, which is what closes doors on us and reduces us to being arms. Borders only open if we limit ourselves to being cheap labour, to serving others, and do not aspire to having our own life. “They wanted arms, people came” is another way of saying “No human being is illegal”. We came because they need us, but they only want a sliver of our humanity. We also came because they expelled us from our territories, they plundered our lands, our sources of wealth, our survival and that of our peoples, but that is always forgotten. The history that we left behind and the reality that we have here are denied us. We are denied the possibility of making a life here, of sharing with friends, family, of enjoying our sexuality. As a live-in worker, you are denied the very possibility of a home. We see this when they fire us: we not only lose a job, but also the roof over our head. But our employees never take responsibility. Not for that nor for our emotions when, for example, we mention that we miss the kids or elderly person of whom we have taken care.
In job announcements and interviews, they frequently say they are looking for a “young and unencumbered” domestic worker. They would like to add, although they tend not to dare, “who does not get sick often”. They look for someone without humanity, without history. Dehumanizing is the easiest way to not have to empathize, to not put themselves in our place, to ask us to respond like machines, and to throw us out like trash if “we turn out defective”. They dehumanize us and take away our histories, as if we only start to exist the moment we get off the plane. But, we already existed! It is important to vindicate our history, which bring with us and does not disappear when we get here, but rather is combined with what we encounter to continue evolving.
This happens with all types of workers, but there is something that happens in the domestic space that goes even further, because our work is not recognized as true work. What we do is a “help”. Although you are keeping their mother going, caring for their children, ironing, running the whole house, they say: “That is my girl, who is helping me”. But well, there is someone giving up their whole life to provide that “help”, like many live-in domestic workers who, after working for decades, return to their lands to die alone without even the right to retirement benefits and without anyone to care for them because they were not able to build a family or they lost it. Calling this work “help” is a way of devaluing and ignoring everything it involves. It is pure sexism: an extreme way of rendering invisible the importance of the work that we women do to sustain everyday life.
Without Us, the World Does Not Turn
This is Territorio Doméstico’s first motto. It is connected to the discourse about care. When we talk about care, we are not only talking about caring for children, the sick, and the elderly, but rather caring for all of us, and caring for the land that surrounds us. We are referring to care as a basic principle of humanity. As human beings, we are social, interdependent beings, deserving and providing care. Caring is part of life processes and if we do not do it, we become disconnected from the human and the rest of the planet’s life forms, from the land, if we dedicate ourselves to exploiting everything, we will end up not having anything.
The issue is that care has become commodified. A lucrative business has been assembled over childhood and old age for those who can afford it, a very low-cost service in often miserable conditions. And the rest, those who cannot pay for it, are abandoned. That is what we are referring to when we talk about the global care crisis. When we look at it head-on, it is clear that profound changes our needed. With the slogan “Without us, the world does not turn” we want to talk about that and, at the same time, place value on what we do. We want to say that without us – household and care workers – and also women in general, it is not possible to sustain everyday life. As things are organized today, without a public system that would guarantee the right to care for the whole population, without us – domestic and care workers –, without the commodification and privatization in homes of our work, there would be no care for people. We are necessary and important. Remembering this is fundamental, because when many of start doing this work, we are embarrassed to do so, we hide the fact that we are domestic workers. Those who have more education even experience it is as humiliation. Therefore, it is fundamental for us to not only do outward-facing work, but to also work internally, to review our own beliefs, to value the essential work that we do.
Because, what would happen if we did not work one day? Looking at it from this perspective allows us to visualize that we sustain life and its constant movement, that without us, not even the most important and powerful man could exercise his power. Without us, the women do not receive anything in return and those that, in addition to doing that, work in the household and care sector, this system would not function. The market and capitalism need invisible, precarious, feminized, badly paid or completely unpaid care work so that people can be productive in this system that only values that which generates money and profits.
