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effects of the crisis

Families getting by on half a salary

Workers at the central hospital laundry in Madrid struggle to survive The private sector contractor for the service has slashed their wages by 46 percent

Workers at the entrance of the central hospital laundry in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid.
Workers at the entrance of the central hospital laundry in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid.Álvaro García

Paloma Gil Merchán's numbers did not add up. For 24 hours, her head and her pencil pored over 1,000 different ways to make ends meet on 640 euros a month: "If I spend 160 on gas for the car, 280 on cafeteria services for my twin daughters, another 100 on electricity and gas, plus 85 euros a month for my eldest daughter's braces, plus the mortgage, community expenses, taxes... what's left over for food?"

And since the numbers didn't work out, Gil Merchán, 38, declined the offer and quit her job.

On December 1, the central hospital laundry, where Gil Merchán had been working for nearly 11 years, fell under new management. The regional government of Madrid awarded the contract to Fundosa Lavanderías Industriales (Flisa) and Lavandería Industrial Laundry Center, two private companies owned by the ONCE Foundation, and committed to paying 45.9 million euros. The goal was to save 36 million euros.

But the conditions involved a wage reduction of 46 percent for substitute and temporary workers. Of the 210 laundry workers in that category, out of a workforce of 360, around 80 declined the offer and joined the unemployment ranks. The other 130 have to make do with an average monthly salary of 640 euros.

At Gil Merchán's home, the twins' clothes are recycled; she made them

At Gil Merchán's home, the clothes inside the twins' closet are recycled. She made them herself. She also made the small bookcase in the entrance of her apartment. Life has taught her to figure out ways to get ahead. That is why she also learned to drill holes and fix the furniture. She used to work as a guard at the laundry center, although for the last three years she was in the sheet calenders room, picking up bedclothes and putting them inside the machines for pressing.

Gil Merchán, a separated mother of three (ages eight and 13), recalls that she did not have to think her decision through too much, partly because the company only gave her 24 hours to reply to their offer.

"Had I accepted, I would have had to pay someone to pick up the girls after school and then how would I have put food on the table?" she explains.

In June she was awarded a subsidized home in San Sebastián de los Reyes. But that meant that she was spending 160 euros on gas for the car and 280 euros on breakfast and lunch services for the twins at school. "With 640 euros it simply didn't work out," she says.

At 52, when my unemployment benefits run out, what do I do?"

Her unemployment benefits will amount to 1,100 euros a month for six months, then 785 euros. "The problem is, what will I do when my checks run out? I am worried about my daughters. What about them? If I cannot feed them, will the regional authorities take them away?" she asks in an anguished tone.

Most of the laundry workers are women aged around 45 with only primary school education.

Milagros Morago Casero, 52, felt that turning down the offer could only mean one thing: never finding another job again. "It was hard to make the decision. I don't know which is the worst option. At 52, when my unemployment benefits run out, what do I do? I have a 16-year-old daughter who depends entirely on me," she says.

Morago Casero used to make around 1,100 euros a month for doing all sorts of jobs, from packing clothes to classifying dirty sheets. She cannot stop thinking about how she is going to make do on 640 euros a month. Morago is separated and has two daughters. The eldest has just moved out and the youngest one still lives with her. She took out a personal loan of 17,000 euros to pay for her home in Mejorada del Campo. Every month she gives the bank 260 euros to settle her debt.

I accepted the offer; I had little time to decide and I thought it would work out"

Morago stops talking for a second, choked up by the tears. She has considered finding a second job to earn a little extra money, but it's hard. The new conditions include an extra hour of work (it used to be seven) in rotating morning and afternoon shifts. "Before going to work for the laundry I used to clean houses, and I was thinking of doing that again in the mornings, but with the new schedules it is impossible."

María Teresa Durán, 54, also accepted the new conditions, but now she regrets it. "I did the math and it simply doesn't work out," she says. "I accepted the offer because they gave me very little time to decide and I thought that once inside things would work themselves out. But it doesn't look that way," she says disappointedly.

Durán is a widow and her son has a disability, but no right to a state subsidy, because his condition has been estimated to represent a 37 percent disability, below the 65 percent threshold for aid eligibility. She herself has a 35 percent disability, and a year ago the government took away her widow's pension of 625 euros a month. She was only married for a month and a half, and was told that she was only eligible to the entitlement for two years. She has appealed in the courts.

This slight woman with a fighting attitude used to make 1,080 euros as a cleaner. "It's not like I had extra money, but I could rest easy in the knowledge that I would be able to cover the housing expenses, feed my son, buy him shoes, buy cigarettes. Now I guess I'll have to quit," she smiles.

You spend all your life struggling to pay the mortgage and then what?"

Nobody gave Carmen Gómez Pérez, 56, a guide to survival on 600 euros a month. Had she had one, she might have accepted the new conditions. But the calculator showed just 90 euros left over for food, and she said no.

"I didn't decline an offer; they forced me to quit," she says angrily. "I cannot be left with just 600 euros." That is why she preferred unemployment, the first time in her life that she has been in this situation. For the first six months she will collect 950 euros, and 720 for the following year and a half.

