Abused and almost killed in Latin America by her ex-partner, she fled to Spain where she encountered racism. She has been in London for three years and now faces exploitation in the workplace: including not being paid, being overworked to the point of not being able to walk and suffering verbal abuse.
Virginia Moreno Molina
* Maria grew up in a violent environment where her father constantly abused her mother. And her shyness made her dependent on her mother and older sister to do any job involving paperwork or to schedule and attend appointments. A lack of independence and fear that affected her personal life.
In 2004, she lived with her partner. “He constantly beat me and I stayed with him out of fear and social pressure,” she explains. She was able to vent to her friends, but they always reproached her saying that a woman should not be alone and that if she left him she would be single.
Which is why Maria never said anything to her family and silently endured beatings and sanctions of all manner. The last time they went to a party, her ex-partner prevented her from looking at anyone and told her off the whole time ensuring she only looked down at the floor.
“Once he threw me in a pond, I had to grab hold of him by the feet and climb out,” she recalls.
After two years and enduring all kinds of abuse, she tried to end the relationship, but her former partner said: “If you leave me, you won’t be around for long to be with me or anyone else for that matter.”
Maria thought they were just words, but one day they argued and he put her in the car and took her to a mountain on the outskirts of town.
He beat her until dawn and all she could do was cover her face with her hands. “My whole body was covered in bruises and that day I got away and walked all the way home,” she explains.
Shortly after, her family found out and reported him, however, he escaped. That was when her mother advised her to go to Spain, fearful that he might find and kill her.
Arrival in Spain
Maria didn’t wait around much longer, she talked to a friend she had in Barcelona and in December 2006 bought a cheap ticket for Madrid. However, when she arrived in the Spanish capital it was Christmas and she found herself alone – the friend who was going to put her up was not answering the phone, and when she shared a taxi with other women they tried to steal her money.
After several days, she was able to make contact with another friend in Andalusia: she arrived there in the New Year and the city in question became her home for eleven years.
She was without residence or work papers for a time which made her search for work all the more tricky.
“I was barely able to survive – I lived in misery,” she says recalling the period.
She could not travel or go near stations because of the checks and controls and lived in fear that at any moment the police would arrest her.
She was taking care of a lady in the hospital and there she met another family for whom she would work later and they helped her get the necessary papers and a passport.
She stayed with this family until the woman she was caring for died. However, this coincided with the financial crisis, so Maria was unable to find much in the way of work and almost no-one wanted to pay her social security.
Also, she explains that there was a lot of racism because it was a small town. “They always insulted us, telling us that the South Americans were taking Spanish jobs and we were cheap labour.”
Fed up with the situation, she took a risk and with a friend travelled to the English capital in 2017.
First contact with London
Their first experience of London was the abuse meted out to them by the landlady they were staying with. Hence, Maria and her friend decided to leave and try their luck at Elephant & Castle. “God will not abandon us,” Maria told her friend.
There, they met a hairdresser who told them there was a job going in a hotel. With no home and not knowing what else to do, they accepted.
The woman who hired them was a Latina: she their only point of contact and told them that if they needed anything they need only ask. Later, they would come to realize that this same woman was the one exploiting them.
They were separated and placed in different hotels located on the outskirts of London. Maria was the only Latin American in her hotel, and she didn’t understand any English.
They were made to work every day, including weekends. “I had three very bad months: I got sick, we worked lots of hours and they didn’t pay us all our wages, they didn’t show us the payslips…”
They were made to clean so many rooms that, to endure the pain, Maria had to take as many as four ibuprofen a day.
The first few days she couldn’t even walk, but she worked out of necessity because back in Spain she owed money in the house where she had been living and wanted to pay the debt off.
In addition, they slept in the hotel in small rooms they shared with other people and for which they were charged £ 300 for their bed.
During those three months, she was not registered for national insurance and was not even paid her full salary.
Maria says there were many people from Eastern Europe. “I was so sad at how they were exploited – they even had blisters on their feet,” she explains.
After that experience, she returned to Spain for five months, but failed to find work so decided to return to London in 2018 and try her luck again.
Departing for Spain, she had left her things in the hotel where she had been living and working and when she returned, she could not find them, because the owner had discarded everything when she saw that Maria was not coming back.
But Maria found a job at a cleaning company where they kept her passport and national insurance number for a week. She worked two trial days but she was not paid for this.
Then she found a position at a school in Aldgate. The supervisor was Portuguese. “I had been working there for three months and in the final month a supervisor who wanted to increase my workload came along and I couldn’t finish all my tasks,” explains María.
Being unable to complete the added workload, the supervisor verbally abused her and shouted at her. When Maria asked her to stop yelling, the supervisor fired her. She was paid £ 400 less in her last month. “It made me really angry and I felt helpless, but I couldn’t do anything about it – they know I can’t speak English and that’s how they’re able to abuse me,” she says.
She reported her situation to the union she belongs to and which represents mainly migrant cleaners and low-wage workers. But “so far they haven’t called me or told me anything for a year.”
Cleaning jobs are typically unstable and offer few hours, so in order to make a decent living you need to work several jobs.
Maria found a cleaning company where they paid her the minimum, but it complemented the other job she had.
I cleaned at a shop in Oxford Circus. “As they sold makeup, they made you clean with acetone which caused me to get headaches,” she explains. Maria remembers that they only provided her with gloves and cleaning products, but no mask or any other protection.
“The girls working in the store told us we had to leave the floors gleaming,” she says adding “there was a lot of pressure from both sides, including our boss, who was Latino and sometimes it’s the Latin Americans who exploit you the most – it’s very sad. ”
After three months, when she went to ask for her corresponding holiday leave she was refused because, according to them, she had to wait a year – so she decided to up and leave. “We who sacrifice ourselves, working with poisonous products for two hours at a time – having our wages docked on each payslip …”, says Maria angrily.
She asked the union for help again because she was not paid her holiday leave, but as yet they have not helped her: “Since May  they have not got back to me with anything, again”.
“Sometimes this union gets me down. They should show more concern and let me know whether or not my cases can be resolved.”
Maria says that others have also told her that the union has failed them. ” For some they seem to do a good job and for others it’s the opposite, but I’m talking about my experience,” she says.
When she left that company, she started at another cleaning company working three hours a day for four months. But, according to her, they kept on moving her around the whole time to dirtier places scattered around Oxford Circus. One day they even asked her, she says, to sign a document in someone else’s name.
After three months, she asked the supervisor if she was then permanent, but he told her no. “He told me everything verbally, he screamed at me, he treated me dreadfully,” says Maria. So then, she left. “These companies change their people like socks,” she states.
* María is a fictitious name, given at the request of the interviewee, so as to avoid future reprisals for speaking out.
(Translated by Nigel Conbear MCIL) – Photos: Pixabay