Sometimes we say: “If I don’t go to work, my employer cannot go to her job”. But we do not want to blame other women, our employers, either, because this must stop being a women’s issue. We must go beyond guilt and blame in order to name the heteropatriarchal system. Where are men in this whole story? What kind of system is this in which the most important work in the world is treated the worst?
Therefore, this is also a slogan for all women, not only domestic workers. Because, if we have been able to leave our countries, it has been thanks to other women, our grandmothers, aunts, friends, sisters, who have taken responsibility for caring for our families. We are protagonists of global care chains, which are chains of exploitation and oppression, but also of abandonment. Care is essential now, it not something that can be put off until tomorrow, it cannot wait. That is why, under the patriarchal organization of the world, if you are not rich and you have to work, either another woman covers for you or you just have to see what you can do, how you can manage. And then, they call you a bad mother if you don’t find a good solution! We feel doubly exploited: as women and as domestic workers, and, of course, also as migrants.
When we say “Without us, the world does not turn” we are requesting that care work be recognized, we are asking why this work is the worst paid, with the fewest right, why it is more invisible than the large majority of jobs, knowing that precarization is expanding in this labour market, but even so we continue being among the weakest links, suffering this generalized precarization that makes it so that many families who need care, contract it at a miserable rate. Our struggle goes beyond demanding the complete incorporation of domestic work in the general Social Security regime, the right to receive unemployment benefits like other workers who make contributions, to put an end to the figure of abandonment of contract, a way of firing us that leaves us totally unprotected. We talk about everyone’s right to be cared for and the need to care for those who care. That is why we also demand a reorganization of care. We want men to assume part of the responsibility. If care work were recognized, if it were well-paid, the sector would be full of men. We want the State to participate, to fund care, because families are not businesses, the majority cannot pay everything that must be paid. Just as there is public education and health care, there should be a public care system.
Politicizing Pots, Streets, and Aprons
“Politicize the pots, streets and aprons” is, perhaps, our most abstract slogan. It emerges arises from conversations with accomplices and friends such as Silvia Federici and the Eje de Precariedad y Economía Feminista and from a new question that goes beyond “Without us, the world does not turn”, which is “What world do we want to turn?”
For us, politicizing is not politicking, making empty policies or professional technical projects, but rather starting from a radical critical vision that gets to the root of problems, that brings to light the exploitation and oppression that women suffer in the private sphere and that demonstrates that care is fundamental. It is to loudly proclaim that pots, aprons, mops, brooms, vacuums, strollers, etc. do not move on their own: we move them! It is to take objects that are kept at home out in public and give them another meaning. It is to ask why things are assembled that way and asking all of society how things could be organized differently.
It is the demand rights and fight for how we want to live: breaking with a patriarchal, capitalist, and racist system that is violent towards dissidences, and generating other lgoics in which the economic, capital is not in the centre, but rather life, management of the common, diversity, and social justice are in the centre.
It is a slogan that speaks of a twist in Territorio Doméstico’s political consciousness. When you politicize, you generate processes of consciousness-raising and that has an enormous value. I politicize my pots and pans when I realize that how domestic work is regulated affects all of us, not only domestic workers: if, in this labour market, which establishes what has economic value and what does not, we obtain the recognition of the true value of care work, it would generate effects in other spheres. I politicize my pots and pans when I fight for my employer to make Social Security contributions for me. I politicize my pots and pans when, using our ways of raising demands, we mobilize other peoples’ consciousness. I politicize my pots and pans when I realize that I am not the only one screwed over by working in shitty conditions as a domestic worker or being the only one in the family who does care work: it is something that also screws over other women who, like me, have to or even want to care, but also want to have time for themselves, to philosophize and write the book of their life or simply enjoy the good things in life. I politicize my pots and pans when I stop choosing the easy path of contracting cleaning work at a ridiculous price because the guy I live with does not do his part and I don’t want to fight with him any more. I politicize my pots and pans when when I take this discontent onto the streets, when I take out my rage, my disappointment, and also my strength, when I know that there are many other women who feel like I do and that we all want a change, that we want this world to turn differently. I politicize my pots and pans when I confirm that I do not want to move this patriarchal, capitalist, and racist world, but rather another world.
