“You have to make trouble to make history” - How domestic workers in Trinidad & Tobago are connecting parallel reporting to movement-building, advocacy and campaigning




Interview with Ida Le Blanc President National Union of Domestic Employees, NUDE Trinidad & Tobago


  1. Describe your experience and current work in parallel reporting.

We have been engaged in monitoring the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and the Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in Trinidad & Tobago. We have built alliances at the national and international level to develop parallel reports and to engage in the review process of Trinidad & Tobago. We have obtained meaningful recommendations regarding the amending of the Industrial Relations Act to recognize domestic workers as workers and the recognition of the value of care work.

Likewise, and given that the mission of the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE) is not just parallel reporting, we have used parallel reporting to strengthen the visibility and political representation of our movement, as well as to keep building strong connections with grassroots women, communities, and other trade unions and associations of workers. We ground parallel reporting in strong engagement with the constituencies of our movement, and we are also accountable to them. We have then connected parallel reporting to our advocacy and campaigning actions, more recently with the Women’s Global Strike, so our overall action in the country includes advancing the implementation of recommendations from the treaty bodies. International advocacy is nothing new for NUDE, we were able to get government to bring all stakeholders together and respond to the brown report  on the standard setting process at the ILO on the rights of Domestic Workers, which was later adopted as the Convention 189.  NUDE lobbied in Geneva and got government and employers to support the adoption of this instrument, even though to-date it has not been ratified (C189) in our country.

2.         Please, share with us one or two successful experiences in parallel reporting.

I had the opportunity to be in Geneva, for the review of Trinidad & Tobago by the CEDAW Committee. It was a meaningful experience for me and my organization given that we were able to be there and to speak for ourselves. I said just what I wanted to say. I was able to make a presentation in a few minutes to the CEDAW Committee in a side meeting that was held for Trinidad and Tobago. I spoke in particular, about the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) and how it should recognize and include domestic workers’ rights by 2019. Any Act under the law here in Trinidad must be pursued under the Industrial Relations Act. This is something very important because only when you are recognized as a worker, do you have a position to negotiate with your employer and the government, so employers get away with impunity when they fire domestic workers or treat them unfairly.

Attending the review sessions in Geneva, was also very important because I have been able to maintain contact with one of the members of the CEDAW Committee, who was in charge of the report. In Geneva, he invited me to have a conversation because I told him: “you have to help me”. I believe he helped us to get strong recommendations from the Committee. It was very helpful going there. It was not only about reporting, but you had yet to develop yourself in ways that you weren't used to, for example, speaking to these high official members of CEDAW and things like that, you know? From that moment we have continued to have a direct dialogue with government; now they invite us to attend some meetings and committees to move their commitments forward. And even speaking to these high official members of CEDAW was a big thing for me.  We got government to pay attention to what we were saying because I kept in touch with the media in Trinidad and was able to get a press release on what was taking place in Geneva. I reported why I was attending and why it was so important for Domestic Workers in my country. Immediately after the Minister of Labour responded to my article on the newspaper saying that the issue is very much on the cards and she absolutely agrees with the concerns of NUDE and that the proposed reforms will have her support at Cabinet level. She said it was just a matter of time before our concerns are addressed. She also gave the assurance that legislation to address the situation will be on the Parliamentary agenda. That was in July 2016, to-date it remains the same.

We have worked in alliance with other organizations from our country, and we have had the support of ESCR-Net members as well to develop and submit recent reports, to learn about the review process and make key contacts in the UN system. We have received meaningful support from the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Gl-ESCR) and International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW-AP). We also got the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) to endorse our parallel report. I could say how important alliances are, both at the national and the international level. Solidarity is something very important to keep promoting regarding parallel reporting processes, especially given that grassroots women do not often have the possibilities to do direct advocacy in international spaces. And that is why I'm so happy to be a member of ESCR-Net, because if It wasn’t for our solidarity, no one would take me on.

3. How was the parallel reporting process useful to your work and what did it allow you to do or achieve? What were some limitations or challenges?

As grassroots organizations and social movements, we face many barriers to drive parallel reporting processes and to advocate before treaty bodies. Usually, NGOs never call me and use to leave NUDE out of these important processes. And this is a serious issue that must be addressed. People can be going all over the place saying they’re representing women. But when I am present, and I stand up… nobody else is stepping up. So… I go out there as a grassroots woman to participate in events like this and to know what is CEDAW and what is C189 and the Beijing Platform for Action. We must be able to tell CEDAW what we feel and what our perspectives are, so that CEDAW better responds to people. It’s about telling them what our needs are and what's important to grassroot people and poor people in general. We have made many efforts to have more and more grassroots people contributing to our reports. Grassroots women have a lot to say. We must take account of what they’re saying and listen and take action.

To be more visible, we need to let more people know that we are here, for the grassroot women in particular, working in the informal sector, not only domestic workers, but for all workers in the informal sector. And we had to cut through all these barriers that are put up to keep working class women out of this whole scenario. We can’t wait for people to do it for us. No one in Trinidad and Tobago will stand up and say to support the union NUDE. It’s been about 40 years, and it's the same story we’re getting all the time. Even though I was able to go to CEDAW and get them to put a strong recommendation, nobody wanted to talk about that, you know? When I go and talk about it to government, they’re looking at me like I'm making trouble. But as I tell them, you have to make trouble to make history, so what we had to do was bring onboard the visibility of the union. That is very important.

