Minister of Labour, Small and Micro Enterprise Development, the Honourable Errol Mc Leod
September 21, 2012:
To quote the words of Professor Rhoda Reddock, Deputy Principal of the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine - “In our lifetimes we sometimes have the privilege to live and walk with people of great vision and genius. Sometimes we recognize that greatness, sometimes we don’t and even when we do, it often takes their passing for us to realize the fullness of their contribution.”
One such great individual who walked among us was undoubtedly Comrade Clothil Walcott. If she were with us to celebrate this momentous occasion today, I believe that she would be immensely proud of the landmark achievements that have been made in advancing the rights of domestic workers in Trinidad and Tobago.
Ms. Walcott was the mother of Ida Le Blanc, current Secretary-General of the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE), Trinidad and Tobago’s foremost representative association for domestic workers. With respect to the rights of domestic workers, she once opined, “I became particularly concerned about the problems of the working woman being oppressed and exploited, to do this effectively I discovered I also had to be conversant with the problems of male workers.”
It was in 1974 that she was approached by domestic workers for assistance with their plight of non-recognition or protection by the existing labour laws in Trinidad and Tobago which did not recognise domestics as “workers” under the Industrial Relations Act of 1972. Forty years later, the foundation laid by Ms. Walcott has strengthened the house of labour.
According to the International Labour Office (ILO), there are “tens of millions” of domestic workers worldwide. In spite of the fact that domestic work takes place in private households and there are no comprehensive accounts of the total numbers of household workers, it remains a significant proportion of the national workforce.
Domestic workers provide essential services that enable others to work outside the home, thus facilitating the functioning of the labour market and the economy. They work in the homes of others for pay and they provide a range of domestic services.
They sweep and clean, wash clothes and dishes; shop and cook; care for children, the elderly and the disabled, or provide gardening, driving and security services. Some live on the premises of their employer on a full-time basis. ILO estimates of 2010 suggest that domestic workers represent 4 to 10 percent of the total workforce in developing countries and 1 to 2.5 percent of the total workforce in developed countries.
All informal work, which includes domestic work has engaged the attention of the Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development, as often times, this type of work is performed outside the realm of labour regulations and social protection such as contracts. At an ILO conference held in South Africa in May 2012, the conference title categorically stated that domestic workers are “exploited, undervalued and essential”. Regrettably, this is too often the reality for some of our fellow workers.
At some point, I am sure that we can all relate our moments of hearing the horror stories of our neighbours, friends and relatives in domestic employ that are unable to collect health benefits from their employer following injury on the job or more specifically, “while in pursuit of the employer’s business”, those who were unable to get paid maternity leave, those unaccounted for by way of national insurance payments, those who faithfully worked for an employer for years, yet upon retirement have nothing to show for it and the list goes on.
Domestic workers tend to have lower wages and fewer benefits compared to most other wage workers. More often than not, they are not unionized. Further, there is growing evidence that they are exposed to a wide range of unhealthy and hazardous working conditions. Investigations conducted by the Ministry’s Labour Inspectorate Unit seem to suggest that those who live in their employer’s home are particularly vulnerable.
Their tenure of employment is practically dependent on the goodwill of their employer. Furthermore, female domestic workers tend to be more on the receiving end of gender discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping in relation to their work than their male counterparts.
This is a situation that has been long observed by the international community. The International Labour Organization recognised the need for a special international instrument for domestic workers. For decades, however, no such instrument –convention or recommendation –was introduced.
In the interim, the ILO took the position that domestic workers are supposed to be covered in the scope of the Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights and in the scope of all existing international ILO instruments unless a specific convention or recommendation expressly excludes domestic workers. In June 2011, Convention 189 - Decent Work for Domestic Workers was adopted by the ILO. This Convention calls for basic labour rights to be extended to domestic workers. Convention 189 signifies a progressive move in the right direction for the protection of domestic workers particularly those most vulnerable such as young girls and women.
To date, Trinidad and Tobago has ratified a number of ILO Conventions which recognise the rights of domestic workers. However at the local level, there are still a few hurdles to overcome. Under the current Industrial Relations Act of Trinidad and Tobago, anyone who works in or around a house and who is paid by the householder is excluded from our basic labour legislation.
Yet, this has not stopped the efforts of domestic employees and the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE) association to have this work recognised as real work and not simply an extension of unpaid household and care work. Domestic workers want recognition and value to be attached to their jobs and the skills involved.
They are becoming increasingly au courant about their rights as employees. They want their right to decent conditions of work, including housing and facilities, limitations on working hours, rest periods, overtime pay, paid holidays, sick leave, maternity leave and living wage to be made as clear as possible.
In the fiscal year 2011/2012, the Ministry identified nine priority areas for implementation. These priority areas are aligned to the Medium Term Policy Framework 2011-2014. One of these priorities is the creation of a Register of Domestic Workers.
The Register of Domestic Workers is a database that falls under the exclusive purview of the Ministry. It will facilitate the provision of developmental assistance for both employers and workers and allow all to access beneficial services provided by the Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development.
This includes those provided by the National Employment Service (NES) and the Ministry’s Enterprise Development Division (E.D.D.). Pertinent information on domestic workers in the sector will include:
• The name of the domestic worker
• The name and address of the employer and
• The terms and conditions of employment including the type of work
While completing the registration process is an entirely voluntary exercise, all domestic workers and their employers would be invited to complete the registration form. This database is being launched as part of our nation’s corporate commitment to continuously promote the empowerment of every citizen.
The purpose of the Register is twofold. Firstly, establishing and maintaining this database will facilitate the easy collection of labour market statistics on domestic employers and employees. The information received will in turn guide the Ministry’s policies and decision-making in creating a beneficial situation for all the tripartite partners.
Secondly, the register will aid in the proactive monitoring activities of the Ministry’s Labour Inspectorate Unit to ensure compliance with existing labour legislation. In a globalized world, where competition among developed and emerging economies has intensified, the Trinidad and Tobago labour market will work best when there is an institutional environment that ensures decent work, income and social protection for all workers.
To the Ministry’s officials and members of the Steering Committee for the development of the National Register of Domestic Workers for Trinidad and Tobago, I commend you on making this landmark achievement possible. We salute your immense concern and desire to help your fellow countrymen. As a former trade union leader, I say the struggle never dies but the dream has taken root and is slowly but steadfastly bearing fruit.
Thank you and May God richly bless our nation.