Politicizing is the art of coexistence, of sustaining the common. It is to ask ourselves how we want to organize life together. There is nothing more common, interrelated, and collective than care as a human task. This has been true since the beginning of humanity, but today care has been individualized, it become an excessive burden that each woman has to deal with on her own: it has been privatized and commodified. We need care in all moments of our lives, not only when we are underage or elderly. Capitalism always proposes individualized solutions, when we need a whole crowd to care. They have left us women, domestic and care workers, and also families who do not have the resources to pay us a decent wage alone. They have left many people out of the care that the State should cover. There is a vacuum, but this vacuum cannot be covered at the expense of our health and our humanity, it is necessary to turn over everything, to turn the world upside down.
2. Our Way of Doing
We said at the beginning that, to organize ourselves, we have had to sustain ourselves. Throughout our path of struggle, we have faced many difficulties. Many compañeras work as live-in workers and only have one free day a week, or even one a month. Others have long working days, their concerns accumulate and they don’t get enough money to pay for transportation and come to the meeting. There is a lot of mobility because jobs change and suddenly a compañera who had been coming often, has her hours changed or she has to go to another city to find a job. Therefore, sometimes there are a lot of us and other times there are just a few of us. We have to take advantage of the little meeting time that we have and sometimes we call each other at ungodly hours to resolve something or make decisions. The instability of our lives and collective life has forced us to go very slowly, taking good care of the process.
Little by little, on the way, we have woven together a way of doing. Writing this pamphlet, five fundamental axes have emerged that articulate what we could call our methodology. We want to share them in case they inspire others: fighting for others, making do with what we have, practising our knowledges, embodying the struggle, and mutual aid. We will illustrate some of these elements with concrete tools and others with life stories of compañeras from our collective.
Fighting for Everyone
One of Territorio Doméstico’s philosophies is: we fight for everyone. We go slowly, always keeping an eye on other compañeras from the group so that nobody is left behind. The process if very important: to weave a common feeling based on the things and stories that we share. We always open up, we do not close ourselves off in what we have already learned, and we try to gather everyone’s contributions. Thus, we take the struggle for rights further, because, for us, the “whys” are important, but so are the “hows”.
When we propose a demand or demonstration, or simply when we issue a statement, we do so thinking that we are one with all women: documented and undocumented, natives and migrants, young and elderly, believers in different creeds and atheists. We try to involve everyone, making the slogan “the personal is political” a reality and learning to integrate our diversity, sometimes even without meaning to, since our way of doing is based on relationships in which, in one way or another, the diversity of each individual is always present. We are, as one compañera says, like a fruit salad, with all the different tastes, smells, and colours.
When we make progress, what matters to us are the advances that are for everyone: for those of us who are there in that moment, but also for those who, due to work circumstances, could not be present, but, however, transmit their energy and strength to us to continue building, and for those who have still not arrived, but whom we want to arrive, to join to the struggle.
We pay careful attention to making sure that personal authority circulates, in recognizing each participant, each territoria. We cannot, nor do we want to deny, that among us, there are icons of the struggle, compañeras with more public visibility, but who is and who is not – because they do not have as much public projection as a territoria – depends on many things: their journey within our collective, how much time and energy they have to stand up for all of us. However, this is something that we always focus on and we try to make sure leadership circulates, creating space for new compañeras to raise their voices and go out and represent us, that they can fly to find a place of recognition and for our visibility to be collective.
