Care workers must organize for their rights

Yaoundé (Cameroon) - Over half of the 22 million population employs domestic workers and the figures demonstrate an urgent need to support care workers in voicing their needs and attaining their rights.

Photo: by ASDAM

Over 70 per cent of the workers in the care sector in Cameroon are women, constituting a work force occupied predominantly by girls and youth at an age between 15-24 years. Only six per cent among the workers have received professional training.

This and other facts point to the dire conditions for work in the care sector of Cameroon, including the violation of labour rights, a general lack of social protection as well as the huge potential for abuse and harassment.

To create awareness on the plight of care workers and suggest appropriate policy options in Cameroon, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung organized a public conference in the capital Yaoundé on 7 March. Held in anticipation of International Women’s Day, the conference, titled “More Respect and Appreciation for Domestic Work in Cameroon,” brought together partners of FES from the non-profit sector, trade unions and international organizations.

Connect reached out to FES Cameroon Office and to Ms. Toche Carol, coordinator at Horizon Femmes, an organization in Cameroon that advocates and speaks up for women domestic workers, in order to understand better the conditions of care and domestic work in this African country. We feature here the conversation, as part of a series of our March issue that looks at care and domestic work and how it is taken up across four continents.

FES Connect: How did Horizon Femmes start and what kind of work do you do?

Toche Carole: Horizon Femmes was established in 1994 as a non-governmental organization that works on economic and social issues in the Cameroonian society. In 2011, we carried out a study on care workers in the country, and this research got us involved in the drafting of a law that touches on the protection of labour rights of domestic and care workers. Among the care workers, 78% have a low level of education and belong to the vulnerable groups of society, including marginalized women and girls, some below 15 years of age.

Through the study, RENATRAD, a network of associations that support care workers, was born. Two more organizations are prominent members and representatives of this network: AMCY [Association for Housewives and Cooperating Partners of Yaoundé] and Association for Supporting Domestic Workers – ASDAM. *

Since its creation in 2012, ASDAM has made great strides which is especially owed to its president, Claudine Lucie Moudou Mballa. Inspired by her own experience as a care worker, Claudine Lucie Moudou Mballa is now supporting 120 care workers, between 21-52 years of age, coming from different regions of the country. They work to create solidarity among the association members, provide thrift and loan services, training, education, coaching, placements and assistance to render care work more professionally, thus bestowing it with more value. Hence, the training ASDAM provides puts emphasis on household activities, such as cooking, laundry, cleaning, ironing, baby sitting and taking care of the elderly.

What are the challenges you face in your everyday work?

TC: One of the first challenges in our work is to make care workers aware of their rights, helping them to understand the national and international legislation governing domestic work. Another challenge for care workers is the need to better organize themselves in associations striving for solidarity and joint action to push for their labour rights and labour protection.

As care workers are often not aware of their specific rights, they also do not know that forming alliances with other care workers can bolster their political voice in their call for more and better labour rights. In the long run, care workers should join the trade union movement to better articulate their labour rights through collective bargaining and participate in tripartite dialogues.

Other difficulties include a lack of adequate infrastructure and training as well as a lack of institutional and financial means to ensure access for labour inspectors and support in legal proceedings.

Many care workers undervalue their profession and only consider their work as a last resort. This in turn may lead to disrespect of their employers. But then again, employers rarely provide their personnel with official work contracts. Our study detected that only ten per cent of care givers in Cameroon have legal contracts in which employers commit to labour standards, such as regular breaks, annual and maternity leave as well as legally codified working hours and social security benefits.

This is the reason why, for example, ASDAM has taken the initiative to register its members directly to the National Social Insurance Fund which provides and administers the social protection structure in the country. Official contracts for domestic workers would as well oblige employers to pay the minimum wage of 36.270FCFA (about 50 euros) as prescribed by the Cameroonian legislation. As most care workers receive a salary below the minimum wage, ASDAM has pushed for and succeeded in ensuring its own members to earn a wage between 50.000FCFA and 120.000FCFA.

I would say that we need to sensitize employers to change their behaviour so that they respect existing legislation on domestic work.

Care and domestic work are often invisible and merely appreciated in most parts of this world, although they ensure the foundations of our societies. Which problems currently exist in Cameroon with regards to domestic work?

TC: Paradoxically there is very little public interest in the activities of domestic workers, yet there is so much reliance on their services. On average, working hours stand at 54 hours per week for care givers. Since they are often themselves family heads and mothers with children who need attention, their working week should be reduced to 40 hours per week as provided by the labour code for other workers.

National and international legislation do not particularly address care givers in a special way. Take for example, the Cameroonian Labour Code. The only law that addresses care work is the obsolete 1968 law with inhumane provisions regarding wage, suggesting a monthly salary starting from less than ten euros. The 1976 ordinance also does not take adequately address burning issues of social protection, as working hours.

To this day, the Cameroonian government has not ratified the ILO Conventions 187 and 189 on decent work for domestic workers, although it’s been four years now since the signing of the Conventions. This limits the right of care workers to seek redress at the international level especially at a time when national laws do not favour them.

Consequently, there is hardly any social protection in cases when risks or work-related accidents occur. Unfortunately, these cases happen often, as care workers are not sufficiently equipped with adequate working instruments like gloves, booths, masques, insecticides or pesticides. This is even worsened by the fact that labour inspectors and bailiffs who could defend care workers against flagrant delicts or crimes, are not granted access into homes to investigate. And this, however, would require a cumbersome and expensive legal procedure that care workers could not afford, anyway.

