By Liberty Chee
“She didn’t even realise she was a domestic worker because nobody used to call them workers. They’ll say, you’re working as a servant.” Ida Le Blanc spoke fondly of her mother, the woman who had founded the first domestic workers’ union in Trinidad and Tobago.
Over the summer, I had a chance to meet Le Blanc at the trade federation IUF’s Congress in Geneva. She has carried on her mother’s work as general secretary of the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE). Bearing an acronym that she thought would be difficult to forget, NUDE was founded by Le Blanc’s mother, Clotil Walcott, in 1974. The union is one of the first to represent the sector in the developing world.
At the time of its founding, Walcott was deeply involved in the country’s Black Power movement, which began as a student uprising by the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) in solidarity with Black Caribbean students in Montreal, 48 of whom were arrested for protesting against racism at Sir George Williams University. These trans-local struggles took place in the tumult of the late 1960s, inflected by the civil rights movement in the United States, the decolonisation of Africa, and broader anti-colonial sentiments in the “Third World.”
NUDE was birthed by the coalescing of many movements – the women’s and workers’ struggles, as well as those who contested the legacies of Britain’s colonial order. Its primary agenda, from its founding until today, is to amend the Industrial Relations Act to include the sector in its definition of workers. Throughout the years, there have been piecemeal changes, such as their inclusion in the minimum wage law and maternity protection, but the union’s founding rationale remains elusive. “Nobody wants to know about domestic workers. They don’t want to know because they have domestic workers, too.” Le Blanc lamented the divide between grassroots women like her and “high society women.” The latter are interested in decolonisation and reparative justice for the ills of the past. But for Le Blanc, the past was not yet over. “Slavery isn’t done, you understand?” I nodded. “It’s in the household.”
In late June, I managed to find a copy of Walcott’s series of essays at the Atria Institute in Amsterdam. Fight Back Says a Woman documents her coming to understand her “double exploitation” as a worker and a woman while working in a poultry factory. It was published in 1980 by the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, upon the initiative of fellow Trinidadian Rhoda Reddock, who had met Walcott as a radical feminist in their home country, and was a graduate student at the ISS at the time. In an online interview, Reddock recounted their early encounters: “I was so amazed by her. She invited me to her house, she would show me her books. But she never went to university. I would call her a proletarian intellectual.”
Reddock invited Walcott to speak at a conference she was organising in The Hague. There, Walcott met other notable feminists, including Reddock’s doctoral supervisor, German sociologist Maria Mies, and American feminist Selma James, of the International Wages for Housework Campaign. Walcott and James became fast friends, immediately recognising the link between women’s unpaid labour and the lack of recognition of domestic work. Reddock noted that Walcott pushed for the Unremunerated Work Act of 1995 of Trinidad and Tobago, which allowed for the counting of unwaged work in national statistics, making the country one of the first to do so, and serving as a model for the United Nations’ Conference on Women in Beijing.
Walcott passed away in 2007, the year that the International Labour Organization‘s (ILO) governing board put domestic work back on the agenda of the International Labour Conference (ILC), half a century after the last failed attempt to do so.
The Law and Practice Report, which opens with the claim that domestic work is rooted in the global history of slavery and other forms of servitude, was written to aid delegates of the ILC in crafting a standard-setting instrument on domestic work. It was authored by McGill University law professor Adelle Blackett. After two years of deliberations at the so-called “international parliament of labour,” the Convention on Domestic Work (C189) was adopted in 2011.
At its core, C189 calls for the recognition of domestic work as work like any other. It should therefore be accorded the same employment norms we take for granted – days off and regularly receiving our salaries, among others. Blackett, whom I met at the ILO’s archives, told me that this issue was close to her heart, as her mother had immigrated from the Caribbean as a domestic worker. Her grandmother, Daisy Stoute, was also a domestic worker in pre-independence Barbados. Blackett had worked at the ILO as an intern in 1993, where she wrote the first contemporary study of the regulation of domestic work. Over a decade later, she was asked to be the lead expert on C189.
In 2010, both Blackett and Le Blanc would attend the ILC in Geneva to witness their life’s work take centre stage at this global governance institution. Recalling the experience, Blackett said, “It was really remarkable to be able to be a part of it and to see how the issues were being engaged with by such a wide range of constituents around the world.” Le Blanc was one among a number of representatives from domestic worker organizations, in what was at the time called the International Domestic Workers’ Network. Born out of the struggles for C189, and officially founded in 2013, it is now known as the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF): “We had a lot of meetings because we had to strategize. We had to get our convention.” C189 was adopted after a vote at the ILC in 2011 — 396 delegates voted in favour, 16 delegates voted against, and 63 abstained. To date, 36 countries have ratified C189, half of which are in the Caribbean and Latin America. Europe has 10 signatories, and Africa has five. The Philippines is the only signatory in all of Asia.
The instrument, while universal in scope, did not originate from a specific place or a specific set of actors. It was buoyed by social forces that were forged in transnational spaces and the intimate relationships of mothers, daughters, teachers and friends. These encounters are shaped by personal and political relationships, and show us how the “universal” can be — and is — intimately interconnected with the “particular.” In these entangled encounters, the tensions between identities and positionalities have been tempered by making common cause.
For Le Blanc, the ILC was a space that made it easy for people to approach their government ministers. There, they were physically within reach. It made it easy for her to meet her counterparts, create alliances, and build solidarity: “It helped me to be brave. When I'm speaking about domestic workers, I speak with authority, because you have this backing, these people to back you up.”
The ILO gave domestic work the status it lacked, and Le Blanc's regular participation as delegate also gave her legitimacy as a trade unionist and advocate: “I had more confidence in myself to represent the workers. Because when you're representing domestic workers, people look down on you. Well, that kind of stigma, I got away from that.”
In October 2023, the IDWF convened its fourth congress. Le Blanc has been elected as part of the executive committee representing the Caribbean.