'Please, help us'

'Please, help us'

Domestic workers raising funds for colleagues now unemployed due to COVID-19

Senior associate editor

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

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A number of household workers, pushed into unemployment by the novel coronavirus, recently launched a fund to help cushion the blow from the infectious disease, but after three weeks they are way off target.

The helpers — hard-working women who help to take care of homes of Jamaica's middle- and upper-class families — have, up to yesterday, only been able to raise US$805 since the fund's launch. In fact, the target was first set at US$10,000 and has now been revised to US$5,000, but even then the goal set by the helpers, who are represented by the Jamaica Household Workers' Union (JHWU), is still far from the target as people seem to have cut back even on charity in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shirley Pryce, who has for years been at the helm of the JHWU, sounded disheartened when asked about the amount raised so far, but was nevertheless optimistic as she appealed to fellow Jamaicans for help.

“This pandemic has made life more difficult than ever for low-income and precarious workers like domestic workers. Domestic workers are sent home from work without pay for up to six weeks, some indefinite[ly]. We are, please, seeking your urgent help in providing us with cash or kind to help domestic workers and their children to cushion this blow and help in providing the basics for domestic workers and their families,” Pryce pleaded.

She added: “The Jamaica Household Workers' Union set up this fund to help those displaced. We are pleading for your contribution. Help to take care of the people who care for you.”

Nicola Lawson, vice-president of the union, made a similar appeal.

“This [novel] coronavirus disease has placed the world in chaos, and Jamaica is no exception. Domestic workers are feeling the pinch [as] many of us have been sent home without pay and so we are unable to take care of ourselves... and by extension our families. Please, help us,” Lawson said in a video message launching the fund.

Pryce said individuals who wish to contribute can do so online at www.mightycause.com or using the account number 100929079 at Bank of Nova Scotia, Half-Way-Tree, St Andrew, in the name of Jamaica Household Workers Union.

Those donating kind can drop off items at 4 Ellesmere Road, Kingston 10.

Long-time women's rights advocate Linnette Vassell, in support of the domestic workers, said despite some gaps, the Government has been doing a fairly commendable job in steering the country's response to COVID-19.

In response to the concerns of the helpers, she said in a written response to the Jamaica Observer that there is no mention of relief measures for household workers, many of whom have not been going to work.

“This unofficial 'lay-off' is linked to the understandable concern that daily travel by public transport increases the exposure of both the worker and the employer's household to the possibility of contracting the virus. In addition, there is the situation where, with schools being closed and children being at home, the household workers' job is also being done mainly by the parent/teacher, the majority being women.

“On March 20, Sister Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers' Union, whose life work has been advocacy for household workers' rights, shared within the Gender Advisory Council the situation: 'Employers saying to their employee we will call you… no health care, paid time off or job security, they are being forced to navigate this crisis alone, without a safety net'.

“We are here talking about some 58,000 workers — 80 per cent women. Some 50 per cent of these workers are over age 50; the next largest group is in the 30-49 age range. Most have completed lower secondary education and, as we all know, provide invaluable service — keep our homes clean and secure, prepare our meals and generally care for our families and enable employers to operate in the formal labour market.

“They have their own responsibilities. Many are single heads of households having to provide housing, food, utilities, school and other expenses, including child care for their own families. Even if some of these women have children on the PATH [Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education], with the minimum wage at $7,200 per week and with their status entrenched within the informal sector, they remain in the category of the working poor,” Vassell noted.

According to the women's rights advocate, in the present COVID-19 crisis, the Government should also set aside a sum for grants to household workers, as is done for small farmers, individuals who are not on PATH and for people through the Constituency Development Fund.

“The JHWU president has been making enquiries of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security about such a grant but the response has been negative so far.

“The Ministry of Finance and the Public Service should revisit the issue with the JHWU and other stakeholders, giving consideration to measures such as providing grants to household workers of $9,000 every two weeks. Those who are currently paying their NIS [National Insurance Scheme] contributions is a relatively small number for a number of reasons. Implementing this measure now can become a platform for wider mobilisation of household workers into the NIS scheme, and [can encourage] compliance by employers.

“Another urgent agenda for action [is] encouraging employers, where possible, to contribute to the welfare initiatives of the Jamaica Household Workers' Union and to build a partnership with the Government and the affected women and men. There are some employers who are making small contributions and this should be encouraged,” she said.

At the same time, Vassell said the ratification by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in September 2016, of the International Labour Organisation's Domestic Workers' Convention (2011), signalled a commitment by the State to implement an agenda for formalising work within this segment of the informal sector and granting, to the household workers, the same protection under law as other workers in the formal sector.

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