Fri | Dec 15, 2017

Orville Taylor | She’s not your helper, madam; she’s your worker

Published:Sunday | June 25, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Miss Ivy's son got up in the night and put clothes in the washing machine. Yes, they are almost all black, and some of them have to be hand-washed. The delicate setting on the machine still has to be monitored. It is hard work because I have to mop up the floor of the laundry room. Dusting is another matter. With all the complications that come from dust mites and the wayward vermin that crawl in at nights, routine cleaning is a must. And for the record, 'insects' is a four-letter word, not a six-legged creature in my house.

Anyone who has stuck a garden implement in the soil knows just how difficult it is if I ask you to get the fork out and not devalue the contribution of the gardener who knows how to fork with hoe and shovel. Household work is hard work and is extremely valuable to families. It is real work and cannot be equated with your neighbours' or your relatives' contribution to lighten your domestic tasks. Such persons are helpers. However, someone who leaves her, or his, children to fulfil domestic duties at another person's home is not a mere appendage.

This person is performing tasks that are critical, if not indispensable. One of the problems in imputing worth to the occupation of the working class is that female-dominated occupations have historically been undervalued. While it is true that women themselves under-report their economic activity and fail to consider much of it as genuine work, traditions, including classism and sexism, reinforce their subordination.

It should not be forgotten that it is only as recent as 2011, with the passing of the Charter of Rights, that equality of the sexes became a constitutional right. For this reason, the 1975 Employment Equal Pay for Men and Women Act was allowed to only address equal pay for equal pay. However, up to the present, the act is silent as regards work of equal value. For decades, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has baulked at this deficiency in the legislation. Consistently, the ILO has noted that female-dominated occupations are consistently remunerated less than their male counterparts. Even household workers who work inside residencies tend to be paid more cheaply than the average gardener, handyman, and male custodian. Inasmuch as I am sympathetic to the gardeners, who do the hard work which I cowardly went to college to escape, the difference between inside and outside work is like chalk to cheese.

 

Not a mean task

 

The preparation of meals, cleaning houses, and tending to children is no mean task. What is ironic is that some of the very professionals who are comfortable with making the case that stay-at-home moms perform equitable roles as male breadwinners will, when it suits them, argue that "the helper is asking for too much". If one wishes to be fair and just, one should ask herself as to how much it would cost for the father and mother in the household to do those menial tasks for which they grudgingly pay Miss Dassa the measly $6,500 per week. Take the place of the other, I challenge, and ask the would-be stay-at-home moms if $12,000 per week could compensate her if she and Miss Dassa performed the same duties with the notable exception of sex. For good measure, if Miss Dassa is younger and more attractive, she is entitled to a bonus for quietly rebuffing Mr Busha when his imagination runs too wild or his blood-pressure tablets malfunction.

My consistent position in my columns is that residents in a household have a primary responsibility to clean up their messy houses, wash their own skid marks, cook, bathe their own children, and help them with their homework. It's about time that professional women and men learn to iron their shirts and seam their trousers. An earlier argument was that having a household worker is a luxury. I am willing to consider the argument that it is a privilege instead.

The protest from middle-class workers that they can't afford to pay a helper above the $6,500 is a reasonable argument. However, that is precisely the point: You simply cannot afford it. There is no difference with a bank teller wanting to buy a car, yet she knows that her income can only support the purchase of a small compact car. Yet, she sticks her neck out and acquires a European drop-top convertible.

 

Unrealistic lifestyle

 

The difference is, the worker has no one or the power to be repossessed when the individual is delinquent. This scenario is not dissimilar to an employed individual who decides to pursue an MBA or a law degree, yet considers the university to be unsympathetic because he chooses to pay his car loan, gym fees, or other priorities and ultimately gets deregistered. Thus, if one wants to engage an individual to perform important tasks, one must be prepared to pay for what one wants. It is about time that people put their hats where they can reach them, learn to live within their means, and stop asking poor household workers to subsidise their unrealistic lifestyles.

To reinforce the issue of affordability, one should be aware that a household worker is not only covered by the National Minimum Wage Act and the orders under this act. Other statutes that are binding include those that deal with sick and vacation leave. Maternity leave, however, is not applicable to household workers. Nevertheless, they are entitled to benefits under the National Insurance Scheme (NIS). Therefore, responsible employers need to ensure that their NIS deductions are paid over to the Government. Moreover, the Employment Termination and Redundancy Payment Act is unambiguous in stating that workers employed in a household have exactly the same status as those who work in business enterprises. Therefore, a household worker who works continuously and full time for two years and above is entitled to the full slate of benefits under the act.

So, let us stop the nonsense because household workers have the same single vote as Mr Busha.

- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.