Oretha Tarnue: Mobilizing, Empowering Liberian Domestic Workers

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Oretha Tarnue, vice president of the United Workers Union of Liberia (UWUL). Credit: Tula Connell/Solidarity Center

Each day this week leading up to International Women’s Day March 8, the Solidarity Center will highlight an example of how women and their unions are taking action to improve women’s lives on the job, in their unions and in their communities.

Oretha Tarnue, vice president of the United Workers Union of Liberia (UWUL) and a former domestic worker, is spearheading a drive in her country to organize domestic workers who, like their counterparts elsewhere, are routinely exploited by their employers.

In Liberia and in other countries, the overwhelming majority of domestic workers are young women who view the work as an opportunity to earn a living, but too often find themselves vulnerable to abuses—from low wages and long hours to physical and sexual abuse and human trafficking.

Tarnue, who is also a lead coordinator for the Domestic Workers Union of Liberia (DOWUL), says the workers, mostly women, are paid between $21 and $50 per month, which is barely enough to buy a bag of rice. The country’s minimum wage is $2 a day.

Solidarity Center staff spoke with Tarnue about the challenges involved in connecting with domestic workers to help them understand their rights as workers, join together to improve their working conditions and convey to lawmakers and the public that domestic workers perform real work, and have the same rights as and deserve labor law coverage equal to all other wage earners.

Solidarity Center: How did you get involved with the domestic worker union?

Tarnue: I thought there was a need to organize domestic workers. I have worked as a domestic worker and in our labor laws, domestic workers are not (recognized). We went from home to home and other places, like hotels, where domestic workers are not recognized, and we began to talk to people. (With) the Solidarity Center and the United Steelworkers (USW), we had a training where we selected domestic workers from different communities. We had a good training that led those coordinators to go out and organize and recruit members.

Solidarity Center: What was your experience as a domestic worker?

Tarnue: There’s no scope of work, there’s no term of reference. Domestic workers’ contract is a verbal contract and domestic workers are not (recognized) under the labor law so they are at the discretion of the boss.

Solidarity Center: How do you reach out to domestic workers?

Tarnue: We go out and speak to workers at their workplaces or meet them during their breaks of off hours. We are able to teach them at the level they’ll understand. Teach them their human rights, their physical rights, their moral rights. The basis of our training to domestic workers is to know their rights as human beings. They are entitled to their human rights, and we teach these things to them.

Solidarity Center: Has all this made a difference?

Tarnue: It has made a difference because, as we speak, our 30 coordinators (who are domestic workers) have been able to (challenge) their own bosses.

Solidarity Center: Really?

Tarnue: Yes. Their own bosses! This comes from the Solidarity Center and USW training! We tell them to not be violent, not be rude, but you can peacefully engage your boss. Access the boss’s’ leisure time and discuss issues relating to work time, to terms of reference, scope of work, wages. Lay them down one at a time and go into discussion. These 30 coordinators have been able to increase their wages just by having a discussion with their bosses. This lets us know that the training has been working.

Solidarity Center: In the next five years, what do you envision for DOWUL?

Tarnue: We are 100 percent optimistic that domestic workers are going to be fully unionized and (added) into Liberia labor law and a collective bargaining agreement is going to be done for the domestic workers. That’s our hope because domestic workers are like any other workers. They should be treated like any other worker on Liberian soil.