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Raw deal for domestic workers

...‘Recognise our work as valid’
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Ida Le Blanc, left, general secretary of the National Union of Domestic Employees, with Gillian Atwell, the union’s organiser and treasurer. Photo: Shereen Ali

Ida Le Blanc can get emotional when she’s discussing domestic workers. Her voice grows full with outrage at the powerlessness of the thousands who do household work in homes: their honest labour is still not officially recognised as “work” by the Government. 



They may cook, wash, iron, clean, garden, do security work, drive, look after pets, and most important of all, they may often take care of children in the absence of primary caregivers, acting as substitute parents to provide a safe, supportive, nurturing environment...and because it all takes place in a home rather than in an outside workplace, none of it is recognised as real work under the Industrial Relations Act.



Ida Le Blanc is general secretary of the National Union of Domestic Employees (Nude). Nude provides a voice for domestic workers and low income workers. It also handles grievances, representing workers in the court and at the Ministry of Labour.


Le Blanc also co-ordinates the Caribbean branch of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), a global organisation of household workers. She was active in the IDWF’s international campaign to remove legal restrictions preventing domestic workers from receiving basic labour rights around the world. 



Excluded from Industrial Relations Act
Le Blanc said in an interview at Nude’s Arima offices last week:
“Since 1982, we have been calling on the Government to recognise domestic workers. We invited Errol Mc Leod to our meeting in San Fernando years ago—around 1998—when we started our drive on ‘Workers know your rights.’ And he himself, when he was president of the OWTU—he said it was wrong for us not to be recognised as workers. And we felt so happy when we saw him come as a minister of labour…but what is happening? What is happening?”


In T&T, because the labour of 10,000 to 30,000-plus household workers is not formally acknowledged as “work,” job grievances—including unfair or unsafe working conditions, extra work which is unpaid, personal abuse (verbal or physical), or even arbitrary dismissal with no hope of benefits—cannot be adjudicated under the Industrial Relations Act, said Le Blanc. This leaves the workers, most of whom are women, wide open to exploitation and discrimination by unscrupulous employers.



Domestic workers confirmed this in interviews in Arima last week, when they shared some of their experiences. One woman, after working full-time for 11 years for one employer, said she was given lots of extra duties not stipulated in her original job offer. She was never paid for these extra duties, had to work long hours, was denied sick leave, and was then summarily dismissed at the age of 59, with no retirement benefits, as her employers had not been paying up their NIS contributions on her behalf. 


Another senior citizen had a similar problem with her bosses who had not paid her NIS in past years, which directly affected her eligibility for monthly retirement benefits as well as an old age pension. And another woman was threatened by an irate housewife who was about to hit her worker over the head with a bottle in the kitchen—until the husband stepped in, and fired the worker to keep peace with his wife.



Domestics have challenges to provide for their own children
Le Blanc’s current goal is to change the climate which encourages such abuses: to have T&T ratify Convention 189, and more importantly, to have the Labour Ministry formally recognise domestic workers under the act, so that they can have some form of redress. Until then, she says, thousands of women (and men) will continue to remain silent, an invisible sea of often poorer people who are afraid to speak out about legitimate job issues for fear of job loss.


Many female domestic workers are also sole heads of households, with their own children to support—placing extra stress on keeping their jobs, no matter what the abuses, said Gillian Atwell, organiser and treasurer for Nude, and a domestic worker. With often unpredictable, long working hours, at the whims of better-off employers, such women often have serious challenges providing proper care for their own children at home, said Atwell.



Afraid to join a union
While the National Insurance Board (NIB) formally acknowledges about 10,000 domestic workers in T&T, this figure is only for full-time, T&T-born workers. It neither accounts for part-time workers, nor does it include the increased numbers of migrant domestic workers from other Caribbean islands and South America, said Le Blanc.


“Our union membership doesn't reflect the large labour force out there. A lot of them are afraid to join a union. And some join, and ask me to keep it a secret,” said Le Blanc. 


According to the International Labour Organization, “domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and work, and to other abuses of human rights.” 



Stepping forward
Le Blanc said she would like to see decent work and decent pay for domestic workers. To achieve this, Nude is lobbying to:
• Recognise domestic/household work as work in T&T under the act. That way, moves can be made towards collective bargaining, and providing legal means of redress for employment grievances 
• Introduce standard written contracts for all domestic workers. Contract templates can then be easily adjusted according to particular jobs
• Bring together stakeholders such as the Employers’ Consultative Association, the Chamber of Commerce, Nude, and representatives from the Government to deal with domestic workers. “We see this happening in Uruguay and other countries. We could sit together and talk, to iron out issues,” says Le Blanc.
• Expand the scope and capacity of the recently formed domestic workers co-operative, launched by Nude in January this year. “We want to pool our skills, and train domestic workers to professionalise this work. We will be liaising with the National Training Agency. We had spoken to them before, informally, but we intend to have a formal conversation with them about being CVQ-ready.”
• Have T&T formally ratify the ILO Convention 189
• Give Caribbean domestic workers rights of free movement within Caricom countries, to avoid problems of human trafficking and illegal immigration
• Assign some public housing for domestic workers. Nude cannot help with that, as it runs on a shoestring budget, and many of Nude’s own members have no homes of their own



No response from Labour Minister Mc Leod
Minister of Labour Errol Mc Leod did not respond to questions from the Sunday Guardian last week on whether T&T would ratify Convention 189, and when exactly domestic workers might gain legal labour rights similar to all other workers who can seek redress under the Industrial Relations Act. This silence is something Ida Le Blanc is familiar with, but cannot understand.


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