Empowerment is a process that involves many dimensions, due to each woman’s living conditions, because we are recuperating damaged life. This process, learning from one another, recognizing a circulating authority, strengthening each woman’s capacity to be a spokesperson of our struggle, is a foundational element of our collective and the ways of doing that we dream about and organize. It is not easy, it requires constantly checking ourselves, facing conflicts, assuming the costs and breaking with logics of power, which, more or less consciously, occur in the relational and organizational arena. It requires generosity and humility as a political tool of personal and collective construction. It is always necessary to recognize that we start from our own voices and experiences, and that we wager on diversity, truth and each individual’s way of being, without seeking to homogenize ourselves into a single way of speaking, of being in public space, of representing ourselves. Of course we have to push this process, give ourselves tools to strengthen our capacities and knowledges and transmit our demands, in respect to the each woman’s rhythm and starting place.
To do so, it is essential to unite our voices, our bodies, and, above all, our hearts. We build relationships of trust that involve the affective dimension, with all its complexity, due to our wager on connections, common commitments, and alliances between ourselves and other collectives and networks.
When we talk about fighting for everyone we are also referring to the process we have gone through of deciding where we want to be and where we do not. We have chosen not to participate in spaces where they treat you as a user nor in spaces where utilitarian logics are at work, where there are people looking to profit or live from the struggle, turning it into a mode of professionalization and technification, becoming distanced from the political, defending domestic workers but without wanting to do that work because, in some way, it is not dignified, not desirable. Obviously, we respect that each person person seeks their own destiny and fights for their dreams, but without supplanting the voice of domestic workers themselves. That is why it grates on us so much when we find ourselves in spaces like that. Our history is not exempt from conflicts and even confrontations that coexist in parallel to alliances with many other kindred collectives with whom we have built discourses and ways of doing politics differently.
In Territorio Doméstico, we try to propose a different way of doing, because we think that therein lies the transformative strength of the collective, the strength that we have and want to continue having. Our way of doing is based on horizontality and therefore you will never hear us talking about “my girls” or “my users”. Here we all matter, because we all contribute with what each of us brings, because the struggle is for the dignity of all. And this dignity is not a few funds to maintain a board of directors nor an employment contract as a technician, because our work is dignified, we want to improve our labour conditions, its social recognition, not escape its stigma.
Nor do we want to stop with the concrete victories that we achieve, as the ratification of ILO Convention 189 could be. Of course we fight for it, because it would mean equating domestic work with any other type of work, but this is not the ultimate aim of our struggle.1 Many situations are resolved, we obtain some victories in our rights and this is important, of course we have to celebrate them, but we keep going and going, because the field of action widens.
Throughout these years, we have been rethinking our work. At first, we called ourselves “domestic employees”, later we added “and care”, and then we replaced “employees” with “workers”. We wanted to vindicate that what we did was not a private activity, a mere agreement to “help” an employer, but rather that we do work, that we are a labour force that wears itself out, because we put life into all that we do. All of these processes of reflection brought us to the conclusion that the situation in which domestic workers live are, in some sense, the core of the system that says a lot about what happens with care and the situation of women in general. Therefore, the struggle to improve domestic employment is a button that triggers a much deeper social questioning. It is not limited to a labour struggle for a set of rights.
There are many compañeras who continue being part of Territorio Doméstico even when they no longer work as domestic workers, because they feel that the struggle of domestic workers is also their struggle, because winning the recognition of our labour rights and making our labour be respected and valued is to fight for everyone, because domestic work is part of the iceberg of discrimination against women and migrant persons and fighting for everyone also implies that, even if you are not a domestic worker, you understand the situations of injustice of other compañeras as if they were your own, as it affects us all, it is not something external to us, whether or not you work as a domestic worker.
Territorio Doméstico also includes compañeras who are not and have never been domestic workers, but are the daughters and granddaughters of domestic workers with other professions who feel that this struggle is also theirs. Recognizing them as part of Territorio is also part of our struggle for all women. It has always been very clear that those who are domestic workers right here and now are the main players in Territorio Doméstico and that nobody can supplant their voices, but the participants who are not domestic workers also play a fundamental role in sustaining the collective.
