It was long in coming for these unseen, unrecognized yet vital members of the work force — domestic workers. Days ago, they became part of organized labour when a trade union launched a division devoted to fighting and advancing their cause.
While domestic workers have been an abiding feature of middle to upper class households around much of the world for centuries, rarely if ever has it been the case of them coming together to speak with a unified voice.
In places like Barbados and other Caribbean territories, they changed designation with emancipation in 1838 from house slaves to domestics but continue until now to suffer and be denied rights to fair pay and hours of work, paid vacation, with the thought of a pension inconceivable.
“It is often said of domestic workers that the work they perform sets the platform for the performance of all other work,” remarked Barbados Workers Union General Secretary, Toni Moore, at the launch of the union’s Domestic Workers Division within its portfolio Saturday.
“Domestic workers are the ones in many homes who make the house a home for those who live there … are the ones who are getting up early on mornings … toiling well into the night … giving up Christmas lunches with their families, and holidays just so they can allow other families to celebrate and be families,” she added in the Hugh Springer Auditorium of the union’s headquarters.
She noted that on special days when others are celebrating with loved ones, it is the norm for domestic workers “to be torn away from their comfort, their space where they want to celebrate with their own families to make the lives of so many others meaningful”.
But considering the importance of such workers, Moore herself had to concede it was surprising that the BWU, as the island’s leading and oldest labour organization which celebrated a birthday last week, did not have them in its fold before.
“Seventy-six years ago we embraced a mission to make life better for all… and 76 years later, it is regrettable that we are now extending that to one of the most vulnerable groups in society,” she said.
The BWU is probably the first Barbados trade union to adopt the cause of domestics in Barbados, and this stemmed from leadership of its former General Secretary, Sir Roy Trotman, who since 2010 as Chairman of the International Labour Organization’s Workers Group steered the UN body towards discussion on the need to formally recognize the contribution of domestic workers.
That came to fruition in 2011 when the ILO produced Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers. Though present at that 2011 meeting, the Barbados Government is yet to ratify it, paving the way for the labour of domestic workers to be seen as any other under law.
Union representative in the newly formed Domestic Workers Division, Wilma Clement, issued a rallying cry to the first set of unionized domestics who turned up Saturday in yellow shirts.
“We will not rest. We have our work to do, to see that in our neck of the woods, our domestic workers will get out of the shadows and will come to the front just like any other worker, and their work will be respected.”
Noting that such workers will be hesitant since being unionized is a new experience, she said, “there are many of them that are afraid… Tell the domestic workers in your district that they have some place they can come. We need you to tell domestic workers they have rights and working together we will ensure those rights”.
Blessing the Saturday proceedings, Anglican Archdeacon, The Venerable Eric Lynch, noted the end of the slave trade and slavery. Of the move to unionize domestic workers, he said: “now we are continuing this emancipation project to ensure that the rights of all human beings cannot only be raised before the world stage but be given effect”.
The appointed Champion for Barbados Domestic Workers, popular radio host, Larry Mayers, brought home the fact that such workers have been quietly contributing to community development while toiling with very little or no rights.
“I am a product of domestic workers. My great grandmother was a domestic worker. My grandmother a domestic worker, and my mother raised five boys and a girl without a husband,” he said. “So I saw the very best of domestic workers….”
As General Secretary Moore explained, side by side with union representation will be continued pressure on Government to ratify ILO Convention 189 so that “domestic workers will get the opportunity to have vacations, some get it, all don’t. Domestic workers will have the opportunity to recognize that at the end of their work career… whenever is the age that we retire, that there is also some sort of protection in the form of a pension.”