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Jamaica: "COVID-19 can Quarantine Us, but Domestic Workers’ Rights are Not to be Quarantined!"

by IDWFED published Dec 05, 2020 12:00 AM

Jamaica -

The Insights of Shirley Pryce, President of Jamaica Household Workers’ Union (JHWU) and Executive Committee Member of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) about domestic workers in Jamaica under the pandemic.

Population Demographics

The Caribbean has mixed range of domestic workers between local and migrants. As Jamaica is traditionally a sending country of origin of domestic workers, it is not an attraction sight for migrant workers, and domestic workers there are mostly local and middle-aged. The workers population is spread between live-in, live-out, and daily-wage working arrangements. Workers in live-in arrangements can leave the household of their employers on their assigned weekend, usually once or twice per month, according to individual negotiations. Anything beyond the scheduled weekend is a struggle, as the domestic worker would have to negotiate access to their own chores, such as visiting a doctor, on an ad-hoc basis with their employer, which is often a struggle.

The Jamaica Household Workers’ Union (JHWU) works on ensuring fair and just working conditions and wages for household workers, protecting the rights of women who provide domestic service, providing skills training in household management, and empowering its members in achieving their professional and personal goals. Despite domestic workers in Jamaica mostly being local, JHWU has a migrant domestic worker in the leadership of a chapter.

The Impact of the Pandemic

Domestic Workers in Jamaica are covered by national laws and qualified for all benefits, except for the maternity leave, which is based upon their contribution to the National Security Fund (NSF). Those who do not pay the national insurance cannot access governmental benefits. The cost of the insurance should be paid part by employee and part by employer. Despite the law, COVID-19 has brought about additional disparities in the sector.

Live-out workers were not allowed to rejoin their employers’ households because they took  public transportation: the employers were concerned about contracting the virus as commuting to work endangers the health of the domestic worker and, in turn, the health of the employers. Other live-out workers had their days cut-out to three days, making sustaining their livelihoods exceedingly difficult. Live-in domestic workers had to do prolonged duties using strong chemicals to clean which has damaged their health. They have also been threatened of dismissal by some employers if they are to leave the house, so they were forced to quarantine with them. Some domestic workers complained that their employers are putting them in danger, as they had overseas visitors that did not quarantine and did not follow the rules. JHWU helped workers negotiate the terms of return and employment during the pandemic.

The lockdown had started in March and is now getting exceedingly worse after the government eased it up for the elections. From March to August, Jamaica had over 1000 COVID-19 positive cases, and 10 deaths. Since September, as the government started working on the election, there have been almost 200 deaths, and over 10,600 cases of COVID-19. In one call-center, around the residence of JHWU, 5000 workers reside in one space, with over 500 cases of COVID-19. Different communities have different days on which they can leave their premises, otherwise they must stay in their parish. The increased lockdown and isolation are affecting the mental health of domestic workers, some of whom are having panic attacks. The union has also received some complaints on intimate partner violence and domestic violence, as it has increased because the children are home from school and the parents are not working. The violence is not necessarily physical but emotional and psychological abuse, extended to the children.

The Union’s Impact

The Jamaican government gave a cash package to different sectors, but unfortunately domestic workers were not chosen a one of them. Domestic workers needed to go online to apply for the governmental cash assistance, however, most of them do not have access to the internet or do not know how to fill out the forms. Additionally, those who have smartphones and can purchase internet data packages do not find them sufficient for the time of application due to economic barriers to accessing the online database. For the domestic workers not to be left behind in the cash assistance, JHWU started providing application support in accessing the portal. However, due to the high demand, the system crashed, so the number of domestic workers who accessed it was minimal: a hinderance in every step of the way.

The union researched the effects of COVID-19 on domestic workers and sent out information via WhatsApp to its members, using the guidelines of the ministry of health, so the workers keep safe. The union conducted a fundraiser, hoping to raise 10,000 USD, however, they only reached 1,000 USD, despite the large number of people who reached out to help. The money was used to buy food and give pay days for workers. The Union members got more money than non-members, and those with children had an additional share. About 2,000 care packages were given including food items, masks and hand sanitizers, with the help of IDWF, private sector and the Bureau of Gender Affairs. Some domestic workers are creating new livelihoods for themselves. For example, eggs are in shortage, so some have been raising chickens to lay eggs and others for sale. Some domestic workers are making juices, scented candles, and soft furniture to be able to take care of their family. Although these small enterprises are putting massive efforts towards their endeavors, their success is challenged by the expensive cost of the raw material. For instance, despite having the skills for making scented candles, the raw material of wax and perfumes are unaffordable.

The bad is not without good: Sixty-three new members joined the union when they came to file complaints or get food packages, but they were unable to pay application fees. In fact, JHWU did not collect dues since March, despite the dire need to sustain the organizing. The union has one staff member, a secretary that was employed full time since March due to the great influx of domestic workers in need of assistance. Without these membership fees, JHWU is unable to pay the secretary an adequate wage which is one of their organizational priorities.

Aware of the massive role played by JHWU, several civil society organizations are rooting for the union who has been on every media local and international, in print and online helping us to fight for our cause. The minister of foreign affairs has reached out to the union, asking for a list of domestic workers seeking assistance. However, this step did not materialize in benefits to date. The union engaged employers and negotiated terms of return of workers and measures to take to protect them. They also negotiated payments of salaries according to the law this was done through mediation between the Union and the employer. Most of the cases are handled amicably through dialogue, as the union raises awareness on the rights of domestic workers and the duties of their employers.

JHWU also wrote to the government asking it to ratify ILO Convention 190: They were asked to come to the parliament to do a presentation on C190 and to speak about the occupational health and safety bill to be presented in the parliament so it can become a law. The increase of the infection rates in Jamaica led to postponing of the weekly meeting.

This crisis widens the existing crack in the economy: If people are vulnerable, then the economy is vulnerable.

“We need change now! We cannot continue same old, same old. We need more social and inclusive dialogue to design a better and fairer nation. If you've got workers, employers and civil society at the table with governments at all levels, then you can design the kind of future that takes into account people’s rights as priorities, for the country and, of course, for steady system.  With the ongoing and increasing uncertainties, one thing remains certain: because of our resilience and through social dialogue, education, coordination, and organization, JHWU will fight and push for victories. We shall overcome and build a better normal.”

The President of JHWU and IDWF’s Executive Committee member, Shirley Pryce, says with confidence,

“Time has come to open the doors for domestic workers, for us, to walk through. Care for those who care for you and invest in Domestic Work. COVID-19 can quarantine us, but domestic workers’ rights are not to be quarantined!

Watch Shirley's presentation to the Parliament on 2020 December 3