We manage our diversity starting from the material differences in living conditions among ourselves, reviewing privileges of class and race, but without laying blame, appealing to sharing each woman’s resources and potentials. This has been key for Territorio’s sustainability. None of us can come to everything and domestic workers’ hours and material conditions make support in logistical and operative issues very important: some of us dedicate ourselves, with a lot of effort and also enjoyment, to publicly representing the collective of domestic workers, participating in forums, etc. and others focus on tasks that are also essential. We share reflections among all of us and build our collective discourse, we care for one another and make our activism into a space of struggle, support, and joy, a space of bonds and affection that are what sustain us in the day-to-day. And we believe that, in this mestizaje, in this diversity among us, we have been a true laboratory. There are people who do not believe it, who are convinced that the white women in the group are manipulating the domestic workers, but that perspective does not recognize our freedom and our own capacities, as well as the memory of all the generations of domestic workers. It is to not recognize that training in collective management of diversity is possible, to not believe in the possibility of mestizaje in how we organize ourselves and connect, and to ignore that domestic and care work is a trigger for generating a much broader social change that interpelates very diverse women, that it is a transversal struggle that questions and intersects with many struggles: against patriarchy, against borders, and against a capitalist economic system that insatiably devours life.
In Territorio, we also talk a lot about our friends of friends. For instance, perhaps there is a trial and we have to accompany the compañera who filed the complaint, but, because of our work hours, none of us can go, and we call a friend to go with her. “Friends of friends” is a way of naming our networks of trust and affection, our alliances. We do not adhere to the idea of a rigid line that defines who is part of Territorio and who is not. When we carry out actions in the street, many friends of friends join who do not come to assemblies but who do heed our calls, who are aware of everything we do, who support us, and, additionally, offer references for recently arrived compañeras of other forms of relationships between migrants and natives, between diverse women. As we sing in one of our songs: “Together and rebellious, we are going to mess things up!” On this point, we want to thank all these friends of friends who we have gotten mixed up with, with whom we have become entangled during these years: the Red Interlavapiés, 8M compañeras, the Eje de Precariedad y Economía Feminista, the Malvaloca women’s choir, Eskalera Karakola, Precarias a la Deriva, Traficantes de Sueños, and many others.2
Fighting for all is, therefore, sharing the struggle as a growth and learning process: for those who we are, those who are there, and those who will come. Together and rebellious.
Working with what we have
Given how messed up, difficult, and exhausting the vital precarity in which we live is, we have learned to manage it and, to a certain extent, traverse it collectively and do politics starting from what we are lacking. Thus, we have learned in our own bodies things like how human beings are interdependent, in opposition to the individualism and autistic freedom that the system sells us; the centrality of care for sustaining life, both one’s own and common life; the violence of capitalism, the illogic of borders. From there, we build together, starting from our everyday lives, our histories, our daily struggles and our discourses. We believe in and draw on that experience of shared precarity, recognizing not only our lacks, which we think are fundamental to name and shed light on, but also the strength and potentials of each one of us and ourselves collectively.
Therefore, we do not wait for the ideal conditions to do things, but rather we use creativity and improvisation to make the best from what we have. What we have are crazy hours, Sunday as the only free day for many of us, exhausted bodies, all of our imperfections, our idiosyncrasies… We draw truth from all of this, with what we give as human beings, beyond any abstract expectation, often putting in more than we can and also accepting what is not there.
We have many anecdotes that illustrate this “working with what we have”, in particular the domestic work fashion catwalk. Once we went to Móstoles in train and we wrote the script on a piece of paper on the train itself. When we got there nobody understood the handwriting, not even those of us who had written it. We handed out the papers as they introduced us. It was extremely hot, the microphone did not work, so we had to improvise. Since there were not many of us, we had to play multiple roles, because there were not enough of us for all the models… Even so, we were wildly applauded. Another time we were divided up, some in Carabanchel and other in Ciudad Lineal, and we were also missing characters. Then a friend of compañera got there who did not know anything and we drew her in, we put the wig on her and out she went. She liked the experience so much that she signed up for meetings. This has not just happened a couple times: many of us have debuted like that in the catwalk or in other actions. Sometimes we go out and we do not even have our wigs on, or they are on backwards, because we are running short on time, we always get dressed haphazardly in the last minute behind the curtain. We are always walking a tightrope and that is a whole lesson in trusting in our energy and spontaneity, trusting in our compañeras and, above all, trusting in our power and way of showing our truth that we want to transmit, which, ultimately, has a lot to do with our daily life.
