APPROXIMATELY 58,000 domestic workers across Jamaica now have a union to represent them, after the launch of the Jamaica Household Workers Union last Friday.
The union aims to protect the rights of, and provide skills training for domestic workers.
"This launch signifies another victory for domestic workers in Jamaica," President Shirley Pryce told the gathering at the Knutsford Court Hotel in Kingston.
"At present, the union has organised over 2,000 members and this number is growing as the union reaches out to household workers and as they become more aware of its existence."
She said the organisation is in the process of starting a school -- The Jamaica Household Workers Training Institute -- and is also establishing a foundation to assist needy domestic workers.
Pryce said one of the immediate goals is to have the Government ratify the International Labour Organistion Domestic Worker Convention 189, which provides specific protection to domestic workers under the heading 'Decent work for domestic workers'.
"This convention realises the importance of the work of domestic workers and provides for all domestic workers the right to enjoy freedom, dignity and security of a decent work," she said. "Domestic workers have waited a long time to be recognised and to be respected for the work that they have been doing. Yes, domestic work is work, and we must hold it up as our work," she told the dozens of domestic workers present.
Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Karl Wedderburn said domestic workers are vital to the process of nation building because they provide necessary care and support in households, allowing their employers to get on with various other productive and economic activities.
"Without the loyalty and devotion of our household workers, Jamaica, as a nation, would probably not be where it is today," Wedderburn said.
He said the ministry continues to review the minimum wage, which now stands at $5,000 per week, with a view to bringing up it to a more acceptable ceiling.
Despite this, however, he encouraged domestic workers to make every effort to contribute to the National Insurance Scheme.
"You and your employers have an obligation to make a required contribution to the scheme as a safeguard against hardship during your course of employment and upcoming retirement," he said.
Former Prime Minister PJ Patterson, in his speech read by Dr Leith Dunn, head of Gender Studies at the University of the West Indies, said employers must be required to treat their household workers with respect.
"The time for domestic workers to be brought in line with the rest of the workforce is well overdue," Patterson wrote.
"You represent the single largest segment of the paid workforce and your voice must be heard, and it will be heard more urgently now that you are a united force. While many employers of household workers treat their employees well, it is time to force -- through the law -- those others who have no proper regard for their rights. They must be forced to come in line with today's reality and treat their employees with utmost respect," Patterson wrote.
Guest speaker Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, and chairperson of the International Domestic Workers Network, said planning should not only be on paper, but put into action by the Jamaican Government.
"Many of our governments have beautiful printed documents, but the documents are put in a cabinet to gather dust. But we need action to take place," Witbooi, formerly a domestic helper in South Africa, said.
She said domestic workers were the backbone of the society and it was now payback time for rendering their services without due respect for their contributions and without recognition for the work they do.
"We have Convention 189, but it makes no sense if workers don't know what it is. Because if we don't know it, we won't know how to use it," she said.
"So the next step is education, education, education. I am encouraging the Government to put their money where their mouth is," she said to loud cheers from the audience.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who was the keynote speaker, said she was in total support of the union and its cause, noting that domestic workers occupy positions of importance in the society and should be recognised as such.
"The concept and development of a union for household workers to ensure that they are respected and enjoy equality of rights in order to maintain their dignity in the Jamaican society is a manifestation of the vibrancy of our democracy," Simpson Miller said.
"We need to recognise that they are the ones who take care of the home affairs while their employers are involved in various aspects of national life. We could very well rename them 'ministers of home affairs'," she said.
Simpson Miller said that far too often these workers have had to forego their personal development goals and those of their children and families while they take care of others.
"We also need to recognise this. These sacrifices they make for minimum wages," she noted.
The prime minister said that she is in full support of Convention 189.
"The Government which I lead will not fail to accept the conditions that will result in an environment of decent work for every household worker in Jamaica," she declared.
She encouraged union members to enrol in educational institutions such as HEART Trust/NTA, in an effort to hone their skills as they develop their profession.