By Meaghan Frauts
Not unlike the challenges confronting the Canadian labour movement, Jamaican workers and unions are experiencing a period a turmoil and uncertainty. The fall of the Jamaican dollar in June of 2013 pushed the rate to over $100 JA for every $1 USD for the first time ever reducing the purchasing power and wages in the country. Moreover, Jamaica’s trade imbalance (Jamaica imports significantly more than it exports) and high rates of poverty ( 20% of the population live below the poverty line) the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar is poised to present some challenges for the island. A recently signed agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may be especially punitive for workers across a variety of sectors. Despite this stormy economic climate, the Jamaican Household Workers Union (JHWU) is making great strides in protecting the rights of domestic workers on the island and beyond.
The JHWU began in 1991 not as a union, but as a non-partisan association. The organization evolved out of several meetings and workshops between the Bureau of Women’s Affairs (BWA), a government body under the Office of the Prime Minister’s portfolio, and household workers in order to protect the rights of women in domestic services at the local, national and international levels. Programmes in computer skills, mathematics, conflict resolution, childcare, caring for the elderly and food preparation are just some of the training courses offered by the JHWU to its members. What’s interesting is that members of the JHWU often make much more than non-unionized workers who receive little more than minimum wage salaries, which averages around $5000 JA per week, or $51.00 CND. This is certainly one of the reasons why so many Jamaicans migrate to Canada to seek higher paying employment, sending remittances back (approximately 15% of Jamaica’s GDP) to their families to make ends meet.
What follows here is an interview with Shirley Pryce, labour activist and president of the Jamaican Household Workers Union. A household worker for over 20 years, Pryce knows first-hand the experiences and realities of domestic work in Jamaica. She has been active with the union since its inception in 1991 and has shown no plans on slowing down. Often acting as a consultant to help form similar unions, governments and workers around the world seek her expertise on domestic labour issues. In the last eight months Pryce has taken the JHWU, which now boasts 3000 members (mostly women) island wide, to the streets to pressure the Jamaican government to ratify International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 189 that puts household work in line with other forms of labour. Pryce is also helped to propel the JHWU into formal status as a trade union. Her activism has also involved organizing an International Domestic Workers Day celebration, as well as working with the National Minimum Wage Commission to seek wage increases. This is just a taste of what Pryce and the JHWU have been up to this year, in addition to holding down a full time job.
To learn more about the JHWU click here.
How can you provide solidarity to Domestic Workers in Jamaica?
Write the government to pressure them to ratify ILO C189.
Mrs. Dorine M. Brooks
I.L.O. ILA&I Desk
Ministry of Labour
1F North Street
Meaghan is a member of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 901 member and PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University.