Sat | Jun 6, 2020

Helpers plead for help - Once the nucleus of households, ­domestics being put out the door

Published:Wednesday | April 8, 2020 | 12:21 AMPaul Clarke/Gleaner Writer

Twenty-eight-year-old Mona Johnson*, the mother of two boys aged 11 and two, admits to be bordering on depression.

She is now out of work, having been laid off recently after working three years as a domestic helper.

“I really don’t know what the future is going to be like. Majority of the time, I just think and look,” lamented Johnson, who said she receives no help from her children’s fathers although a paternal grand­mother offers some assistance.

“I am on my own. My father helps, but he no longer can go to work every day either,” she told The Gleaner. “It’s twice per week he goes now, and that limits the money he makes as a construction worker.”

That cry of anguish is not unfamiliar to Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers Union, who says she is unconvinced that the Government’s $10,000 one-time payout to domestic workers, as part of its COVID-19 Allocation of Resources for Employees (CARE) programme, will be enough.

Instead, she is calling on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to rethink that offer and provide a “special grant” for domestic helpers.

“I believe domestic helpers need a special grant because just as farmers receive some decent money, you gave small businesses decent money but for domestic workers only $10,000, that’s not enough. Give them a $30,000 or $20,000 each, something special to offset their loss of income brought about by this COVID-19”.

HARDEST HIT

Pryce, who also represents gardeners, told The Gleaner that her 6,200-member organisation has been one of the hardest hit by fallout from the pandemic, with scores of workers sent home without pay.

Based on the last known survey, there are more than 58,000 domestic workers in Jamaica, many barely taking home the weekly minimum wage of $7,200.

“Our domestic workers are also those on the front line of this outbreak. They are in direct contact with some of our nurses and doctors who themselves are in direct contact with persons who may be infected, so we need some more financial protection for them,” said Pryce.

As at last week, 54 domestic workers on roll were laid off because of COVID-19, and although some have returned to work, others like 59-year-old Sandra McPherson are feeling the full brunt of being out of a job. Others have been called out irregularly as families on even tighter budgets scrimp and complete household tasks themselves, especially with thousands of employees now working from home. Social-distancing guidelines have also caused some householders to limit access to only family members.

FRUSTRATION

McPherson says the COVID-19 fallout has been frustrating.

“I was sent home without pay, and it’s really now having an impact on me. The last pay I received was due anyway for the period I worked, but coming home to nothing is stress all to itself,” McPherson said.

She told The Gleaner that her employer had promised to re-engage her services after 14 days. That time has elapsed, without a word. Now she is at her wits’ end trying to figure out how to survive when her rent, electricity and water bills are due. Utilities have said they would discontinue disconnections during the outbreak in Jamaica, but mounting bills will have to be paid when the spread of the novel coronavirus subsides.

“I don’t know how I am going to manage,” said McPherson, a mother of two and guardian for two of her grandchildren.

McPherson said the majority of domestic workers cannot even draw on personal savings, as those would have been depleted already as many no longer have a job.

“Any further assistance for these workers at this time would be really appreciated, which is why I intend to engage Government some more on this payout,” she said.

In addition, Pryce is soliciting help from corporate Jamaica for food items she repurposes as care packages to be distributed to the 10 most needy domestic workers under her management.

* Name changed on request

paul.clarke@gleanerjm.com