DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
TODAY, June 16, marks the tenth anniversary of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 189, on decent work for domestic workers. The convention resulted from decades of advocacy and organising by working-class women and men, including TT’s own Clotil Walcott, who founded the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE) in 1974, and her daughter, Ida La Blanc, now general secretary of the union.
Why should this convention or even domestic workers matter?
First, domestic workers labour in and around our homes; cooking, cleaning, washing, and caring for children. They help with the sick, disabled and elderly. They are essential workers in these spheres of work, and these are the most necessary and trusted tasks in our lives.
Domestic workers are more valuable than sports heroes, celebrities and CEOs to the daily functioning of many households. Yet, they often remain insufficiently acknowledged, underpaid and poorly protected.
Their marginal status is the result of many things – the low value of care work and housework, and the fact that we don’t count hours worked in the private sphere of the home nor calculate their contribution to GDP.
Most people who employ domestic workers don’t think of their homes as a part of the waged economy which should be governed by the same rules. As such, informal work takes place without formal agreements, and can include verbal abuse and unpaid extra hours. It is also stereotypically associated with women and femininity, which is key to its low value.
Poor women also lack political or public policy influence, despite their numbers on the ground in elections, where they are meant to be unquestioningly supportive rather than assert collective demands. There is also the low regard given to labour issues generally, particularly for low-income employment. The disregarded struggle of sanitation workers for improved conditions of work is another example.
All this partly explains why domestic workers can now access basic conditions that include maternity benefits, sick leave and vacation leave in the way that salaried workers do, but may still have to fight in court to secure those rights.
That said, there has been an assault on salaried labour since PM Manning in 2002, and a deliberate turn to contract-based work, without benefits or job security, particularly for lower-level employees.
Austerity measures now being adopted are spreading this model across multiple kinds of employers. In this “race to the bottom,” a new model is needed that provides basic protections for broad swathes of insecure and informal labour, including domestic workers.
Today, we should remind ourselves how much of this we can change. Particularly in our current context where so many have lost income or jobs, we should become more conscious of those who cannot access salary grants if their employer hasn’t registered them as workers, who cannot seek remedy for arbitrary dismissal under the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) or the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act, whose employers may not make their National Insurance Scheme (NIS) monthly payments, leaving them without sufficient retirement benefits, and who may be subject to sexual harassment, violence or exploitation in their employer’s home.
As migrant women increasingly seek jobs in our economy, their conditions of household labour may be even more precarious and exploitative, particularly in terms of hours of work and wages.
Convention 189 matters because, once ratified, which is when a state consents to be bound by this international treaty, then local laws have to be amended to include domestic workers in ways they currently do not.
In the ten years since this convention was adopted by the ILO, La Blanc and NUDE have tirelessly called for TT to ratify the convention. They have done so across two governments with labour leaders appointed as ministers of labour, and still nothing.
Our local ILO 144 Tripartite Consultative Committee, comprising labour, business and government, unanimously recommended that “domestic workers” be included under the definition of “worker” under the IRA. It also called for the inclusion of protection for domestic workers in the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA). Still, nothing. Imagine how many politicians employ domestic workers. Still, nothing.
In a May 17, 2014, interview in the Guardian, Le Blanc described “an invisible sea of often poorer people who are afraid to speak out about legitimate job issues for fear of job loss.” The pandemic has made that worse.
Six years later, NUDE continues to call for ratification of ILO Convention 189. Forward ever, Ida. May solidarity with domestic workers help secure recognition and rights long overdue.