Dominican Republic: Domestic Workers Struggle for Rights

Dominican Republic: Domestic Workers Struggle for Rights

Workers this week are marking the second anniversary of the historic passage of a global standard covering the rights of domestic workers. The International Labor Organization (ILO) “Decent Work for Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) covers written employment contracts, protection from harassment, abuse and violence, hours of work, job safety and other workplace safeguards.

As in many countries around the world, domestic workers and their supporters in the Dominican Republic are campaigning for ratification of Convention 189. When a country signs the convention, it agrees to abide by its rules. Seven nations have ratified it in the past two years, a number that illustrates the challenges domestic workers face in achieving their rights on the job. In the Dominican Republic, domestic workers’ struggle for recognition of their rights on the job has involved decades of hard work, strategic coalition building, broad public outreach and much perseverance.

In 1989, the Asociaciün de Trabajadores (Domestic Workers Association, ATH), a non-governmental organization, sought to modify the nation’s employment law to include domestic workers. Early on in that campaign, ATH reached out to numerous women’s rights group for support and built a strong coalition which engaged in widespread media outreach—through posters, leaflets, seminars, workshops and press coverage. The campaign enlisted the backing of popular television personalities who served as well-known proponents appreciated by Dominican decision-makers and the populace.

Passage of the law in 1992 culminated “an arduous struggle” to convince members of Congress “that domestic workers were a fundamental part of society,” says Elena Andrea Pérez García, ATH organizational secretary. ATH, which now represents more than 3,500 members, affiliated in 2010 with the Confederaciün Nacional de Unidad Sindical (National Confederation of Labor Union Unity, CNUS).

One of the main roadblocks for domestic workers in the Dominican Republic, as elsewhere around the world, is overcoming the  perception that because their labor takes place within a home,  it is not “real” work. Some 90 percent of the 300,000 domestic workers in the Dominican Republic are women, and female immigrants, primarily from Haiti, comprise between 10 percent and 33 percent of domestic workers.

“In remunerated domestic work, which is performed mainly by women, social subordination and machista cultural stereotypes  play a major role, as does the social devaluation of domestic  work,” says Max Puig, who served as Dominican Republic Minister of Labor from 2008 to 2011.

In 2011, CNUS and a coalition of other unions and organizations helped move a bill to Congress that would provide domestic workers with social security coverage. Eulogia Familia, vice president of the 500,000-member CNUS, said getting the bill introduced involved “one-on-one interviews with key legislators to raise awareness” and meetings with government agencies responsible for shaping the legislation. Domestic workers’ participation was fundamental to these meetings, enabling legislators and policy-makers tolearn firsthand about the often daunting working conditions the women face. Further, says Familia, domestic workers could convince legislators “that they and their families are an important social group and that their vote will help elect” them. Following this outreach, the National Social Security Council issued a resolution to conduct studies on the best way to incorporate domestic workers into the social security system.

Domestic workers, energized by passage of Convention 189, are pushing hard for its ratification in the Dominican Republic—and are well positioned to do so. They are the women who leafleted, held meetings and reached out to the public for years in multiple campaigns, becoming empowered in the process.

Isolated behind the closed doors of private households, domestic workers are difficult to locate and gather in networks where they could learn their rights as working people, share experiences and gain confidence in their ability to improve workplace conditions. Outreach to this overlooked workforce by ATH and CNUS and their partners changed all that.

This report is an excerpt from the report, Dominican Republic: Domestic Workers Struggle for Rights. The report is part of Catalyst for Change, a  Solidarity Center series supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. The series features the working people, their unions and activists who are advancing worker rights and greater equity in their societies. Their experience and efforts provide real, transferable lessons for others seeking to affect positive change.

South Africa Domestic Workers Hold First-Ever National Meeting

Dozens of leaders of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) gathered recently in Cape Town in a first-ever national conference to plan organizing and advocacy goals.

“Our vision remains to help domestic workers demand their rights,” said SADSAWU General Secretary Myrtle Witbooi. “But we have to restructure, regrow and build a new layer of leadership.” The Solidarity Center facilitated the meeting, and staff held workshops covering organizing strategies and outreach techniques.

Many South African domestic workers have had union representation since the early 1980s. In fact, domestic workers are credited with being among the first groups of workers that originally founded the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the country’s largest labor federation.

But even as SADSAWU has advocated on behalf of South Africa’s domestic workers, it has struggled to organize new members and represent members on a nationwide scale. In recent years, the union’s registration with the South African government has lapsed and COSATU disaffiliated it. These hardships represent the difficulties of maintaining a union structure for low-paid, marginalized workers who labor in individual work environments.

COSATU’s Gender Committee and the Solidarity Center have pledged to work with SADSAWU on a reorganization plan. SADSAWU’s goal is create a sustainable structure and be recognized by the South African government and reaffiliated with COSATU. As a first step, the November national meeting enabled participants to develop a new draft constitution and an interim plan for union operations leading to a full congress in November 2013. As part of the interim plan, SADSAWU is developing improved leadership structures and a communications plan and has set 2013 membership organizing targets for provincial affiliates.

SADSAWU’s reorganization comes at a critical time in South Africa. Strikes in mining and agriculture have sparked a dialogue within the country about the economic livelihoods of South African workers in traditionally low-paid jobs.  While South African law contains many protections for domestic workers, SADSAWU is pushing for higher wages as well as for laws that would include them in a state-run pension fund and the nation’s worker compensation system.

The union also is urging the South African government to ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Although South Africa already has some of the best legal protections for domestic workers on paper, ratification would create a stronger basis for SADSAWU and COSATU to press for improved enforcement of those laws. Further, Witbooi believes that South Africa’s ratification would be seen as a clear sign of leadership on domestic worker rights among countries in the global South, especially in Africa.

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