I think that enough has been said by women in direct response to Minister Keith Scott’s proposal that women security guards who are single mothers be facilitated to stop working at night if they so choose. But the debate should continue in spite of Minister Harmon’s statement that the government has taken no such decision, because it really is about fundamental issues: the lack of access to what the ILO calls “decent work” for thousands upon thousands of poor people in Guyana; the consequent multi-jobbing and migratoriness into which many are forced in order to sustain their families; and the particular impact of this kind of work ‘choice’ on children being raised by single mothers and in a few cases, single fathers.
The care-giver of the 18 month old whose 18 year old uncle threw her through the window like trash last week, is effectively a single father who does one job in the day and security guard work at night, leaving an 18-month old alone in the care of a ten year old and a 12 year old.
But single parents are mainly women. They are also mainly African-Guyanese although there is a rise in what are called de facto single parent households in other communities. Thus, on the surface Minister Scott’s proposal sounds like a pro-woman, pro-family, and pro-Black initiative. It has even been called “noble”. I’m sure the Minister and those who support his proposal expected it to be opposed only by the employers, certainly not by ‘feminists’. And now that ‘feminists’ have joined in criticizing it, albeit with some differences, no doubt some will say that we all lack empathy with the single mothers who are security guards either because of our class, our race, our political party allegiance, or any combination of these.
I hope not, because any such allegation will stray us from the crucial questions that need to be addressed.
The Scott proposal sought to address an immediate problem in the quickest way possible by reducing night shift work among single mothers in the security guard business. Unfortunately, in this case as in many others, quickest was synonymous with most superficial. If such a proposal were ever to be implemented, many – if not most – single mothers in that business who took the option to stop working as security guards at night would seek some other waged work to do in its place, because women who work as security guards, domestic workers, street vendors and in a host of other jobs seldom do one job alone. Women often multi-job, but I think that the ones I’ve listed are forced to multi-job in a way that is particularly destructive to themselves and their families. They can’t afford not to. In 2012 I wrote a letter to the press in response to an article in Stabroek News captioned ‘Single mother works three jobs to maintain her five children’ which praised a 39 year old woman who worked as a security guard, a sweeper/cleaner in a school, and a drainage worker. She also did other work for money which the story mentioned but did not list as jobs: she made and sold pointer brooms, tended and sold plants, and made, bottled and sold pepper sauce. She did some of her work on Sundays and the security guard work at night. I estimated that if we included housework and childcare she worked about 20 hours a day. Incidentally, she also took classes in the hope of finding better jobs.
We have some other evidence of poor women in Guyana multi-jobbing (and by the way, I don’t mean multi-tasking; all women do that). A few years ago, when Red Thread was campaigning for government to ratify ILO Convention No 189 which mandates that domestic workers enjoy the same rights as other workers, the group commissioned a small piece of research to develop a profile of domestic workers in Guyana. The domestic workers and cleaners interviewed were, as domestic workers and cleaners are in Guyana, African, Indian and Indigenous. Some were single mothers and some were not. Whoever they were, few did domestic work alone. Some moved in and out of domestic work. Some moved up and down between coast and interior and between Guyana and nearby countries in search of better wages.
What I am describing here is a waged work life characterized by instability, insecurity, and poor returns – a work life based on the super-exploitation of women’s labour and often, the neglect of their children. I don’t want to let the security firms off the hook; their salaries and conditions of work are often abysmal. But the problem is not rooted in the behaviour of one industry. It is deeper than that and it demands more thoughtful attention than the Scott proposal gives it.
In the 2012 letter I referred to above I said that while the 39 year old mother with her multiple jobs deserved praise, that praise should not prevent us from challenging the underlying problem: national and global neoliberal economic priorities (now criticized by the very IMF which pushed them) that breed inequality and impose on poor families a choice between being superhuman or being beaten down by inhuman conditions. By inhuman conditions I meant in her case, working 20 hours a day and still not earning enough for a good life.
What is the government’s plan (or the opposition’s) for moving Guyana forward into an economy that provides decent work for all who want it, and in-school and post-school education programmes that encourage the skills needed for decent work and the self-confidence that allows people to see themselves as having the right to decent work?
If Ministers could identify so quickly after they were appointed in 2015 that they could not meet their expenses on the salaries that were then in force, what do they think is happening with families whose earnings are a very, very small percentage of theirs?
There is much more to be said, beginning with the fact that what women want is not protection as “vulnerable” people but equity.