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FIRING LINE: Exploitation of domestics


Shantal Munro-Knight

FIRING LINE: Exploitation of domestics

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I met a group of wonderful older women recently. They were down-to-earth working-class women who have been working all their lives to provide a better future for their families. There were also women who have spent the majority of their lives working in other people’s households.
    One woman told a story of being paid just over $30 a day to do household duties which included cleaning, cooking, washing and pressing. This was the same pay she had been receiving since she started to work with the family some 15 years ago.  
I heard another story of a woman who worked for a family for over 25 years for $300 a week, washing, cooking and pressing. When the patriarch of the family died the children wanted to pay her $125 for three days. This included everything she did before but the family also wanted her to be available for parties and other events the family might have.
 Because she went to the Labour Department to ask them to intervene, they fired her forthwith and sent her home with nothing after 25 years of work.
In order to make ends meet these women, some of them older than my own mother, are working two and three jobs a week. These were just two examples of the exploitation that is occurring in Barbados daily.
As I heard these stories I felt nothing but shame. I was ashamed because these older women were being exploited by people from my generation. These were women willing to work and who clearly enjoy their work. What is the difficulty with paying them a fair living wage?
We often hear stories of workers who do not do what they are supposed to, are slackers on the job, who have no commitment etc. What about the other side of the story? How much enthusiasm do you expect from workers, big able men and women whose wages mimic the pay of their parents two generations past?
I could discount these stories by the women as not being representative, as just a small minority whose stories, though unfortunate, were just isolated incidences among the large mass of workers. However, I have been assured by unions and others who have to come into contact with workers who are subjected to this level of exploitation continuously, that this issue is actually pervasive.
In another lifetime this level of exploitation would have been associated with a particular class and colour. Nowadays it seems that we have become a society across the board that has no qualms about treating and paying others poorly so long as we are able to have our needs met.   
There is no social protection for this group of workers, no retirement or pension plan. In many instances, because they are own-account workers and are so dispersed, there is little formal representation. Without state intervention and appropriate policies the most they can hope for is that their children will grow up and help them. It is because of these women and other workers like them that I support labour conventions on decent work and the adoption of the ILO Convention 189, which speaks specifically to decent work for domestic workers.   
There is a whole class of workers out there that we pretend does not exist and we do not want to talk about. We are happy to believe that the vast majority of the population is well educated and well-to-do and everyone else is part of a small minority who does not succeed or can do no better because of some inherent personality flaw or failing all of their own making.
We do not want to admit that as a society with a large middle class we are happy to exploit those below us and in doing so we are contributing to their impoverishment.
This is why I do get quite upset when I hear people in some quarters speak so callously about things like free bus fares, free education and all the “freeness” the Government is supposedly giving away that we can do without. While I would agree that some of the social services need to be more focused and efficient,
I think that we often superimpose our reality as being representative of the whole society without forgetting to look back or perhaps down. I could not help but reflect on these women and others like them as I attended another conference this week in which the focus was on economic growth and resilience. How do we help our economies withstand economic shock and achieve some level of economic growth?
There was a specific session on social resilience which looked at how we can help our populations become resilient and what type of social policies we need to put in place to protect and help our populations. Out of a conference of about 80 people, this session was attended by 12.
We still have not learnt that growth without equity is like spinning top in mud. More importantly fairness and equity are values we ought to practice in our own backyard if we want people to treat us likewise.

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