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Le Blanc takes over mom’s fight for working-class women

Saturday, September 7, 2013
Clotil Walcott

Lesley Ann Nelson remembers her grandmother busily tapping the keys of her typewriter. “You keep on doing that excellent work,’ she told me,” said Nelson, recalling one of her regular visits to Clotil Walcott’s house in Arima. As she gave those words of encouragement, Walcott was typing words of encouragement to women whose jobs were taken for granted as domestic workers. On that typewriter, she voiced her concerns over the treatment of working-class women, based on her experience at Cannings Poultry Processing Plant in Arima; she wrote her views about labour; she wrote to ministers of labour and their governments to ask them to recognise the wage of domestic workers. And if they didn’t respond, Walcott found a way to get their attention whether or not she was invited to a conference or event. “She would butt in and talk,” said Walcott’s daughter, Ida Le Blanc, who now carries the torch. “Even when politicians tried to go past her, she would hold on to their hand and say ‘No, I’m talking to you.’ I even remember John Donaldson (Minister of Labour in a PNM administration) was speaking at a function—she stood up and turned her back on him…just to express her dissatisfaction.”


Today would have been Walcott’s 90th birthday and days before, September 5 marked the enforcement of Convention No 189 of the International Labour Organisation, which offers specific protection to domestic workers. It was because of Walcott the Convention received the support and approval in Geneva. “Her work was very pivotal,” said UWI vice-principal Dr Rhoda Reddock, who walked alongside Walcott as she fought for domestic workers’ rights. Reddock met Walcott during her younger, active years in the social/political movement for change and supported her work for equality at the workplace. “I saw Clotil walking with pamphlets about the company and the men who oppressed her,” she said. “I was very impressed with her confidence, drive and her bravery.” As a graduate student in the Netherlands, Reddock put Walcott’s work together in a booklet entitled Fight Back Say a Woman which was published in The Hague. Her writings—all with “woman” in the title—dealt with her struggles as the working class, in the hope that others like her would find the fire to stand up to the exploitation and gender prejudice in the workplace.


Walcott’s one wish, said Reddock as she read her eulogy in 2007, would have been the revision of the Industrial Relations Act to recognise household assistants as workers in T&T. With all Walcott did in her lifetime—from standing up to employers; taking her discourse to Geneva as far as the ILO Convention; the creation of the National Union for Domestic Employees (Nude) in 1980; the passing of the Minimum Wages order for Household Assistants; the passing of the Counting Unremunerated Work Act (piloted by Independent Senator Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, its principle was later adopted, and became the basis of the UN World Conference on Women in Bejing)—the struggle continues. There is, said Le Blanc, who is secretary general of Nude, “a psychological attempt to keep domestic workers in place, in servitude.” Le Blanc was never a domestic worker but like her mother, she believes in equality for all and continues to defend their rights. “I understood what she was about. I met the people she was meeting, saw the respect when she was abroad,” Le Blanc said. “But here, it is still a struggle to get anything for the domestic worker. If you can’t be appreciated by your own people and your own government…or is it a conspiracy to keep domestic workers home and work like slaves?” Domestic workers are still without severance benefits, occupational health and safety measures, and sometimes NIS protection, Le Blanc pointed out.


Although the government launched the Domestic Workers Registry last year, she says the outcome is yet to be revealed. There’s also the ongoing gender debate over the role of women. But as Le Blanc argues, that does not mean all women can cook, clean, iron, nurture. “It’s not second nature. People don’t want to admit it is a skill,” she said. For example, she said, turning a bed-ridden elderly  person to a more comfortable position requires a technique, not instinct. Walcott’s fight for the recognition of domestic workers was not an insular one. There is a presence both regionally and international, said Dr Reddock. The Caribbean Domestic Workers Network, an affiliation comprising groups in Guyana, Antigua and Barbados, speaks on behalf of domestic workers of the region. The network has asked Caricom for domestic workers to be considered a skilled category in the scheme of the Caribbean Single Market Economy, giving them the opportunity to work in other Caricom countries. In these countries, today has been declared Clotil Walcott Day in memory of the woman who started the journey.


What Walcott wanted 

The bone of contention, says Le Blanc, is the ratification of Convention 189. The legislation, which T&T supported, is yet to be brought before Parliament. Once it is ratified, Government formally makes a commitment to implement all the obligations provided in the convention, and to report to the ILO on the measures taken. So far Bolivia, South Africa, Uruguay, Paraguay, Italy, Mauritius, Nicaragua and the Philippines have ratified the Convention. In addition to which, there’s the Domestic Workers Recommendation 201, adopted by the ILO conference in 2011. Minister of Labour Errol McLeod was present to support the recommendation which provides practical guidance concerning possible legal and other measures that need to implemented in support of Convention 189.


Among the standards set by the convention are: the right to collective bargaining protection from all terms of abuse fair employment provision of terms and conditions of employment
regulation of working hours right to a safe and healthy environment conditions that are not less favourable than those of other general workers.


This afternoon, Nude will host a programme of activities including a dinner where the featured speakers will be Prof Rhoda Reddock, ILO Workers’ Specialist Paula Robinson and Ida Le Blanc. The event begins at 4.30 pm at the Eastern Credit Union, 42-43 Sorzano Street, Arima. 


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