Feminist reflection on internet policies

Changing the way you see ICT

Jamaican household workers use cell phones to protect their rights and improve the working conditions

Flavia Fascendini
Flavia Fascendini on 27 November, 2013
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Flavia is the Spanish language editor of GenderIT.org.
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Leith Dunn and Hopeton Dunn from the Institute for Gender and Development Studies Mona Unit, and Mona ICT Policy Centre, at the University of the West Indies, are the authors of the Global Information Society Watch article entitled Women’s rights, gender and ICTs: Empowering household workers in Jamaica. In this interview they told GenderIT.org why they chose this subject, how the sector of household workers is using mobile phones to improve their working conditions, and the role ICT policies and legislation have played to enable this advancement.

Flavia Fascendini: How did you choose this subject for the report? Why did it appear to be the most relevant in the national context?

Leith Dunn and Hopeton Dunn: We wanted to find a subject that combined the experiences of working people in Jamaica and their links with ICTs. The Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), headed by Dr Leith Dunn, has been researching the situation of household workers in Jamaica, alongside issues of mainstreaming gender in development policies and programmes and devising strategies for organising low income women workers. It was felt that this provided a good fit with the on-going research work on social applications of ICTs (including mobile phones and broadband) being conducted by the Mona ICT Policy Centre also at UWI, and headed by Professor Hopeton Dunn.

FF: Was there something left out from the report that you would have liked to mention? (some cases, perhaps?)

LD and HD: Much more could have been added, but we worked within the space constraints of the GISW Jamaica article. We could have elaborated on issues of literacy and mobile phone usage and on how women use mobile phones to cope with the challenges of managing the ‘triple roles’ they often bear as main family caregivers, paid workers and community members/organisers. This would include details of how the Jamaican household workers use mobile telephones to communicate with children and other family members and friends, employers, and members of their network for advocacy and organising island-wide. These same applications are deployed to mobilise members within and outside the Jamaica Household Workers Union as well as their counterparts in the Caribbean Domestic Workers Network based in Trinidad and Tobago and international partners. There are also survey research data on how Jamaican women and men in both rural and urban settings use the mobile phone and the internet to advance their career goals, family needs and personal pursuits under harsh economic conditions.

FF: How does the report’s subject relate to women´s rights?

LD and HD: The report addresses women’s right of assembly, their right to organize to improve laws, wages and working conditions and to promote gender equality. Empowering Jamaican household workers to use mobile technology to organize their union enables them to protect their rights and improve their situation. As noted in the GISWatch article, Jamaica has ratified several human rights conventions and agreements related to women’s rights and gender equality. These include CEDAW- the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – and the National Policy for Gender Equality approved by the Jamaican Parliament in 2011 to support implementation of CEDAW.

The ILO’s Convention 189 promotes Decent Work for Domestic Employees. Advocacy for the ratification of this convention supports women’s economic empowerment as the majority of these workers are women and are poor. Jamaica’s poverty rate in 2013 was 16.5% and single female headed households are more likely to be poor than male-headed households. Unemployment and inequality are major factors contributing to poverty. The Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) reported that in July 2013 70.2% of males were in the labour force compared to 56.1% of females; unemployment rates were 11.7% for males and 19.9% for females. A higher proportion of female headed households are poor, 14% compared to 11.4% of male headed households which has been the trend for decades. An estimated 55.3% of female headed households have children and no male. Women in Jamaica earn lower wages, partly because they tend to be concentrated in low wage occupations like housekeeping. They are also more likely than men to be in part-time work in order to combine their paid work with unpaid domestic responsibilities and community work. Advocacy for C189 seeks to change laws, policies and practices that undermine household worker’s economic and other rights. In so doing it will increase access to gainful employment and a decent wage; improved working conditions and social protection; the right to freedom of association and the right to participate in social dialogue.

FF: In the report you say that “While there have been significant advances in gender equality in many occupations and employment in Jamaica, several barriers remain, which undermine women’s rights and their development.” Which are these barriers, and how do they relate to the access, appropriation and strategic use of ICTs by women? Also, when you talk about gender inequalities in the report, you say: “ICT platforms provide opportunities to build awareness of gender disparities, unequal wages and working conditions and can mobilise action to change laws, policies and practices.” Can you think of some example?

LD and HD: These can be broken down as:

Cultural barriers: If by using smart phones, household workers and other low income women can explore what wages and working conditions are like for their counterparts in other jurisdictions, they can use this information to negotiate improved conditions nationally. The technologies also enable them to share advocacy strategies across borders. Some household workers have been employed overseas as migrant workers, which has exposed them to better wages and working conditions. Reduced costs for international calls using cell phones and Voice Over Internet Protocols (VoIP) also enable migrant women workers to communicate with their family members to whom they send financial remittances which are an important source of family support. Returning migrant household workers bring knowledge and experience that can help to change national policies and practices that enhance the professional status and conditions of the household worker.

Societal attitudes to household workers are also a barrier to gender equality. Public exposure to their rights though ICT channels can not only help to change these attitudes, promote respect for the profession, and build self-esteem, but can also highlight the importance of their contribution to the national economy. These workers care for and support the families of national leaders and the women and men who work in the public and private sector and enable them to do their jobs.

