There is a group of workers who toil in the shadows and whose efforts are most times not appreciated. Cleaners and domestic workers are sometimes seen as being at the bottom of the labour force ladder, and although they work hard and for long hours a large number of them barely eke out a living.
Around this time of the year their services are in demand, as most people want to have spanking clean homes but are sometimes not in a position to achieve that themselves.
For one mother of three this is the best time for domestic workers, as people seem to be more in a “giving mood.”
“It is when people are happiest and they might really pay you for your work, but some still would want the work done and don’t want to pay,” the woman told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent interview.
This newspaper spoke to three domestic workers and while they all agree that they are earning an honest living, they refused to have their names published because as they said, people “look down on you.”
The mother of three was forced to pick up “little odd jobs” after a separation when she became the primary provider for her children. She refuses to take on a permanent job, however, preferring to do day work as she is afraid of being taken advantage of.
“I know my rights, so I don’t want nobody talking to me anyhow and treating me like I am nothing…” the woman said, adding that even so she has still had some bad experiences.
The mother of two was not so buoyant when this newspaper interviewed her as she had been recently released from the hospital following surgery, which meant that she could not work for the busiest season of the year.
Her ‘odd jobs’ could include watching children, washing, cleaning and sometimes even cooking, although she limits the latter. There are times when she is called to do a particular job and would be asked to complete additional tasks without the agreed sum being increased.
“They would not even throw in maybe your passage even though you leave at night sometimes…” she said.
She recalled one time being asked to cook at a bar-b-que from 9am to 5pm for the sum of $3000, but she never left until 9pm and not a cent more was added.
“She keep asking ‘turn this chicken, do this, do that’ but did not even give me a taxi fare, and to be honest I went home crying that night because I stay away so many hours from my children and had nothing more to show,” the domestic worker said, adding that the woman had the audacity to call her again and she took pleasure in telling her a curt ‘no.’
Then there was another sour experience when she was hired to wash some clothes but after that was given two carpet-type mats to wash which she was unable to carry.
“The woman stand up there and watch me saying things like, she don’t know why people coming with style when they come to work. She told me the job was incomplete and she could not pay me so I just told her, thank you, and left.”
She explained that was after she had washed the clothes and hung them out.
But she admitted that not all her experiences have been bad and there are a few persons who would treat her “like a human being.”
However, in contrast, two other domestic workers interviewed by this newspaper indicated that they have been treated well by their employers but pointed out that they have worked for the same persons for years.
A 27-year-old woman indicated that she has worked as a domestic for the past two years primarily for three persons, and then not every day.
“Is three good people and they pay me good,” the woman said shyly, revealing that before she became a domestic worker she sold clothing for a woman who recommended her to a friend after she indicated she no longer wanted to sell.
And for her Christmas time is also better as she receives more from her employers and she may also secure one or two more cleaning jobs once the time permits. She does not find the work difficult because for her it is “just like cleaning your house,” and she is not ashamed to be a domestic worker as she “is making a honest living.”
A 39-year-old mother of two has also been a domestic worker for the past two years she too has three employers for whom she works five days a week. Initially she was ashamed to admit that she was a domestic, but because of the manner in which she has been treated she is now more comfortable with her occupation.
She works to ensure that her two children attend school and they are taken care of, because even though married she explained that her husband hardly contributes and prefers to spend his money on alcohol, following which he torments her. Her days begin at 4am and while she finds the work hard sometimes as it tells on her physically, the woman said she is well compensated.
“But I would tell especially me daughter that I working hard and she must study and do she school work because I don’t want she nor she brother to do dem kind of work…”
She said she does not want her daughter to experience what she has gone through in life and feels that if she is independent she will be in a better position to choose a spouse. For her part, she grew up with a drunken father who abused her mother. He eventually died and her mother had to work long hours to provide for them, and still it was never enough. She was unable to attend school and as such she ensures her children attend school every day and they both do well in their studies.
“I know some people look down on this job, but I does work hard and you know when dem go to America all kind a work dem a do, but you know dem a still look down on,” she said.
‘Treat people with respect’
For the mother of two who does the ‘odd jobs’ she would like to see employers treat domestic workers with more respect. She revealed that she had heard horror stories from others who are sometimes afraid to even “walk hard in people house.”
“People need to remember that the woman come into their home because they need a job; she is putting her pride and dignity on the line to come and clean and as woman give her some room to breathe instead of watching how many time she goes to the toilet,” the woman said.
She recalled that on the morning of going to her first job she felt as if she was “walking with a iron on my shoulder and I was not sure how I was going to do it.”
And even as domestic workers are sometimes treated unfairly Tiffany Jackson, a domestic violence survivor who now works as an activist with the Caribbean American Domestic Violence Awareness (CADVA), said that janitorial staff who work with large companies are also mistreated.
Speaking to this newspaper Jackson, who said she would hear the stories of women, said that large companies are abusing women indirectly by the low salaries they are paid and “treating them lesser than other staff.” Saying that she was not speaking on behalf of CADVA but on her own behalf, Jackson said that while there might be an educational barrier it does not mean that the cleaners are illiterate, and even if they are they do not deserve to be treated “like nothing.”
She gave the example of a single parent of three who works with a large company as a cleaner and even though she has been at the entity for five years she does not feel as if she is really part of the company.
“You know there are times when other workers would tell them that their salaries would be cut if they call in sick, and maybe the owner don’t know about it but he needs to ensure that all his employees are fairly treated and the Ministry of Labour also need to investigate these companies,” she said.
Many times workers she said are paid below the $35,000 minimum wage and which is against the labour laws of Guyana, but companies are not held accountable. Workers she said are afraid to speak out because of victimization, because even though they are paid poorly they do not want to be in a situation where they have no jobs.
“There are some that give the workers year in bonuses and that is commendable, but what happens between January and November?” Jackson asked.
She called for women in the workforce, especially those who do menial jobs, to be respected, since most are single parents who are fighting to make ends meet.