Fri | Jul 3, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Household workers dying for lockdown pay

Published:Sunday | April 26, 2020 | 12:28 AM

The Jamaica Household Workers’ Union (JHWU) is pleading for help. Many of their 6,200 members have been laid off without pay because of the coronavirus. They are no longer welcome in the homes of their former employers who don’t want to take the risk of catching the virus. Some of them have been out of work for more than six weeks!

The Union has launched a fundraising campaign on the website Contributions to the fund can also be made to account number 100929079 at the Bank of Nova Scotia, Half-Way-Tree. Donations of food items, toiletries and other necessities can be left at the Union’s office at 4 Ellesmere Road, Kingston 10.

In these dread times, we need to obey the Golden Rule; the same one we learnt at church when we were children. “Do for others what you want them to do for you: this is the meaning of the Law of Moses and of the teachings of the prophets”, Matthew 7:12, Good News Translation. The first five books of the Bible make up the Law of Moses. The Ten Commandments and those hundreds of other laws in the Old Testament are, fundamentally, about how we treat each other.


Unlike domestic workers, many employees in both the public and private sector are enjoying the luxury of working from home. They haven’t lost their jobs. They can actually afford to give lockdown pay to their household workers. If they were able to pay before, they can do it now. It’s as simple as that.

The problem for many employers is that they are quite unwilling to pay domestic workers to not work. It sticks in their craw. It’s as if they don’t understand the crisis the country is facing and they don’t care about the impact that unemployment will have on domestic workers and their families. Many are living on the edge, from hand to mouth. They have no savings to draw on.

Instead of resentfully thinking that they are giving away ‘freeness’, employers who can afford it should think of lockdown pay as an investment in their own well-being. After all, they are the ones who dismissed their employees for fear of the virus. Furthermore, if they have an efficient household worker who can be trusted to do her job while they are gone to work all day, they should not mind paying her while she is unable to come to work – because of a pandemic.

I wonder if those unconscionable employers who have sent home domestic workers without pay expect them to return to work when the virus eases off. Perhaps, they are assuming that these disposable workers have no options. They will just have to come back and beg for the job. These employers don’t understand the resentment caused by their cold-hearted dismissal of underpaid workers who now have to be scuffling to survive.


Employees working from home haven’t taken into account the significant savings they’re making on their usual expenses that could go towards covering the cost of lockdown pay. They are not travelling to work, so they are saving the cost of transportation. They are eating at home, not at restaurants. It all adds up.

The big issue is who will do the housework. Obviously, the people who live in the house! Employees working from home are saving time that used to be wasted sitting in traffic. This free time can now be used for domestic work. Doing your own housework is a wonderful opportunity to practise the Golden Rule. You literally put yourself in the place of your household worker and you can accurately calculate the value he or she brings to your home.

The minimum wage of $7,200 per week is completely inadequate for the skilled work that household employees do. Employers with a conscience don’t pay the minimum wage. But there are some who pay as little as $9,000 for 5 or even 6 days’ work per week. This is just shameful, especially when employers can afford to pay more.

All across the globe, the vital importance of housework is not usually acknowledged. That’s because it’s mostly done by women: childcare, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing – the seemingly menial tasks that need to be done day after day. In many instances, housewives are not paid for domestic work. It’s seen as their natural duty. And there’s no price tag put on it.


An additional benefit of housework is exercise. Sweeping floors is good for both the upper and lower body. It burns calories, develops muscle strength and actually stimulates metabolic fitness. Bending and stretching to clean under the bed is particularly effective. The quads and glutes get an excellent work out.

Gardeners should also get lockdown pay. And the work they do has huge benefits for fitness. Pushing a lawnmower, raking up grass, weeding and establishing compost heaps efficiently burn calories. And since gyms are closed these days, all of this exercise comes at no extra cost. It’s time for a revolution in how we think about household work.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and