Making a difference for women:  Governments, unions and the plight of domestic workers


A couple years ago, I was honoured to have been asked to be the Featured Speaker at the 2nd Triennial Congress of the Saint Lucia National Workers Union (NWU) under the theme ''Better Prepared:  Putting Members First''.  I availed myself of the opportunity to remind the delegates that although trade unionism in the Commonwealth Caribbean is well over 70 years, like political parties of the region, the women of these two groupings remain foot soldiers, rarely rising to leadership position. I reminded my audience of the thoughts of two well known Commonwealth Caribbean women.

In an interview in 2003, Grenadian Peggy Antrobus, a well known and respected feminist, pointed out that "Caribbean women were involved in the labour unions and political parties struggling against colonialism and for the establishment of independent democratic states from as early as the early part of the 20th century". And Hon. Madam Justice Desiree Bernard of Guyana, speaking in Antigua on the topic ''Forever Indebted to Women: The Power Behind the Throne'', observed that institutions like the trade union movement have been and continue to be built on the shoulders of women who, unswervingly, support their leaders and spare no quarter in ensuring that objectives are achieved without thought of the effects on themselves or their families.

And so, I asked the delegates: Why are there so few women at the helm of these bodies? And I chided the NWU for not being an exception to that rule. After all, I was talking to a union comprising of 50-per-cent female membership.

During my presentation, I also referred to the work of Dr Pat Ellis who, in her book Women, Gender and Development in the Caribbean: Reflection and Projections, says that before the 1970s trade unions paid little attention to the specific needs and concerns of female workers or members; but during the last two decades several initiatives have been taken to increase awareness about the need for unions to put women's issues and, later on even, gender issues on their agendas.

She also noted that in Dominica it was the creation of a separate women's committee in one union that provided the much-needed catalyst for change in attitudes of unions.

I then challenged the NWU delegates and suggested that their union agenda remains incomplete until their union finds a way to unionize home domestic workers and that the holy grail of their theme for their congress would be no more than an illusive dream.  I pointed out that there were already several countries in the world where domestic workers had been unionized and I went on to explain that I had done much research on the plight and circumstances of domestic workers, sometimes called ''home helpers'' or simply ''helpers''.

I learned through the website of  the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) that in 2006 an International Conference of Domestic Workers was held in the Netherlands.  The theme of that conference was "Protection for Domestic Workers".  The CAFRA article went on to divulge that outrage was commonly expressed by domestic workers and their representatives with regard to the continuing failure of many countries to recognize domestic workers as workers falling under employment legislation.  Mention was made of the exploitation of domestic workers across the globe, particularly of highly vulnerable migrant workers (many forced to be undocumented) and children who do this work, and of the lack of recognition of the contribution that domestic workers make, without which societies and economies could not function.

The number of professional women in the Commonwealth and beyond who have done well in their careers and owe this in no small measure to a faithful nanny and/or helper is boundless.

Most participants at that forum in the Netherlands pressed for a resolution to demand an International Labour Organization (ILO) convention for domestic workers.  The participant from the Namibia Domestic and Allied Workers' Union was most vocal on the convention issue.

The conference ended with the plan to form an interim working group with representatives of the different regions to oversee all plans and commitments made at the meeting.  This working group was also mandated with the task of investigating the possibilities for greater international activity for the rights of domestic workers worldwide.

There are said to be 300,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong. Each year on Labour Day these workers hold huge rallies to advance their cause and to express solidarity with each other.

Millions of women and girls the world over become domestic workers as a means of supporting themselves and their families. It is generally acknowledged that a high percentage of domestic workers are migrants who are known to fall prey to their employers. They sometimes do so at the expense of their very lives.

In November 2010, the world learned that a 36-year-old Indonesian maid in Saudi Arabia was allegedly killed by her employers. A few years before that, another Indonesian domestic worker was severely abused physically by her employers.  On conviction for abusing their employee, the employers received a punishment equivalent to a slap on the wrist.  These are not isolated stories.  Countries including Philippines, India and others have also recorded such horror stories.

In June 2010, the ILO adopted a resolution calling for the drafting of an international convention on the rights of domestic workers.

On 10 June this year, delegates to the 100th ILO conference succeeded in adopting the domestic workers convention. This convention, the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, has been hailed as historic by campaigners and domestic workers alike and is meant to protect the 100 million domestic workers around the world, many of whom are migrant workers who work hard – sometimes in deplorable conditions – to make money to send home to their families. It is heartening to note that there were 396 votes in favour of the convention, 19 against and 63 abstentions.

It was revealed that the  United Kingdom had the opportunity to lead the movement for rights for domestic workers but it apparently elected not to sign (some reports say refused) the new international convention that would promote fair pay, health and safety as well as other labour rights enjoyed by other categories of workers the world over. Contrast this with the position of India which not only supported the convention but also recommended further provisions be included.

I have often wondered whether there is a connection between the fact that the majority of domestic workers are female and the seeming reluctance of Parliaments worldwide to enact or amend labour laws to specifically protect the rights of domestic workers.

Whatever the reason, it is clear to me that this is an issue where women Parliamentarians can make a huge difference.  I hope that Commonwealth Parliamentarians who read this article are prompted to do some research into the labour laws of their country as they relate to domestic workers and are moved to take the necessary action. Parliamentarians everywhere have the power to make life that much easier for domestic workers everywhere. My parliamentary colleagues, please, please accept the challenge and rise to the occasion.