We also apply this concept of working with what we have to the group: we make do with what we have and with those are there, we accept that we do not all come from the same starting point. There are compañeras who disagree on many issues, such as abortion, but we listen to one another, we respect one another, we care for the processes and look for points of confluence. Thus, we feel that, more than being feminists, we do feminism all the time: a popular, grassroots, streets feminism, not an armchair feminism. For us, feminism is not a ministry where you go to file a complaint, nor an abstract entity, nor a magic ball to which you can say: “Hey, come do something for domestic workers”. Feminism is something that must be built, and we, as domestic workers, make and are part of the feminist movement, in dialogue with feminisms constructed by other compañeras from other positions. We feel we are part of the feminist movement because we participate in diverse spaces of collective feminist articulation here in Madrid, and because with our we believe we have contributed concrete demands, such as the ratification of ILO Convention 189, to the feminist agenda, through our actions and proposals. We have politicized the work of household and care employees connecting it to proposals and discourses from feminist economics. We have taken them something very concrete: our situation and how it is interconnected with the social reorganization of care. In that process, we have met and connected with many feminist compañeras and we have learned from one another, through resonance, encounter, and also conflict, which we recognize as part of life and collective construction.
We understand feminism in the plural: feminisms rather than feminism. It is true that there are different types of tensions: many women in Territorio Doméstico did not identify with feminism at the beginning and we have had polemic conversations about different issues. However, through looking for what we have in common, since we believe in consensus, we have come to converge on many issues. We have also had polemics with feminist women who take to the streets to protest, but then are not capable of looking at the person who they contract for domestic work and truly seeing her, of putting themselves in her place.
Connecting feminist struggles with others, such as the struggle for housing, for the right to health care, against racism and borders…, generates a transversal feminism and those are the feminisms that we are interested in.
3. Practising Our Knowledges
Territorio Doméstico is like a school for us. We have all learned and grown in this collective space.
We start from the belief that what happens to us important. Therefore we share our experiences, as well as what we know, and this facilitates our daily lives, it gives us tools to defend ourselves, and, at the same time, it reinforces us and gives us value.
Knowing is a personal decision that provides us with arguments. Putting our knowledges into practice spreads and invigorates the path of conquering rights for all. Informing ourselves, meeting, and training are essential for being able to express what you put into practice with life itself, to feel that your life matters, that you are unique, that you have a lot to contribute as a great connoisseur of life. Each of us has a school of life and a long trajectory and we collectivize that in Territorio Doméstico. Thus, among all of us, we build our own legacy of knowledges, for ourselves and to leave for those who will come later.
We all know something from different places and sometimes even from different belief system, but collective dialogue empowers our ability to listen, to construct our own criteria, to develop consensus, to generate lessons that are not dogmatic, but rather inclusive, and to continue learning without leaving anyone out.
Each compañera who comes to Territorio Doméstico has her own individual process: everyone’s rhythms are respected, what they bring is valued and they are directed toward the space that they can reinforce with their knowledges. The older ones act like godmothers to the newer ones. Training and education workshops help to identify and recognize each woman’s potentials and facilitate the construction and circulation of new leaderships in different situations.