Cultural barriers are also evident in the stereotypical gender roles for males and females in the household which persist. Inequitable sharing of responsibilities between men and women in caring for children, elderly relatives and family members with disabilities parents remains. Females are still mainly responsible for care giving but many are also in paid employment.

Legal barriers: While there are some laws which benefit all workers, there is no law which specifically protects the rights of household workers. The Jamaican Ministry of Labour and Social Security is however actively seeking to address this gap and to amend other laws to protect their rights.

Lack of national registration of household workers: Use of ICTs and mass media can help to build awareness of ILO Convention 189: Decent Work for Domestic Employees, and encourage household workers across the country to be aware of and to register with the Jamaica Household Workers Union (JHWU) and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.

ICT platforms to build awareness: A UN Women-funded project being implemented by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security with support from the UWI’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies Mona Unit includes use of ICTs to build awareness of C189 and the JHWU. For example using mass text messages as a cost effective strategy to communicate with JHWU members and other stakeholders. Few household workers can use the computer and the JHWU has started a training programme to teach basic computer skills to their members so that they can useICT platforms to access websites of partner agencies, news media and other institutions provide outlets that build public awareness of C189, the JHWU and promote the rights of household workers.

FF: In the report you highlight this interesting piece of data: “In Jamaica, an estimated 100,000 household workers, the majority of them women, are using ICTs to encourage the adoption of C189.” What are the main ways in which they are using ICTs to encourage the adoption of the convention?

LD and HD: Available research data confirm that household workers are among the groups that use mobile phones, computers and mass media in their personal and organizing activities. Exposure to these media would, over time, make most workers aware of their rights (C189). A formal study would be needed to assess knowledge levels.
The strategies to build awareness of C189 among the JHWU’s 3000 registered members include outreach visits from the executive members which have resulted in the formation of 11 chapters island-wide. In 2013, UN Women helped to organise a public education forum and several training seminars for members of: the JHWU; members of the Jamaica Employers’ Federation; and labour inspectors in the Ministry of Labour. Media coverage of these and other JHWU events have helped to build the momentum and led to increased calls for ratification of C189.

FF: There seem to be high levels of public/ government recognition of household workers’ rights, which is not the situation in other Latin American and Caribbean countries. What role would you say that ICTs have played or could play in this?

LD and HD: Like all other demographic groups, low income household workers have access to the mobile phone. Through text messages and calling to daily talk shows on national and local radio stations, they can carry out an on-going public campaign for their rights that government leaders cannot ignore. Media coverage of JHWU public marches, rallies and news releases have also highlighted many issues. In Jamaica this campaign has led to repeated increases in the minimum wage. Politicians also feel that they cannot ignore the case being made by the women, their male partners, and other stakeholders including women’s organisations.

The Bureau of Women’s Affairs (BWA) is the government’s main programme that is responsible for promoting women’s rights and equality. They also coordinate implementation of the National Policy for Gender Equality (NPGE). The BWA played a strategic role in the formation of the Jamaica Household Workers Association in 1991, which was registered as a trade union in 2012. The BWA has continued supporting the organisation since its inception, providing office space, technical assistance, leadership training and capacity building. The BWA, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security and other government agencies collaborate with local women’s groups, the Jamaica Employers Federation, trade unions and several international development partners to assist household workers. The latter include UN Women, the ILO Caribbean Office and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung among others. This multiagency partnership may be emulated by household workers everywhere to help gain the attention of governments to their needs.

ICTs have played a major role in providing media exposure via radio, television and the internet, as evidenced by the sample of information of the JHWA and the JHWU on the website listed below. There is scope to use ICTs more widely, by deepening information literacy and media literacy even more among low income women, their male counterparts and their children. This would help to empower whole families to use computers and the internet so they can expand their ability use ICTs for earning and advocacy in support of their rights.

This approach is strategic in advancing national development goals, guided by the country’s Vision 2030 National Development Strategy that aims to make Jamaica “the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business”.

Read the full 2013 GISWatch report from Jamaica

Image: Illustration from the Global Information Society Watch 2013

References and bibliography:

http://jhwa1.blogspot.com/p/jhwa-can-help-you.html

http://rjrnewsonline.com/local/jamaica-household-workers-association-to-… (advocacy on the Minimum Wage)

http://www.mlss.gov.jm/pub/index.php?artid=148 (Domestic workers rally – 2012) – Message by the Minister of Labour and Social Security) – MLSS website

http://www.idwn.info/news/domestic-workers-now-have-their-own-union-jama… association (Notice of the launch of the JHWU on the website of the International Domestic Workers Union)

http://www.idwn.info/news/poems-jamaica-household-workers-union-c189 (Poems of JHWU members from a JHWU rally to commemorate International Domestic Workers Day in June 2013)

http://www.gfmd.org/documents/switzerland/jamaica/gfmd_swiss11_jamaica-P… Presentation by JHWU President, Shirley Pryce at a Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) 2011 High‐Level Meeting on ‘Domestic Workers at the Interface of Migration and Development: Action to Expand Good Practice”, 7‐8 September 2011, Jamaica Conference Centre, Kingston, Jamaica.

http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120408/focus/focus4.html. Article by Dr Glenda Simms on JHWU and household workers’ rights.

 

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