Given our alliances at the international level, we have managed to be an important voice regarding the women’s rights situation in Trinidad & Tobago. For instance, because we engaged in the last review process, government must include us in the dialogue to implement the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee. The government must report back to CEDAW this year, and it also means reporting back to NUDE and the grassroots organizations. Engaging in parallel reporting and attending the review process in Geneva, did a lot to amplify our voice and demands.

A big challenge we are facing regarding implementation is that corporations, represented by the Chamber of Commerce, are influencing government to not recognize domestic workers and fulfill their rights. After many conversations, meetings, and unkept commitments of the government, we have discovered that this is the cause of the lack of political will for implementing the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee. Employers are not supportive of minimum wage rights for domestic workers, and they’re so big and powerful in this country that nothing happens when you go to the Ministry of Labor or to the court… employers do not come. And if you go on your own, they appeal the case, so you don't have any money to take a lawyer to go to the higher court. That is pressure being put on grassroot people in general.

The government has been inviting us to consultations just to say they’re doing something for domestic workers when the true issue is recognition for domestic workers. But they tried to leave out NUDE because they say we make trouble and the trouble we’re making is making governments look bad. What do we do? Any so-called trouble that makes the government look bad is just a result of what we’re asking for that is rightfully ours.

Finally, data is also a big challenge. There is not enough data available regarding women in the informal sector.

If you don't have enough data, you can't see the true picture of what is going on. If there is not enough data on women’s situation in your country, that is something to be raised in the parallel report, noting that such information is required. This is something key regarding care work. When they're picking up doing surveys and statistics on what happens in the country, we don’t get to see the true picture of what women in our country are really contributing to our society in unpaid care work. And we believe that is why we are not considered workers who do this work for pay. And they try to give us low pay, you know?

One of biggest challenges is commanding financial support to continue our work on a continuous basis. We must have the financial capacity to be able to continuously advocate and lobby for change, it is not a one-off situation because it loses support towards our agenda for the protection and rights of domestic workers.

4.         How have you worked towards the implementation of the concluding observations?

When we do parallel reporting, we work together with communities and grassroots women. Given that the parallel reporting builds on their experiences, we are accountable to them. As NUDE, we have engaged in the Women´s Global Strike (WGS). Since this is a great opportunity to reconnect with communities and different grassroots groups in Trinidad and the Caribbean region, we are coming to people not only to tell them to strike, but telling them why we must strike. Given our ongoing work around the Beijing Declaration, we see that 25 years later, we don´t have much to celebrate: violence against women, exploitation, the lack of recognition of domestic workers as workers, among many other issues. Since the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration is one of the pillars of the WGS, we have used the strike to talk people about treaty bodies, and to keep pushing for the implementation of relevant recommendations from the CEDAW Committee and the CESCR in our country. 

One of the most positive things about the WGS is how it connects diverse movements and demands around women´s rights. So, when we go to the communities, it´s not only work issues we talk about. There are many issues affecting women, including those in the workplace. All women we spoke to identified the particular situations they experience, day by day. That is why this global strike is important for us so that we can call all women, who are being harassed, exploited, denied rights, and tell them that we all together have the power to transform that, and have many instruments to make it possible. We are using the strike to mobilize and speak up about the unfulfilled human rights obligations of the state, and to write statements and letters to decision makers about these pending commitments that we, all women, do not forget. The strike has been very important to pressure our government to recognize domestic workers’ rights and the value of our work, because we are taking care of people.

Likewise, we have been increasingly using social media, like Facebook, to disseminate recommendations. Via social media we are constantly pressuring States and keep in touch with communities to whom we are accountable. This has also been very helpful in terms of creating connections with community centers that gather data, something very important to the parallel reporting process.

5.         What suggestions would you give to other members who are considering engaging with treaty bodies?

Working with communities and grassroots groups is very important, and parallel reporting must be undertaken with the awareness that you are accountable to the women who are experiencing what you are putting under the spotlight. This way, you will be speaking from an informed position and your work will be grounded in women’s experience.

Building alliances at the national and international level is very important to build a strong report, and to get to participate in the review process. Making allies is so important in everything you do as part of the work that we do. And even some people who might be against your struggle, you treat them nicely because you might get some useful information from them even though they might not be for your cause. You just have to be brave and you have to come up with things on the spot whenever you can. If you have the chance to be there, don’t be shy. You're going to talk to people in a way to gain allies and make friendships. That could help you along the way with your work.

Parallel reporting is very important as a way to tell people what is happening in your country and to bring the real issues forward, but you really have to have a passion for the work so that they see that you're really convinced, that what you are saying is right for the people. Remember, they themselves know how to come up with a paragraph saying whatever, you know? So, you go in there, you must be well-informed on the subject that you're going to take part in. You are representing the interests of the people. You must make them have a say. And in that way, you will be speaking from an informed position, you know? And these people will see straight through you, because they recognize your leadership. Being accountable to the people is perhaps the most important thing to consider in parallel reporting, because the struggle will continue.

I do want to see more trade unions involved in parallel reporting. Because to me, parallel reporting before CEDAW or CESCR has more strength than the ILO conventions. We must still encourage governments and we must deal with the employers, so these are two forces we have to deal with, but parallel reporting, in my opinion, could be more effective.

Trade unions have a lot to say, especially when it comes to intersectionality. Women workers with intersecting identities have many challenges to face. Women workers experience directly many human rights violations in the context of work, and the trade union movement is about the life of workers. In fact, in many sectors there are now more women than men. We need to call on women, call on women in the unions because they have a lot to say.