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'Unions took it to their hearts'

23 March 2012 News
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Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary for Equalities of the IUF's UK affiliate Unite, explains why winning the ILO Convention on the rights of domestic workers was a victory for the trade union movement as a whole.

At Unite, she has helped build a strong relationship between organised migrant domestic workers, their supporters, and the unions.

She is also Chair of the Women's Committee of the ITUC, which helped mobilise its affiliated union federations across the world to win C189. Then in mid-December 2011, together with the IDWN, IUF, Human Rights Watch and others, launched the '12 by 12' campaign for ratification of C189 by governments in at least 12 countries during 2012. Domestic workers in many countries held public rallies and demonstrations.

For the interview below, Diana spoke with researcher and activist Celia Mather.

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Winning C189 last year was a real victory for everyone involved. Such progress was possible only because of the involvement of all parties, and the central role of domestic workers themselves. We should not underestimate the advances made. It was extraordinary to see how unions took it to their hearts, and how they put domestic workers at the forefront, letting them take the lead.

In my experience in the UK, organising domestic workers, particularly migrant domestic workers is so important. They are often the most vulnerable to exploitation and serious abuse. Alongside broader union organisation, it is important to support domestic workers organising themselves. In this way, their own voice is protected and advanced. Also, they build courage in themselves, as well as their trust in unions. We must make sure we listen hard to what domestic workers want, and support them in building their own organisations and linking to unions.

In my union, Unite in the UK, domestic workers are individual members plus they have their own organisation, Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW) supported by the union. Domestic workers have the opportunity to come together first, and then be part of the union. I think that experience should be mirrored at all levels.

As a member of the ITUC Executive Bureau, and for many years involved in the ILO Workers' Group, I thought there was turning point when the ITUC Executive not just agreed to domestic workers being a priority at the ILO but then followed through on it. It was different because there was a real, heartfelt feeling to do this across the whole of the ITUC Executive, including many unionists who had not previously campaigned for domestic workers. It wasn't just taking a policy forward and paying lip-service to it, but a genuine commitment to something whose 'time had come'. All the campaigning and conferences and so on by the IDWN, the IUF and others made a huge difference to the ITUC. Then, when C189 was won, there was a sense that this was a victory for all. It showed that our movement represents even the most vulnerable workers.

Now is the time for ratification and action. With the '12 by 12' campaign, it is very important to keep the alliances we created active, at national and international levels. In the UK, we have continued to have meetings with all the organisations involved: the TUC, Unite, J4DW, Anti-Slavery International, Kalayaan, Christian Aid, Oxfam, JCWI, and the lawyers advising us.

In each country, we need to achieve ratification to ensure the minimum standards set out in C189. But also we need to look at what rights already apply to domestic workers, and what needs to be improved, including how the laws are implemented. In the UK, we are having to campaign to protect some rights that we are in danger of losing, such as the migrant domestic workers' visa. On top of that, we need to increase the rights that do exist.

In my experience, within the union, domestic workers have brought a great sense of solidarity from their support for each other. They have brought new ideas and ways of organising, which have enriched and strengthened the union. For example, they asked Unite for IT and language training, and they also developed art classes and have held exhibitions in the union centre. They often hold dance and song performances and plays to raise awareness of their issues. These also bring the different cultures together, helping them to learn about each other, as well as about the UK. They look at all the ways of communicating they can. They have a postcard campaign, with pictures drawn by a domestic worker of the different kinds of work they do. They bring in adult education bodies, law centres, and so on, making positive new links. Several hundred domestic workers come together on a regular basis here in London. Some have also taken part in the Unite Women's School. Some came on their day off, but some even took holiday to join the whole course. I noticed a huge difference from this in the domestic workers themselves and in the other union members there. It was really positive.

The key message is what they are bringing to society, and there is no replacement for Ministers and others having the direct experience of domestic workers spelt out to them by domestic workers themselves, supported by domestic workers' organisations, unions, lawyers and others. This is about a reality that no-one can defend and, when they hear about it, everyone does want to be a part of finding the solutions.

Actions where domestic workers make their work visible, such as sweeping around parliament buildings, are very valuable. They should also be invited to any workers' events like May Day. Get the domestic workers and their organisations involved. Actively encourage them to take part.

As Chair of the ITUC Women's Committee, I have been honoured to be part of campaigning so that domestic workers are recognised in the union movement worldwide. We should continue with the strong alliance between the ITUC, the IUF and the IDWN. We should learn from this experience all that we can, and encourage all affiliated unions to organise domestic workers. This will not only support the domestic workers but strengthen the whole union movement, at home and internationally.