Gómez, or Mechi to her friends because of her red hair and "red" political convictions, lives by herself in an apartment in Coslada and pays a monthly mortgage of 140 euros. But the rest of her expenses were taking up almost the entirety of the sum she was being offered. "I was spending 560 euros on the car, electricity, water, gas, mortgage, taxes, insurance... Community expenses and telephone bills together are nearly 90 euros," she explains. And she didn't want to give up on her life: "I like to go down to Madrid and go to the movies, dance salsa. With these wages I would no longer have a life. They wanted to take away my life!"

María Isabel Pacheco Sánchez, 52, did not want to give up on her home, so she had no choice but to accept her new working conditions. "I have a mortgage of 500 euros a month. If I don't meet the payments, I will be just another evicted person," she says. "You spend all your life struggling to pay the mortgage and then what?"

But Pacheco feels relatively lucky because her husband has a fixed job at the same laundry and a salary of 1,200 euros. "I used to make around 1,100, now it will be around 680." But then she considers that they are a family of five, with one child who is working and two who are still studying. "The one that's working can fend for himself, although now he might have to contribute to the family income," she says.

Pilar López, 53, had to move out of her rental apartment, where she was paying 600 euros a month, and into a cheaper place where the rent is 450. "I live by myself. I have two daughters who have moved out already, but they scrape by on their jobs and scholarships. I cannot ask them for help, nor do I want to - they should not be helping me."

The number of househusbands in Spain is on the rise

SERGIO DELGADO SALMADOR

The clock says it is 8.15am, but neither sleepiness nor the cold morning air appears to affect Pedro Caballero and his three children aged six, eight and 10. All three march in complete silence to the family car, wearing their school uniforms. Every day since he decided to quit his job four years ago, this 42-year-old from Madrid drives the kids to school and takes care of the housework. Like him, growing numbers of men are not only helping with household tasks, but taking it a step further and becoming househusbands.

Inside Caballero's home in Pozuelo de Alarcón, outside Madrid, a showy tapestry and a multitude of figurines in the hallway give way to nearly impeccable neatness in the rest of the house. To the left, three unmade beds await the beginning of Pedro's daily routine.

Caballero is part of a small group of 445,200 men who are not part of the active population because they are home doing the family chores, according to the 2013 third quarter report of the Active Survey Population. But his was a voluntary decision: he wanted to let his wife get on with her promising career.

"I was head of sales. The profession was in decline and can be taken up again at any time. She [an entrepreneur in the services sector] had a much better future ahead of her, and it was better for me to stay at home and let my wife get ahead," he explains, forgetting to drink his coffee. "After doing the math, I have often seen that one of the salaries goes towards paying someone else [to do housework or take care of the kids] and you're only left with 200 euros a month. Would you work for that kind of money?"

But adapting to his new position was not easy, either for himself or for other men who choose this road. In many cases they admit they had never before dealt with housework. They had no clue how to run a household, and blame that ignorance on an old-fashioned mentality and lack of curiosity.

"Now I value it more, because I am looking at it from the other side of the fence. I see how important it is," says Caballero. "It's work worth taking into account and appreciating."

Caballero created a website to help househusbands just getting started. The site includes advice on everything from travel to how to slice onions without crying. The goal, he says, is to provide guidance and raise awareness about the "business" of running a home.

"I want to share my experiences so that the masculine sector and other people will see that this is not bad, that it's not a disease. At first there's no book to show you how it's done. First you lean on your wife and your mother, although later I looked online, I read books... That is how you take your first steps in the kitchen."

In the last seven years, since the beginning of the economic crisis, the number of men out of the active population who are doing housework has grown from 290,300 in 2007 to 445,200 today. This year alone, the figure has grown by 22 percent. Meanwhile, women are experiencing the opposite trend: 4,722,200 were housewives seven years ago, compared with 3,760,400 today, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE).

"The proportion of men is still small, although there has been a rise," says José Manuel Blasco, of the press department at the Association of Men for Gender Equality (Ahige). "When it comes to quitting your job to do housework, the rule is still that the best-paid partner keeps working."

Meanwhile, sociologists such as Inés Alberdi point to a February 2013 edition of the INE's Survey on Use of Time, which shows that men spend a daily average of 2.5 hours on family and housework, while women dedicate two extra hours. This difference has shrunk by 41 minutes in the last decade.

"Traditionally there was a sharing of roles: women were in charge of dependents - children, sick people, the elderly and so on - while men were in charge of financial support. But this model is cracking, and these days nobody defends these differentiated roles anymore," says Alberdi, a professor at Complutense University and an expert in gender relations.

But the option that most men prefer, rather than be stay-at-home dads like Caballero, is part-time work. Reduced workdays grew from half a million in 2007 to 711,000 this year, according to the INE. The decision to stay at home causes surprise among friends and relatives, say a few of these househusbands. "It's not so weird to me, but I have friends who will not even go near a kitchen. I affectionately call them alpha males. They would rather pay someone or resort to mothers and mothers-in-law. They just won't do it, they're in denial," says Miguel Fuentes, a 40-year-old nurse who has night shifts and works at home during the day. "Those of them who don't do any housework tell me: 'Dude, you've set it up real bad for yourself!'"

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