Significant strides have been made towards improving the rights of domestic workers but much more remains to be done according to regional advocacy groups.
“They have been invisible for many years and even labelled as non-productive and we have been trying for years to stop this eye-pass,” said Joycelyn Bacchus, Secretary of Red Thread, during a presentation at Cara Lodge yesterday. The presentation was the culmination of a two-day meeting of the Caribbean Workers Network, which is a regional movement where groups in Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, St Lucia, and Jamaica,which support domestic workers, come together to champion recognition, acceptance and respect for all persons in this work category.
Bacchus, whose mother was a domestic worker, said that she was once one herself. The woman said that she knows how domestic workers are perceived, and the problems they confront including low wages, sexual harassment, non-payment of contributions and benefits and bad working conditions. Despite the fact that this has been the condition of their work for years, Bacchus said, they remain under-represented, and to a large extent, invisible to trade unions and political representatives.
“They just don’t get it, Bacchus asserted, as she discussed the scant regard shown for domestic workers by persons in society. “Many of the persons who make important contribtions to our society came from households where a parent was a domestic worker,” she said.
Nevertheless, domestic workers continue to fall victim to a plethora of adverse situations. The problem however, is not limited to Guyana, and the wide-ranging nature of the issues prompted the creation of the network.
Shirley Pryce, President of the Jamaica Household Workers Union (JHWU) shared that sexual harassment and the non-payment of insurance remains a plague to domestic workers on the island. Pryce, who served as a domestic worker for 20 years, added that many workers have also complained about being given too much to do in one day, long working hours, and being given more and more chores for the same amount of money.
“They are abused left, right and centre and we are saying that this needs to stop now,” said Pryce who shared that she suffered some amount of abuse at the hands of her employers and longs to see others be better off.
Ida LeBlanc, General Secretary of the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE) in Trinidad and Tobago, said that domestic workers in her country often cry out about being injured on the job, but not receiving any compensation. She also said that a domestic worker who would have given 20 years of service to a family can be fired without being compensated for their years of service.
She said though, that the burning issue, from which many of the problems mentioned stem, is that there is no legislation under which they are recognised and catered for. As such, LeBlanc said, a domestic worker who is fired without a valid reason, or fired wrongfully, has no way of getting justice.
However, despite these problems, the network representatives say that some progress has been made. In Guyana in particular, domestic workers should benefit from the increase in the national minimum wage. This policy, which came into effect on July 1st, will see all employees being paid at least $35,000 monthly. Considering the fact that many domestic workers are underpaid, Bacchus said that this development is very significant but is still not enough.
She also said that domestic workers have become bolder, and are now coming forward more frequently to highlight the disadvantageous situations they are confronted with.
Meantime, Pryce spoke of an initiative in Jamaica to educate domestic workers about their rights. She said that they have also started to work with employers who sometimes violate the rights of domestic workers without realising it. Employers are an important element to address in the fight against the adverse treatment and conditions domestic workers face, especially since they are usually the ones who create those adverse conditions.
Pryce also said that the JHWA has been working with domestic workers to better prepare them to take advantage of the free movement made possible as a result of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME). She said that they have begun to help many persons to acquire their Caribbean Vocational Qualification (CVQ), which is needed if they are to capitalise on the provision.
None of the actions taken by the various advocacy groups however, will mean much unless ILO Convention 189 is ratified by their governments. The ratification of this international legislation on domestic workers rights is a key component of the Network’s ongoing campaign. The convention will avail domestic workers the same labour rights as any other category of worker. These include reasonable working hours, at least 24 hours weekly rest, as well as clear information on terms and conditions of employment. The convention also demands respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
Domestic workers, long ignored by unions, will therefore, finally be able to organise on their own to represent their interests. Bacchus yesterday said that union leaders have failed to play a significant role in protecting the rights of domestic workers. If the convention is ratified however, this should no longer be an issue. In the meantime, Bacchus says they are urging union leaders to do more to protect domestic workers.
She related that Labour Minister Nanda Gopaul has explained that he is taking steps towards having Guyana ratify the convention. The Red Thread representative said that when the body meets with the minister in the coming week, she hopes the minister can give a clear explanation of when Guyana will sign onto the international legislation, and also say what has to be done for this to become a reality.
If Guyana ratifies the treaty soon, it will be the first state of the five countries in the Network to take the step. So far, only eight countries, including Uruguay, Italy, Bolivia, the Philippines and Paraguay, have ratified the convention.
Bacchus said that she does not expect things in any Caribbean country to improve overnight once the convention is ratified. However, it will definitely give advocacy groups the legal ammunition they need to continue their fight, she added.