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Latino immigrant women, an abused and silenced workforce in the UK

In the UK, almost all their rights have been abused: verbal, physical or sexual harassment, denial of the right to holidays or maternity leave; not being given work contracts or payslips… These are only some of the most obvious problems among those which Latino women face in their jobs in this country.


Virginia Moreno Molina


The majority of these women work in cleaning, domestic work or hospitality. A large percentage of them (62%) have faced broken work contracts, or have experienced some kind of abuse at their workplace (66%).

In the same way, between 2015 and 2018 [there were] a total of 894 cases of labour rights abuses, but the fear of dismissal or other reprisals are important factors when someone is thinking of making a complaint. This is the true situation that emerges from the investigation carried out by The Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), led by Nahir de la Silva, Lucila Granada and Dolores Modern.

Their report  “The Unheard Workforce: Experiences of Latin American migrant women in cleaning, hospitality and domestic work”  ”is based on a sample of 326 cases of Latin-American women helped by LAWRS between 2015 and 2018.

The sample includes 15 nationalities, the largest percentages being Colombian (31%), followed by Ecuadorians (17%) and Bolivians (10%). The women’s ages ranged from below 20 (2%), 20-34 (25%), 35-49 (41%), 50-64 (28%) to 65 and over (4%).

At the same time, the Latin American community is the non-European ethnic minority which has grown at the second-fastest rate in the UK. According to a study by Mcllwaine and Bunge in 2016, in that year the population reached 250,000, of whom 52% were women (130,000).

Generally, the majority of these people are fleeing from poverty, violence or the exploitation they suffered in their countries of origin.

And, due to the financial crises which have afflicted countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy, many of them decided to move to the UK.

Despite the fact that many of these women possess significant qualifications, factors such as language barriers, the non-recognition of their training in the UK, or economic difficulties lead them to end up accepting work in the worst-paid sectors.

 Harassment and discrimination

“We are not machines or numbers. We are human beings who want to work and be treated with respect and dignity. We want no more and no less than this”, explains Marta who is Peruvian. Her testimony is one of those included in the report. Like her, 66% of the women interviewed have experienced regular abuse or unreasonable treatment at their places of work.

So, it isn’t surprising that a large proportion of women have suffered different kinds of abuse, including verbal (37%), or physical (11%). In addition, 11 cases were uncovered of possible victims of trafficking with the aim of labour exploitation.

Besides this, over half of the women workers experienced broken work contracts (62%). Indeed, 21% did not even receive a written contract, and 20% were not given payslips.

At the same time, one in every five women was paid below the National Minimum Wage. And 17% of those interviewed were denied their rights to holidays, while 16% were not even paid for their accumulated holiday time when they left their jobs.

Besides this, the physical exhaustion and the hard work that these jobs involve is reflected in the investigation, where 25% of the people interviewed had problems with their health or well-being: 33% had some kind of injuries resulting from the type of work they do, 17% reported inadequate or non-existent safety equipment, and 12% a lack of training.

Almost one third of those interviewed were refused sick leave, whether this leave was paid, or as in 28% of cases unpaid; or else they were only permitted sick leave if they could find someone else to do their work and pay the costs involved.

Another abuse reported was in cases of maternity (9%). These included not being paid for time absent, when they had to go for pre-natal medical checks, and the absence of any assessment of risks at work during pregnancy.

Abuse in the cleaning sector

According to the report, abuse happens in three areas of work, with employment in the cleaning sector being most in demand. In fact, the number of workers in this sector has reached 700,000 in the UK, about 25% of whom are immigrants.

Similarly, the proportion of foreign workers in the cleaning industry in London is 68%, and among those interviewed in the report, 69% worked in this sector.

The majority of jobs (73%) in the service sector are done by women, according to figures from the British Cleaning Council (2017, and ILO 2014). This sector is characterized by its low salaries, exploitation and absence of regulation, and the amount of sub-contracting that is found in this sector makes it easier to operate practices which threaten the labour rights of employees.

This investigation was centred on women who worked in sub-contracted companies (69%), which were also the places with the lowest salaries, hardest work, and where short-term contracts that were frequently renewed were most common. This happened principally in the boroughs of Westminster (13%), City of London (11%), followed by Southwark (7%), Lambeth (6%) and Islington (4%).

It must not be forgotten that only two years ago, the London School of Economics witnessed one of the most resounding strikes by cleaners in the history of the British capital, in which the workers, who were mostly immigrants, exposed the deplorable working conditions which they suffered, and won a victory.

But not every case has a happy ending, and the fear of losing a job is one of the most common motives which make people step back from complaining.

These women cleaners represented in the investigation face problems including illegal salary deductions (51%), harassment or unreasonable treatment (24%), lack of contracts or not being given copies where they do exist (16%), not being given payslips (12%), and verbal abuse (11%).

In addition, one woman in 20 has experienced sexual harassment in their place of work, whether from colleagues, managers or clients. Generally, these kinds of abuse happen in places where there are no CCTV cameras.

Domestic and hospitality work

At the global level, 67 million people are employed in domestic work. Specifically, one in every 25 women worldwide is doing this work, which includes tasks like cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, ironing, and looking after children and adults. In this study, 8% of the interviewees worked in this sector, the majority of them in the richest boroughs in London: 90% in The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and 6% in Hammersmith and Fulham. Ironically, being in the richest areas did not mean the best working conditions, but quite the opposite. In fact, 60% experienced problems in getting paid for holidays or sickness; 40% experienced harassment or unreasonable treatment; 32% worked without a contract; 32% were being paid below the minimum wage; 28% were not given payslips; and 16% had suffered some kind of work-related injury.

Exploitation is common in these types of jobs, and the workers interviewed reported that their working days lasted between 12 and 16 hours.

Finally, the third sector most represented is hospitality, which employs 3.2 million people in the UK, in restaurants, cafes, hotels and other businesses. Immigrants make up 24% of this figure.

5% of those interviewed worked in this industry, and the abuses suffered at work were generally similar to those found in cleaning.

Some of the most typical figures are that 33% of these female workers suffered abuse or unacceptable treatment, sexual harassment and abuse (23%), illegal salary deductions (22%), lack of a contract (17%), and lack of payslips (17%).

The testimony of Patricia, a Brazilian is an example: “Sometimes, when you start working in a hotel as a cleaner, the company takes your documents as a form of blackmail. The keep your passport for several months, and some of the workers don’t even know that this is wrong. Our bosses tell us that this is the law in the UK”.

In the next issue, The Prisma will look deeper into the abuses and practices that violate workers’ rights of Latin-American women in the UK.

(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: – Photos: Pixabay

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