Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Imani Duncan-Price | Time come: laws for domestic workers!

Published:Sunday | July 24, 2016 | 7:00 AM
Imani Duncan-Price
Michael Lawson and Millicent Clunis, winners of the 2016 GraceKennedy-sponsored Heather Little-White Household Worker of the Year Awards, show off their trophies at a ceremony on July 4. Employers and the legislators should do more to preserve and increase the rights of household workers, writes Imani Duncan-Price.
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Did you know that there are more than 100,000 domestic workers in Jamaica today? That means that nine per cent of Jamaica's employed labour force have limited protection and sometimes work in demeaning conditions. Some may say that's a small number, but multiply that by the average number of persons in a household in Jamaica to understand the reach. Approximately 400,000 Jamaicans survive on the determination and wages earned by helpers, nannies, gardeners, and drivers.

As these domestic workers are in the informal economy, most earn just above minimum wage, which is $6,200 for a 40-hour workweek, and their job security is tenuous. Isn't it time we do better for a group of workers who enable so many more in society to be productive contributors to the economy and play a central role in so many homes?

Jamaica has an opportunity to lead the way once again on this issue as it did in the 1970s when the minimum wage law was amended and household helpers could actually walk through the front door of the homes in which they worked. The latter may sound like an insignificant fact, but it speaks to a turning point in the mindset as Jamaican employers were compelled to see their household workers as 'smaddy' and, indeed, household workers saw themselves as 'smaddy', too. During the same period, many transformational labour laws, Maternity Leave Act of 1979, were also passed to protect the rights of workers.

The fact that the developed USA does not have a national Maternity Leave Act to this day speaks volumes to the effective mobilisation and powerful advocacy work of the PNP's Women's Movement in the 1970s led by Beverley Manley Duncan, the Committee of Women for Progress (CWP), and other key activist women's-rights groups. However, while they were successful in the fight for employers to guarantee the jobs and salary for women while on maternity leave to enable peace of mind and the nurturing of children in those critical first months, the social backlash was too much, and so domestic workers, 80 per cent of whom are women, do not have guaranteed protection under that act.

However, these unrelenting women's-rights activists were successful in getting The National Insurance Act amended in the same 1979 to provide 'maternity leave allowance' for domestic workers for eight weeks once those workers contribute 26 weeks or more to the National Insurance Scheme (NIS). The 'maternity leave allowance' is equal to the National Minimum Wage in force at the time of entitlement.

While it does not provide the same level of protection as guaranteed under the Maternity Leave Act, the amendments to the National Insurance Act included maternity leave for domestic workers and that an employer is guilty of an offence and liable under the law if he or she ends the employment of a domestic worker wholly or partially as a result of her pregnancy or delivery without reasonable cause. While the law is there, however, NIS contributions are often not made by the employer or domestic worker, and so, in effect, there is no maternity protection for many.

 

'Qualified Worker'?

 

It's important to note that under the Maternity Leave Act, a domestic worker is not a 'qualified worker'. This is ironic and speaks to persistent aspects of Jamaica's mindset. For many of these workers, by performing household tasks such as washing, cleaning, cooking, gardening, and caring for children, the elderly or the sick, enable more than 300,000 Jamaicans to engage in employment as 'qualified workers' with protected rights. This 300,000 estimate is based on the fact that some 'day's workers' work for several employers in a week, and other domestic workers (live-in or live-out) support households that include more than one working adult.

Application of the Maternity Leave Act and other rights such as protection from abuse, harassment and violence, and guarantee of overtime pay, rest and leave are needed for the recognition of the dignity of domestic work. Imagine a Jamaica where domestic workers have contracts with clear terms and conditions and are truly ranked among the builders and shapers of our society. Time come!

 

Time Come: Convention 189

 

In June 2011, Jamaica voted for the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Convention 189 - Decent Work for Domestic Workers. This yes-vote by Jamaica gave much hope to the thousands of members of the Jamaica Household Workers Union, who, under the leadership of Shirley Pryce, have led effective advocacy efforts over the last 25 years. However, to date, Jamaica has not ratified Convention 189 (C189).

C189 is a global effort to guarantee fundamental labour rights to an estimated 67 million domestic workers worldwide. They comprise a large share of the informal workforce globally and are among the most vulnerable. While participating in a recent UN-ILO Consultation in Costa Rica to 'Promote the Ratification of the ILO Convention 189 in Latin America and the Caribbean', it became clear that conditions faced by domestic workers in Ecuador and Mexico were similar to those faced by domestic workers in Argentina and Jamaica. By taking on the standards laid out in C189, the reality lived by domestic workers and their families can be changed for the better.

 

Bipartisan Support

 

The opportunity is ripe, as C189 enjoys bipartisan support at the highest level. The previous prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, and current Prime Minister Andrew Holness have both signalled strong support for the ratification.

It is understood that the delay is caused by various changes required in other existing laws as identified by the Attorney General's Chambers. Jamaica has the practice of not ratifying conventions it cannot immediately implement by way of the legal framework, so typically, it pursues the necessary legal changes first and then ratifies. However, as the ILO recognises the need for various changes in local laws for C189, countries can ratify, and then they have up to two years to make the required supporting changes to the national legal framework. This allows countries to signal their commitment to this critical group of informal workers and then put in the work to amend the laws.

A covenant between the Government and the Opposition to ensure ratification happens in 2016 could signal that this issue is very important and recognises the dignity of work being done in the heart of the homes across Jamaica.

 

What Can You Do?

 

While it is critical to fight for laws as they are the final protection of rights, we also know that laws are not sufficient to change culture or practice immediately. It's also important for citizens to be motivated, inspired, or persuaded to uphold the laws that already exist.

Do you currently pay the mandatory contribution to the NIS of $50 per week for domestic workers that are employed to you? Do you ensure that your domestic worker also pays his or her $50 per week to NIS? This is critical as household workers who contribute to the NIS are entitled to retirement income benefit, funeral grant, and widows'/widowers' benefit apart from the maternity allowance. All these can be very helpful as NIS offers financial protection to the domestic worker and their family in difficult times or in their twilight years.

Even as we push for ratification of C189, every employer can make a difference now. Time come!

- Imani Duncan-Price is World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, a development consultant, and co-executive director, CaPRI, and former senator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and fullticipation@gmail.com.