In the organizational arena, we learn by trial and error, reflecting on what we have done, learning from ourselves, others, and our alliances with other groups, other organizations, other friends. That does not mean that we work “without rhyme or reason”, that we don’t plan. On the contrary, we plan very conscientiously, although we are always open to what occurs, to the needs or opportunities that emerge in each moment. We prepare for all the assemblies and different actions we participate in, rotating tasks, although the improvisation and adaptation that emerges in each moment are also a fundamental key. Collectively practising our knowledges also allows for recognizing the diversity of experiences and knowledges that each woman brings to the group, the diversity of leadership and recognition of a circulating authority. Often, although some of us do not see it, the rest of the group clearly recognizes one’s capacities, the skills and talents of each person, and suddenly, even though you say, “No, I don’t know how to do it, I prefer someone else do it”, the group responds “What do you mean? You do this great your way.” That is very powerful because it generates changes in the how we see ourselves and it is a horizontal process of empowerment that enriches us individually and as a collective and teaches us to recognize each woman’s resources and skills and manage and value our diversity.
Collective practice of knowledge is that which, at the same time, makes us construct shared meanings, which are collectively elaborated. Thus, we have generated our own discourse about care, politics, and feminisms that does not come from experts, but rather is born from our own experiences, reflections, and sharing. We also fight so that our presence in public acts and on the street is empowering and powerful, that they do not put us on display in the role of the poor little thing, the victim, who gives “testimony”: we are experts in many issues and we want to appear with first and last names, like any other expert.
4. Embodying the Struggle
In Territorio Doméstico, we insist that we want to do politics differently, in our own way, without only resorting to “high” intellectual discourses. We want to do politics starting from ourselves, from our bodies and our knowledges. We believe that this embodied politics works and transforms, since it transmits the truth, our truth. We call this to “acuerparnos” [to embody], one of our favourite words.3
For us, “embodying” has several different meanings or dimensions. One of them has to do with the support and welcome that we provide each other with, with celebrating ourselves. The embraces between us, but also with other related groups, are essential for our struggle: putting one’s body into the relationship, approaching compañeras based on what unites us, recognizing one’s self in the other and building trust. As one of our compañeras says, “You can go to an organization fighting for rights, but in Territorio, they welcome you; it is a lesson in tenderness, when we have been taught us to be harsh”.
We embody the struggle against the loneliness produced by domestic work and migration, we seek joy and care for one another. Care is what keeps us in the group: we return for the hugs and good moments that we share. We are very damaged, and that, the hugs, listening, laughter, empathy, strengthens us. When a new compañera arrives, we support her, we show her what we do and what we know, and this gives her a space of belonging that makes her feel safe and comfortable. In other organizations, you feel like you are just “warming a chair”, because the executive board does and undoes everything; but in Territorio Doméstico we try to care for one another and ensure that each compañera finds a place.
We also place a lot of importance on sharing individually with one another, on taking care of relationships: when a compañera needs something, we are there, because we also consider that to be politics. Whether it is for something material or emotional: sharing our problems, talking, venting, or crying…, because others have gone through it before us and we know that this makes the weight on each of us lighter. It makes us feel that the struggle is not only for ourselves, but for many women, that together we fight our loneliness and protect ourselves from the troubles and abuses that we experience. We embody the struggle in different moments to fill ourselves with energy, taking into account our moods and our everyday concerns, as well as our ways of being, respecting each woman’s different vital rhythms, the presences and absences, without keeping score, feeling the presence of the ones who were there and now are far away or need to disconnect for a time, always welcoming whoever comes. If someone stops coming, we look for her in case she needs help, but we never scold or judge her, and she is always, always, remembered and celebrated. We know that we need the group, but we also need ourselves.
Dance and music are a mode of expression, they allow us to celebrate and bring us joy, because “if we can’t dance, it’s not our revolution!” We sing and dance when we meet. Furthermore, for the compañeras with whom we do not share a language, singing and dancing enable us to speak with our bodies and generate connection. We embody the struggle when we take to the streets, strengthened by being together and putting forth our bodies. Our songs serve to tell stories, our stories, to the outside. We take to the streets with wigs, dance, and songs and launch our messages that strongly communicate material aspects of everyday life: access to housing, health care, the most basic needs and rights, sexist violence… With our embodied way of occupying the street, putting ourselves in play and communicating with our bodies, showing ourselves as diverse territories, with each woman’s rhythm and compass, we break that cliché of the poor little domestic worker and generate references for other migrant women. We render our bodies visible, with their curves, their ailments, their age, and we do so with pride, overturning the norm that only considers certain bodies beautiful and putting ourselves in play exactly as we are, with a power generated by the energy of doing it together and the transformative and communicative power of being and showing ourselves as we are: strong, powerful, diverse women, who fight with joy as a political weapon, speaking clearly with our bodies and our presence.
