Labor convention to upgrade domestic-worker rights

More than 3,000 domestic workers in the Cayman Islands may gain new protections from the United Nations’ International Labor Organization under a convention obliging countries to extend labor laws to household employees.

International Labor Organization Convention 189 came into force Thursday, Sept. 5, nearly two years after its June 16, 2011 passage, allowing domestic employees to claim basic rights, including days off each week, set hours and a minimum wage.

In a press statement, the 185-member U.N. organization, which deals with international labor standards, said the new convention, the first of its kind, is legally binding for signatory countries, obliging them to ensure clear terms of employment and provide legal protections similar to those afforded other workers, ending substandard working conditions, exploitation and human-rights abuses.

Paula Robinson, senior specialist for workers’ activities in the organization’s Trinidad-based Caribbean Country office, told the Caymanian Compass that while she did not have overall figures for the region, estimates for Jamaica ranged between 58,000 and 100,000 domestic workers.

“The Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica of 2010,” she said, “puts the figure at 58,500.” Cayman’s Economic and Statistics Office pegs local domestic workers at 3,361 with a median age of 43 as of late-2012.

Domestic workers, the statistics office says, make up 9.2 percent of Cayman’s 36,400-strong workforce. Slightly more than 17 percent of the 9,400 females in that workforce are domestic workers. Worldwide, the U.N. organization estimates at least 53 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 percent of whom are woman, and adds another 10.5 million children to that total.

Ms Robinson said the U.K. had not yet ratified Convention 189, but Richard Coles, chairman of Cayman’s Human Rights Commission said approval was likely to be forthcoming. “I suppose that the U.K. will finalize it, and then they will notify the overseas territories,” extending it to the Cayman Islands, he said.

“That does not mean, however, that we should not take note. It is part of our moral obligations,” Mr. Coles said.

Speaking informally, Mr. Coles said the most significant problem with enforcement in Cayman is simply that “most of our domestic workers are foreigners on work permits, meaning that abuses are not often the same as those elsewhere.

“My concern is not with the lack of legislation, but enforcing what we do have,” he said. “So many [domestic workers] do not have health insurance, even though it is mandated. Many employers will even make the deductions, but still don’t pay the insurance.”

Other workers, Mr. Coles said, are brought over on work permits, “but their employers only want them for one or two days per week, leaving them to scrabble around to find work on their own, and that is illegal; and still they have no [freelance] work permit or insurance.”

The International Labor Organization’s January research indicated that only 10 percent of domestic workers anywhere were covered by general labor legislation to the same extent as other workers. More than 25 percent were completely excluded from national labor legislation, increasing their vulnerability and making it difficult for them to seek remedies. As a result, they are often paid less than workers in comparable occupations and work longer hours.

Since June 2011, Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore have passed regulations improving the labor and social rights of domestics, while reforms have started in Finland, Namibia, Chile and the United States. Costa Rica and Germany have launched ratification efforts of Convention 189.

Enforcing ILO 189, Ms Robinson said, “like any other convention, must reside in it being incorporated into national law. Once the law is on the books, the government can ensure enforcement through making sure both domestic workers and their employers are properly informed of their rights and obligations, as well as have a labor inspectorate that will ensure the regulations are complied with through information, advisory services and penalties if necessary.”

Calling it “a very difficult situation,” Mr. Coles simply advocated ”enforcing what we already have in place,” but acknowledged that domestic workers were reluctant to report abuse for fear of losing their job.

“Workers don’t want to rock the boat,” he said, “because they know they may lose their job, and even with the problems and abuses, it’s still worse to be sent back,” – and still have lost a job.

Taking a longer view, Ms Robinson did not think the new laws would discourage employers from hiring domestic help or would boost costs.

“In the short term, it may raise the cost of employing domestic workers if the employer is paying less than the legal minimum wage provided for, and if the necessary social security, health contributions/deductions are not being paid for the worker,” she said.

“However in the long term, it means that domestic workers and their families have greater security and are not a cost to the taxpayers because they are not a part of the social-protection mechanisms on the same footing as other workers.”