“Rights, We don’t Have” a Cleaning Woman’s Story

  • December 5, 2016

It’s not the cleaning work itself that is difficult for Mari and Julissa*, two cleaning women who are contracted to clean a state institution in Honduras. The work is tiring, but both are used to working with their hands.

Mari and Julissa only complain about their salary, just $295 per month, that comes as long as three months late. It’s mid-November, but they haven’t been paid since August.

Julissa is a single mother with two children, 12 and 6 years old. They’re good, smart children, she says, and she wants to make every sacrifice so that they can have the opportunities that she didn’t have. But in stretching this $295 across three months, there’s not enough money to buy the nice clothes she wants to give them or the gifts that they see their friends playing with.

“We can’t buy basic things because we don’t have the money,” says Julissa, who’s not yet 30.

Both Julissa and Mari have had to ask for money from their neighbors and coworkers just to get by. This isn’t money for luxuries.

“It’s to pay the bus fare,” says Mari, “or make rent.”

Other coworkers have suffered even more for the delay in payment. “Those who rent a room, when the end of the month comes and they don’t have the money, the owner kicks them out,” says Mari. “This has happened to a couple of our coworkers.”

It’s stressful for both of them to live on borrowed money, waiting for the day they’ll get paid for their work. They wait so long that even payday isn’t a cause for celebration.

“We pay out debts and go back into debt that first day,” says Julissa, “Day two we have to be borrowing again.”

Mari is 56, and her children are grown, but she still wants to give to help them with their studies or support them in emergencies. Her oldest daughter, she says proudly, is finishing her associate’s degree.

Mari has worked as a cleaning woman her whole life, jumping from contract to contract, and feels that every time she changes companies, her conditions get worse. After six months in this new job, the lateness of the paycheck worries her. But she doesn’t even think of looking for other work. “At my age, no one wants to give me work,” she says, looking down at her hands.

Julissa has been with this company for 14 months. She laughs when asked about her contract.

“It talks about rights, I guess,” she says, “Well, rights, we don’t have.”

“Just our little paycheck,” adds Mari, “and not even that, so much.”

Neither of them has been registered for insurance as required by law, nor do they get vacation days or holidays. If they get sick, Julissa says, “You have to work anyway.”

Last year, Julissa came down with a bad flu. She went to the doctor, who told her to rest for a week. Her job wouldn’t let her stay home, however, and even reduced her paycheck for the day she went to the doctor.

For Mari and Julissa, working with pain, fever, coughing or sneezing has become something normal, expected, but not accepted.

Julissa has a message that she wants to give the companies that contract her and her coworkers.

“If you’re looking for work, it’s because there’s a need,” she says, “We need the money, and they need us. These businesses are succeeding because of us, and just as they demand good work from us, I hope that they also demand that they pay us on time.”

“We don’t eat every three months,” she says in frustration, “In my house, we eat every day.”

*names changed for security

About the Author