SYNEMAG-B is playing many chords

Income generating activities for dispossessed workers, IDWF Calendar 2022


SYNEMAG-B is playing many chords: Income generating activities for dispossessed workers

The photo featured for our February month was taken on Labor Day, 2019 in Burkina Faso during a march organized by many workers, including domestic workers. We met with Assétou Espérance Traore, who is the focal point of activities at SYNEMAG-Burkina Faso and the Vice President of the IUF Women’s Committee to inquire more into this historical moment and women who made it happen. Assétou was joined by Salimata Kiemtore, the domestic worker featured in the picture.

In the picture, we see Salimata Kiemtore, a domestic worker in her 30th week of pregnancy. She marched because she was angry with her working conditions: “I wanted to show our discontent with the blatant lack of recognition of our rights,” she said. “We don’t have maternity leave and we cannot take our toddlers with us to work either. We must work the nine months till we reach childbirth.” Salimata stood at the march’s frontline so the authorities could see her and understand that domestic workers must have workers’ rights and women’s rights, that this is a pregnant worker that must be heard. This labor’s day march was different from the previous one because women led it, not men.

Since 2015, the IUF wanted to reach out to domestic workers, so Assétou met SYNEMAG-B and helped them get affiliated to IUF and IDWF. Coming from a unionist background, she wants women workers to no longer be vulnerable: “the world of work is the world of work, and there is no reason to minimize or disregard a sector of activity” Assétou said. “Labor is a chain from domestic, cultural, medical, diplomatic, etc. And everyone relies on domestic work to make the chain complete. Imagine any household without domestic work: It is catastrophic!”

In Burkina Faso, maternity leave is an entitlement for private and public sectors, in any sector that is recognized as “work,” which is not the case for domestic work. Amongst the domestic workers organized in SYNEMAG-B, only about 3-5% can access some form of maternity leave, and only if they are great negotiators, otherwise: “It is not even a negotiation. One does not negotiate with their employer; they simply obey so they aren’t fired.” At the union, Assétou oversees many activities. Alongside training domestic workers on lobbying for their rights using the Domestic Workers Convention C189, she organizes personal development activities to improve the skills of the workers, which in turn gives them more confidence standing their grounds on their rights.

Salimata has had three children while working as a domestic worker: she was pregnant with her middle child in the picture. Her eldest is now 22 years old and the youngest is 5 months old. She held him in her arms as she told her story: “With this one, I was fired when I was at 16 weeks, as I tried to negotiate a maternity leave with my employer who did not provide me with any social security contributions and gave me no leaves. He fired me instead,” she said.  Salimata has been unemployed since. Looking for a job while pregnant was not successful, neither was looking for a job with a baby in her arms: “I could not leave a 5-month-old baby at home while I work, but nobody wanted us.”

With her middle child, Salimata was only able to preserve the job because she worked until the delivery. She was lucky: her childbirth came the week her employers were away on holiday. After they came back, she went back to work. She used to leave her middle-child with a street vendor who sold baked goods near her employer’s house. She would put him in a cardboard box near the kind stranger and go work from 7 am until 5 pm every day. She could not breastfeed and would only leave her employer’s house in secret to check in on her child if opportunity presented itself. Otherwise, she had to work under the gaze of the employers without taking any breaks. Her son had water and occasionally some cheap powdered milk, not in the consistency that a child needs.

Salimata has been a domestic worker for 23 years, since she was 14, and a SYNEMAG-B member for 21. The members were first meeting in churches and in secret because they did not have a space to organize in. Salimata remembers the first meeting they had. She remembers learning a lot, for example, that she is working way beyond acceptable hours, that it is common, but is not okay. She also learned that it is her right to go out on a lunchbreak. This information motivated her.

With COVID-19, SYNEMAG-B is focused on creating income generating activities for its members. The domestic workers are trained on producing liquid soap, shampoo, and cleaning products so they can have some additional income to complete their salaries that were deducted in the pandemic. The IUF has put them in contact with hotel workers and workers of the tourism sector, to enable hotels to purchase some cleaning products from this initiative.

The workers continue to look for venues to diversify their income. They are currently envisioning a training on hen-raising techniques, so the families of domestic workers can have something to fall back on. When a domestic worker is more confident that they can access some form of livelihood and they are not trapped in a bad job, they would allow themselves to negotiate more. When they are confident that they have additional skills other than doing housekeeping, cooking, and care-work, they are more reassured that if the employer fires them, they can look for a different employment. Assétou also explains that this is a smart strategy for all types of workers: “For example, workers of the public sector, such as accountants, don’t limit themselves to accounting. They take extra training in human resources management or learn an additional language to improve their profile. Why wouldn’t this be an option for the domestic work sector?” she explains. “We call it playing many chords!”

Salimata, for example, is fond of cooking. She learned Lebanese cuisine with one family, then German then French cuisines with others and now knows multiple international cuisines. She used to work as a nanny in the mornings and picked up shifts at restaurants until 2am. In a world where domestic work is recognized, she wants to be specialized as chef. As professional capacity building training and courses are paid and unaffordable, the unionists are trying to find a budget to fund income generating activities, taught to workers. And despite the situation deteriorating with COVID-19, these unionists are not giving up on their plans. As Salimata put it: “I love what I do. When you love what you do, you must fight for it. So, I fight for domestic work.”

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