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New in-home rules coming

Nannies and housekeepers are neither servants nor "members of the family", but workers.

Dateline: Monday, July 11, 2011

by Jody Dallaire, Dieppe Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunity between Women and Men

If someone hires you to work in their house, as a domestic worker, in New Brunswick, you are not an employee and your employer is not an employer.

 

As the ILO Director General said, recognizing the value of work in the "informal sector" is a breakthrough.

What you are is vulnerable. But there may be hope.

New Brunswick's Employment Standards Act says that the definition of an employer does not include a person who hires someone directly to work in their home. Therefore, domestic workers — caregivers, nannies, housekeepers — who are hired this way, are not protected by any employment laws in this province. They work with no protection regarding maximum number of hours worked, minimum wage, or days off.

In most provinces and in most countries, the status of domestic workers is not equal to other workers. In New Brunswick, they are totally off the radar. Shame on us for not treating these workers equally.

Last month, governments of the world sat down with representatives of employers and workers at the annual International Labour Organization conference in Switzerland and adopted a code of rights for domestic workers.

How is that going to help the illiterate young woman working as a housekeeper in Saint John or the immigrant woman hired as a nanny in Florenceville?

Although we are a long way from Geneva, this sign that the wind has changed cannot be ignored: the help are people too. Domestic workers have rights.

The ILO document should lead to changes in Canada. One Canadian participating in the ILO negotiations last month was Barb Byers, a Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress. She came back excited.

She thinks this is a major victory for domestic workers because they will be recognized as equal in status to other workers and with the same rights.

Manuela Tomei, an ILO Director, said the new standards make clear that "domestic workers are neither servants nor 'members of the family', but workers. And after today they can no longer be considered second-class workers."

It is truly incredible that there is this sub world of workers, not covered by worker legislation. Up to now, everyone just called it "the informal economy" and ignored it. As the ILO Director General said, this is a breakthrough: "We are moving the standards system of the ILO into the informal economy for the first time."

The new ILO convention must now be ratified by governments. Once that is done in Canada, the federal government will have to modify its Live-In Caregiver Program which brings in immigrants to work in people's houses.

Barb Byers says "Many workers who come to Canada under this program hope to find an opportunity to support their families back at home. Once here, they find that working conditions are often not what had been promised. Some live in fear of being deported if they don't do everything that is asked of them by those employers who are unscrupulous."

The new ILO code states that domestic workers around the world must have the same basic labour rights as other workers — at the very least, reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours and a limit on in-kind payment.

About 25 years ago, the Supreme Court of Ontario agreed with a Toronto organization for domestic workers' rights that excluding domestic workers from the protection of minimum wage and other laws was a violation of sex equality rights. Because the vast majority of domestic workers are female and it always seems so easy to dismiss traditional women's work as not really work at all.

The State New York is the only one in the United State that has enacted — just last fall — a law to protect domestic workers' rights, providing for overtime pay, time off etc.

As a result of their employer's power over the worker's life, and of there being no recourse or protective law, employers of domestic workers have got used to the idea that they can call on them at any time, night or day and pay them mostly in room and board. Sounds like slavery to me.

A recent National Film Board film about human trafficking in Canada shows not just immigrant women working in massage parlors and poor Canadian girls lured into prostitution, but also domestic workers in conditions reminiscent of slavery — and nowhere to turn.

There is no way around it: given how our laws do not apply to them, domestic workers are currently second-class citizens. And given the lack of scandal about this situation and the "trafficking" of these humans from poor countries to rich, they are modern-day slaves.

This is a dangerous situation for several reasons. More and more of us will be looking for caregivers, and governments show little initiative in organizing an answer to this need. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer — within Canada and between rich and poor countries. Therefore we should beware of such a vulnerable class of workers and should protect them and ourselves from exploitation.

Canada should ratify the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers, but New Brunswick does not have to wait to extend employment protection to these workers — to stop discriminating against them.

Jody Dallaire is involved in the NB women's movement and is currently elected to Dieppe city council.

eMail: jody.dallaire@rogers.com  


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