By Hanna Claeson, Intern for the Solidarity Center in the Dominican Republic
On Wednesday, the 25th of May, 2011, a delegation of domestic workers, accompanied by Dominican labor unions and the Solidarity Center, achieved the incredible. Urged by the delegation, in just over five and a half hours, the Dominican senate introduced, and passed a resolution encouraging the executive branch to support a proposed ILO Convention that seeks decent work for domestic workers. The Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers covers not only full time, but also part time and undocumented workers, and was adopted by the 100th Session of the ILO conference, on June 16, 2011.
Domestic workers are the undervalued, the invisible, and the otherwise forgotten. In the Dominican Republic, many come from rural areas. Many are minors. Many are undocumented Haitian immigrants, marginalized by language barriers, and the threat of deportation. Ninety-six percent of them are female. In sum, they number over 325,000, making up 5.6% of the Dominican work force. Looking to escape desperate conditions, including financial pressure and debts, they are pushed into jobs that offer almost no protection or recognition under the law. They make, on average, between US $93-$120 a month, ($1,116-$1,440 a year), and typically work over 40 hour weeks. (If they sleep in the employer’s house, Dominican law allows half of their salary to be paid in the form of room and board.) Isolated in environments that are often defined by heavy lifting, toxic chemicals, sexual harassment, and physical and verbal abuse, domestic workers perform one of the most unsafe and vulnerable occupations to be found. They are degraded as “helpers,” held in low esteem for doing “women’s work,” denied contracts, the right to collective bargaining, and other essential benefits, such as adequate vacation periods, social security and health insurance. Even so, they are not only central to sustaining the country’s households, but also the country’s economy.
The struggle to guarantee basic, human rights for domestic workers is crucial to guaranteeing access to just and decent working conditions for all essential to achieving gender equality in the workplace, fundamental to working towards the recognition of migrant worker’s rights, and a critical step towards the abolition of child-labor. Dominican labor unions, working with domestic workers since 2008, have achieved what was before considered impossible. Today, domestic work is beginning to be treated as legitimate work not only by Dominican labor unions, but also by mainstream Dominican media outlets, and, perhaps most importantly, the workers themselves, who are increasingly organized. That the ILO convention is now supported by the Dominican senate is another breakthrough for the movement. If finally ratified by the Dominican Republic, it would help to formalize, professionalize and regulate domestic work. It would, among other things, regulate working time, establish remuneration as a payment method (instead of in-kind payment such as room and board), and require the provision of written contracts, freedom of association, social security, health insurance, and maternity rights. Finally, it would also mandate the establishment of culturally adequate complaint mechanisms, accompanied by the necessary monitoring and compensation mechanisms to ensure that the domestic worker’s rights are not only valued, but also upheld.