5. Mutual Aid
We know that we cannot achieve anything alone – as one compañera puts it, a single swallow does not make summer –, but when we all support one another, we are powerful, we are warriors. Therefore mutual aid is a basic part of our methodology, since it is essential for sustaining ourselves. We are brave, strong women, capable of doing great things, but even the strongest woman sometimes falls into a rough spot or lacks energy. And that is when others are there to provide backup, to invent solutions, to give her shelter or rest, to help her get back up. We have filed complaints in court, we have sued together to defend our jobs and our labor rights, and we continue using this tool. We defend the compañeras from Territorio, but also our friends and friends of friends.
We also support each other when there are compañeras going through economic difficulties upon losing and not finding work. We have organized raffles, fairs, and other events to raise money, to subsist here and also to support our families back there when they are going through very difficult situations, such as not being able to buy medicine that they need… We have also supported compañeras in creating self-employment projects to make ends meet when things get bad. During the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that we have always thought it problematic to give money, direct aid, to specific compañeras, as the situation has overwhelmed many who could not pay their rent and sometimes not even eat, we organized a “resistance cash box” to distribute money among those who were going through really hard times.
We also understand mutual aid beyond our specific group, in the alliances that we share with feminist collectives, those in the migrant and anti-racist struggle, in defence of universal public health care, the right to housing. All of these struggles are traversed by feminism, they have gathered force in the feminist struggle, that is the thread that weaves us together. We coordinate to support one another in the diverse demands and actions of each collective in order to progress in a common agenda of common and interconnected struggles.
1 On June 16, 2011, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers with the purpose of guaranteeing collective protection and thus making our labor rights equal to those of workers as a whole. We are in 2021 and still basic conditions such as unemployment benefits, equalization in the calculation of pensions, inclusion in the law of prevention of occupational hazards, and protection from layoffs, have not been equally recognized, which violates Spanish and European law in regards to equal treatment and non-discrimination. The convention has been ratified by twenty-nine states, among those six from the European Union (Germany, Belgium, Finland, Italy, Portugal, and Sweden), and fifteen from Latin America. The fight for Spain to ratify Convention 189 has been and continues being essential for us, because it is a tool, column to hold on to when demanding the recognition of our rights. However, we believe that ratification would not mean an end to discrimination and inequality, because there are other demands that are not included in the Convention. We are aware that, to put an end to discrimination, we will have to change the root of the society in which we live, thus, when we finish a struggle, it is clear that we have to enlist to start another.
2 These are all collectives in spaces of the Madrid neighbourhood of Lavapiés. The Red Interlavapiés (2004-…) is a support network against borders and precarity made up of people from diverse places of origin, with and without documents. Eskalera Karakola was born as the Kasa Okupada de Mujeres in 1996; after its eviction in 2005, it moved to a new space where it was rebaptized as Casa Pública Transfeminista and it continues hosing feminist initiatives. Precarias a la deriva (2002-2005) was a feminist action-research project within and against precarity. The Malvaloca women’s choir is a feminist choir created in the early 2000s in the Epsacio Entredós, which has been nomadic since 2018. The Eje de Precariedad y Economía Feminista is a space of work, thought, and intervention, born in the heat of the two-week long Lucha Feminista de Madrid “A por todas” in March 2014. Traficantes de Sueños started as a cooperative bookstores in the 1990s and, since its move to Lavapiés in the mid 2000s, has been a fundamental part of the neighbourhood’s associative fabric.