Since 1959 the occupation of housemaid has been one of those most closely associated in Cuba with "capitalist exploitation." Perhaps this is why, when they began to reappear in everyday life they were referred to with euphemisms that have survived down until today; the most widespread is "the lady (or girl) who helps me at home."
"If servants disappeared after the Revolution, I don't think it was for long," says Rachel, 38. "There have always been people willing to pay to have their housework done."
Rachel remembers a classmate of hers from grade school who had a maid at home. "It is true that it was not very common, but there was a maid at home. The boy's father was a sailor, and the mom didn’t lift a finger. The lady they had did everything, even pick up my friend from school. "
These days the situation seems to be the same, except that there are more maids, or they're more visible.
"A few years ago it was more difficult to find families with maids," says Raquel. "Now anyone with a little business, or whose family sends them money, can afford one."
What the maids have to say
Working as a maid or domestic is among the self-employed activities authorized by the Government. It belongs to the "simplified regime," such that it is not necessary to file a sworn return at the end of the year.
According to the legislation, this type of worker is to pay 30 pesos (national currency) per month in taxes, and 262.50 pesos quarterly for social security. Though it is one of the activities with the lowest tax rates, most of those working in this capacity still prefer to forgo a license.
Employers rarely want to talk about the tasks assigned or the wages paid to domestic workers, predominantly women. But many of these workers have no qualms about doing so.
"Who said that 35 or 40 CUC (convertible pesos) a month is a lot of money?" asks Oneyda, age 54. "It's true that it's more than a salary paid by the State, but it's not easy to earn that."
Oneyda was hired by a family to do the cleaning and cooking three times a week. "The house was huge, and cleaning it did not involve just pushing a broom around. You had to throw water, and really scrub. I ended up exhausted every time I went. "
To make matters worse, Oneyda's duties increased over time. "At home there was a bedridden old man, who was not my responsibility, but one day I bathed him, just to help out, and I got stuck with the task."
Oneyda ended up washing and ironing his clothes, bathing him, and cutting his hair and nails. "All this on top of the cleaning, which was what the lady of the house and I had initially agreed to."
In the end Oneyda quit the job, because they gave her more and more tasks, but at the same pay. "But there are people who have been in the same situation as me, and they stay on. They don't even dare complain, lest they lose their jobs."
One such case is that of Mariela, who holds a degree in Optometry. She is younger than 40, and could be working in Public Health, but she opted to work as a domestic because the salary was actually higher.
"I am paid 70 CUC per month, which might seem like a lot of money to some, but they really work me to the bone," she says.
As in the case of Oneyda, Mariela was hired to clean and cook in a huge house for a family of four. Her tasks also increased, though her pay remained stagnant. "Sometimes I even get paid less, because supposedly I work fewer hours. But when the owner calls me to take care of the girls at night, they don't pay me extra. "
Mariela is now the maid and babysitter for some little girls, who insist that she make them their meals and take them to school. "They say the girls don't want anyone else to do it, so I can´t get out of it. It is true that I care for them, but sometimes I feel overhwelmed by everything I've got to do," she says.
"The worst part is putting up with my employer's husband. The guy is very rude to me. I've even had to see him in his underwear. And he doesn´t even pay. She does.”
Xiomara, a 68-year-old retiree, has been working as a maid since she stopped working.
"I've seen it all," she says. "I started at the house of some friends because the girl was having a difficult pregnancy. There were many things she couldn´t do, including taking good care of her eldest son, so I helped her."
This was a good experience for Xiomara. "They're good people and did not take advantage of or ask too much of me. Just what we agreed to."
Xiomara then worked in other houses. "I had to leave one, because there was something more to do every day, and they didn´t pay me for it," she says. "There are people who think that for 40 CUC they have a pack mule," she complains.
Xiomara currently cleans several houses, on different days of the week. "I work every day, but at different houses. That's better, because no one thinks I'm their property. "
Although she has several infirmities typical of her age, Xiomara does not intend to stop working as a domestic. "My pension is not enough, and I don't have any family to help me. My refrigerator broke and there's no other way for me to come up with the 100 CUC to fix it. "
No contract, no union
None of these three women has signed a contract with their employer. They all work based on oral agreements. This makes it easier to add tasks that were not previously agreed to.
"I guess that to demand a contract I'd have to have a license," says Xiomara. "But think about it. If the pay isn’t much, and you have to pay for the license on top of it, the numbers don´t add up."
Mariela and Oneyda agree. Oneyda reasons, "even if I paid for a license there’s no union to defend me if my employer wrongs me, so there's no difference."
The self-employed holding licenses, in theory, have the right to form unions - within the Government's Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC), of course. But this law offers these women no guarantees.
"It would be just another union like all the others in the country, controlled by the CTC," they explain. "When has the CTC really defended workers?" snaps Oneyda.
The three women scoff at the possibility of creating an independent union that truly represents the interests of its members.
"A union not under the control of the CTC?" asked Xiomara. "The truth is that it sounds like a pipe dream. No, girl. This job will remain the way it is. If you don't like it, you can quit. But you can forget about rights."