Labour and Literary

Published in Dawn on July 13 2016

“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence.” – Paulo Freire

You are probably one of those employers who find that no matter how many times you change your domestic worker, the woman you hire for household chores has a strong desire to educate her children. Of course, she herself, aged 16 to 50, is illiterate and comes from the rural hinterland of Sindh or southern Punjab. But deep down in her heart your maid knows the power of education.

She may not know exactly how this power would have transformed her life, yet she knows instinctively it would have been for the better. For education means engaging in the process of inquiry and had she gone through the process, even if she was doing the same work after 10 years of schooling, she would be in a better position to assert her rights.

Today, numbering 67 million worldwide, domestic workers are overwhelmingly — 83pc — women. Long work hours, less than minimum wages, in-kind payment, no paid holiday and lack of social security characterise domestic work.

The ILO Domestic Workers Convention (No 189), adopted after a long wait in 2011, has affirmed the legal status of domestic workers and laid down their fundamental rights and terms and conditions. Member states are advised to take measures in five broad areas: policy and legislative reforms, facilitating organisation of domestic workers, ratification and implementation of the convention, rights advocacy and documentation. However, till today, only 22 countries out of 169 member states have ratified the Convention. Of them, 11 are Latin American countries.

If you look up the profiles of the countries that have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention in the last five years, you find that all of them have a literacy rate of 90 to 100pc. These countries spend between 4.5pc to 20pc of their GDPs on education and allocate six to 20pc for health. No wonder domestic workers in these, particularly Latin American, countries are strong, confident women who have been through the process of inquiry, are aware of the tactics employed by oppressors and know how to organise and negotiate their rights collectively.

Domestic workers in Latin American countries have been organising themselves into groups and unions since the last 40 years. They have run campaigns to bring domestic work into the ambit of laws, opened support centres for workers and monitored the registration of workers. They played a role in the formation of the International Domestic Workers Network in 2006 which transformed itself into the International Domestic Workers Federation in 2013. Today, Latin American domestic workers are entitled to minimum wage, daily and weekly rest time, restrictions on in-kind payments, and respect for the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The factors behind empowered domestic workers in these countries are of course several, including history and political developments. But the fact remains that literacy and educational attainment play a pivotal role not only in labour market outcomes and overall national economic development but also in transforming the workers into agents of social change. Developing the skills and knowledge of the labour force is thus viewed as critical by the states who aspire for prosperity and growth of society.

Pakistan’s rulers do not give importance to the quality of human capital for it results in heightened political and social awareness in the workforce. An illiterate, passive workforce, specifically women, suits vested interests. This is the reason why, for the last 69 years, the rulers have persistently allocated a pittance of the budget to education and health. Currently Pakistan spends a mere 2.1pc of its GDP on education and, pitiably, less than 1pc on health. Illiteracy is high at 40pc with a higher gender disparity. Of rural women, 62pc are illiterate.

The government proclaims that it is ‘Putting People First’ and vows to strengthen human capital as the ‘first pillar’ of its Vision 2025. But it continues to deny the populace literacy and educational attainment. Lack of education increases a worker’s chances of exploitation.

In Pakistan, trade unions, informal labour groups and movements, and labour rights activists have not fully connected the right to education with rights at the workplace. Advocacy for policy and legislative reforms and ratification of ILO conventions need to be combined with the fight for universal literacy and quality education. The successful struggle of domestic workers’ unions in Latin America proves that despite the setbacks that labour movements have suffered worldwide in recent decades, forming unions and collective bargaining is still relevant and fruitful, particularly for marginalised workers in the informal sector.

View the article on Dawn’s website:

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