Many care workers face physical and psychological violence, ranging from sexual abuse, insults to disrespect even from children and other relatives of the employers. There are also cases where care workers are hired and paid through intermediaries who never pass on the salaries and instead fill their own pockets. We have even seen cases where relatives working as care givers are thrown out of a home after several years of serving without any kind of compensation.

The everyday life of care workers is over-loaded by household tasks (cooking, shopping, babysitting, gardening, laundry, gardening, farming) which often exceeds their physical capacities. This is especially true for live-in housekeepers who are confronted with unlimited working hours and are not given days off.

All in all, we get to see a wider picture of the situation and status of care workers in Cameroon where domestic workers are vulnerable, as they must work under precarious conditions, mostly disrespected and granted no recognition either by law or society.

Care and domestic work not only touch upon women’s rights, but also include other major policy areas like social protection, working conditions, health, physical safety and fair payment. How do you promote the different policy areas in your daily work?

TC: Social protection, working conditions, health, physical safety and fair pay have been raised as issues and addressed in the pending draft law which Horizon Femme worked on in 2011.

ASDAM, one of the prominent members of the network RENATRAD, affiliates its members automatically to a social protection structure, the National Social Insurance Fund. This step, however, is against the law since it is the employers themselves who must register their employees, but they are often unwilling to do so.

In terms of fair pay, ASDAM, with together with AMCY has succeeded to negotiate salaries between 50.000FCFA -120.000 FCFA for care workers depending on the size of the home, on the working environment and the tasks assigned to the care giver. The unfortunate thing is that the salaries are paid directly to ASDAM who deducts twelve per cent for social protection fees, ten per cent for running costs and for membership in its association, another smaller percentage for financing a thrift and loan fund against the worker’s name, and the rest goes to the care giver.

As for working conditions, upon admission as ASDAM member, a care worker is trained on aspects of work they are interested in. The association, then, searches for an adequate job position, negotiates the salary and assists the care worker with placement. Over time, the association will accompany the care worker with further coaching and follow up activities.

Horizon Femmes also succeeded in establishing a cooperation between care associations and the Pro Bono legal clinics, a global volunteer network of lawyers who can provide free legal advice and monthly consultations for domestic workers. One example for this kind of cooperation can be observed in Baffoussam, the capital of the West Region in Cameroon.

Which recommendations would you give to politicians in Cameroon, in which policy areas are improvements needed and how do you think can they be implemented?

TC: The minimum wage of about 60 euro should be enforced and respected with a matching increase in the salaries of workers in the public service. Laws on working age which currently states 14 years as minimum age, should be set to 18 years. We must completely abolish child labour and introduce special protection for child victims of abuse and exploitation, on a mandatory basis. Given the prevalence of women in domestic work, gender-specific measures also need to be enforced together with legal and social protection mechanisms.

In addition to this, existing care workers’ training centres should be professionalized through education and training. In this context, concerned ministries and institutions in the country and other affiliated organizations should harmonize their programmes on care givers for better and more opportunities for education, training, counselling and professionalization.

Finally, we must encourage domestic workers to organize themselves into pressure groups, like trade unions. In this way, they are more able to denounce abuses, cases of rape and other threats. Overall, I would suggest improvements in policy areas that may subsidize legal proceedings for care givers. This can be done by production and circulation of tools, such as text, laws, decrees or other mechanisms that ensure enforcement and implementation of laws protecting care workers. I would also suggest to attach labour inspectors and bailiffs to care workers’ associations and trade unions and to involve care givers in tripartite dialogues.

You are a partner of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Cameroon. How long have you been working together? Which projects and events have you jointly undertaken?

TC: The cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung just started this year as part of their work on informal-formal sector cooperation and social protection. The seminar by FES on domestic work in Cameroon which brought together trade unions from the service sector and informal domestic workers’ associations has set the starting point for our future cooperation.

Which projects are in the pipeline that you are jointly implementing with the Foundation?

TC: Currently, we are following up on the topic of care work in Cameroon and try to support more workers to form associations – only five can be found in Cameroon at present. More than half of the 22 million population in Cameroon employs domestic workers including many expatriates that work in the country. The figures demonstrate an urgent need for more associations to support care workers and help them to better articulate their needs.

As part of the activities to support organizing of care workers, we promote alliance-building between care workers associations and experienced trade unions who can assist in enforcing and voicing domestic workers’ claims in a more resonant way. Such an alliance could prove advantageous and decisive in forming care worker trade unions in the future who could better defend their labour rights against the backdrop of national and international labour frameworks.

Which projects are you planning for the future?

TC: We plan to put together national and international instruments that assure decent care work and distribute these to committed care workers (live-in and live-out). We want to assist care workers to understand the issues and enable them to better defend themselves, improve care work and assure the respect for standardized working conditions in Cameroon.

We also plan to create a data base of care workers to serve as a resource centre and to map stakeholders involved in care work, like trade unions, care workers’ associations, governmental departments, CSOs, media representatives etc. Together, we could better advocate for legal national and international frameworks to be respected.

* Association pour le Devéloppement des Assistantes de Maison.

FES Connect team would like to thank Susanne Stollreiter, FES Cameroon Office for the support in producing the interview.

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