Domestic workers ‘fear’ joining unions

Among the challenges highlighted was the lack of maternity benefits experienced among many of Namibia’s more than 71 000 domestic workers.

21 August 2019 | Labour

JANA-MARI SMITH

Many domestic workers fear joining trade unions or taking full maternity leave, because they believe this could cost them their jobs.

A study commissioned by the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) Namibia underlined that the “fear of losing employment if they join a trade union is rife” amongst some of the 203 domestic workers who took part in the research.

The study, titled 'When the minimum wage is not taking the worker home', was launched last week.

Trade unions informed the researchers further that determining the growth of union membership was hard, following the implementation of the minimum wage order in 2015, because “some employers threatened to release [domestic workers] from their duties, thereby compromising their right to associate and belong to trade unions”.

The study also found that the registration of domestic workers with the Social Security Commission (SSC) “remains low”, a concern highlighted by trade union representatives.

Moreover, it was found that “some employers were habitual defaulters, as they were not remitting the mandatory social security contributions to the commission”.

Another challenge highlighted by the study was the lack of maternity benefits experienced among many of Namibia’s more than 71 000 domestic workers.

The study underlined that a “significant number” of domestic workers surveyed said they are now allowed time off during their pregnancy and “even after delivery they are still expected to return to work within a short period of time”.

The study concluded that most domestic workers don’t enjoy Namibia’s legally stipulated maternity benefits and don’t spend “enough time with their babies after birth for fear of loss of income in the absence of registration with the Social Security Commission”.

Another concern highlighted by the trade unions is that a number of people employed as domestic workers are in fact providing “unpaid family labour”. The unions claimed that many work and live on the premises of an employer and “as a result rely on their employer for feeding and are irregularly offered second-hand clothing and sometimes toiletries in lieu of payment”.

The unions further expressed concern that the current minimum wage is inadequate to cover the cost of living and that the bargaining ability of domestic workers is limited.

Nevertheless, they agreed that the introduction of the minimum wage order has helped to enhance the lives of most domestic workers, who do have better protections in place and “are not as vulnerable as they used to be in the absence of the wage order”.

The study includes recommendations to government and trade unions, among which are suggestions for unions to develop campaigns for domestic workers to improve union membership.

Moreover, unions are encouraged to campaign for a living minimum wage, while using the cost of basic needs as a yardstick.

The study further recommends a toll-free line and complaint boxes for members to alert them to abuse and other queries.

A legal and information centre should also be considered.

Government is advised to implement continuous programmes to promote greater public awareness and an understanding of the domestic worker minimum wage, and the continuous reinforcement of domestic work as paid work.

Moreover, labour inspections should not be the domain of the labour ministry alone, but routine checks on domestic workers should be strengthened with the creation of a specialised tripartite multi-sectoral and inter-ministerial committee.

The study also recommends that “it is about time to get a better understanding of the needs and expectations of employers”.

It recommends engaging them in discussions that can help both sides and lead to a more practical strategy to ensure greater recognition and respect for the minimum wage order, and greater protection for domestic workers.

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