Spotlight interview with Fatou Bintou Yaffa (CNTS-Senegal)

"Training is a priority objective for improving the situation of domestic workers."

President of the women’s committee and deputy secretary-general of the National Confederation of Senegalese Workers (CNTS), Fatou Bintou Yaffa explains below the CNTS strategy for organizing informal sector workers. She appeals for support for a project to create a training centre for domestic workers, which would also contribute to combating human smuggling and trafficking, of which domestic workers are often victims.

How did you first get involved in trade union activities?

In ‘84, when I had just finished my training as a primary school teacher, the director of my school encouraged me and my new colleagues to fill in a trade union membership form. Since I used to ask lots of questions, they said to me, "You’ll be a trade union leader one day." There were plenty of us young people, full of enthusiasm, but the secretary-general was elderly and had already held office for four terms. My fellow teachers pushed me forward and, in 1996, I became a member of the executive committee of the national trade union of primary school teachers. In 1999 I became the national treasurer and in 2001, confederal secretary responsible for women. In 2006, I became president of the CNTS national women’s committee and deputy secretary-general at confederal level.

What is the main priority that has motivated you throughout your struggle?

Democracy. During all the years of combat, I have always emphasized consensus-building, dialogue and the democratization of trade union life. Organizing the informal sector is also a priority that is very dear to me and is, moreover, a priority of the CNTS women’s committee. Since the start of 2004, we have made great efforts to make contact with the informal economy, in order to organize and structure them. Street sellers, dyers, cereal and juice processors, oyster openers, those working for fish merchants (working at the ports), railway station workers and more recently, domestic workers. With what are regrettably very limited means, we have travelled the country at ground level, covering as many of the regions as possible. As a result, a female street seller, a native of Guinea-Bissau, recently stood for the Fatick chamber of trade. She has massive support behind her from a variety of economic sectors. This is an extremely good thing, it will show women in the informal economy that, with training, they can access decision-making positions that they would never have thought they could reach. If she is elected, she will sit alongside big bosses who earn much more than her, but she will be able to express her opinion. This will be an important step forward that will be reported in the media throughout Senegal.

What strategy have you put in place for organizing the informal sector?

It’s a very difficult, vast world. We have developed a strategy of training focal points. From the street sellers, we have trained a woman who used to have a formal job but who lost it and began to work in the informal sector. The same pattern occurred among the dyers, with a woman who also used to have a formal job. Among the oyster openers, we identified some extremely dynamic women as contacts. In terms of economic interest groups, we explained that joining a trade union could help them advance their demands. The laundry women spend their nights in the street, homeless. When they attend a meeting, they always bring five or six new women, which is why it is important to set up a structure based on focal points.

Do you also offer any concrete services?

In principle, the trade union has nothing to offer. Our primary utility is in helping people protect themselves and defend their rights. But we will also try to offer concrete services. We have worked with physically disabled women to launch a credit fund that enabled them to establish a sewing workshop. We set up the same kind of project based on interest-free credit with the dyers and with the cereal processors. It’s a small amount of aid in the beginning to help them get started and it also makes it easier for them to pay their trade union membership fees. We have five groups of women who are involved, directly representing approximately twenty women, but they share the fruits of this credit with many other women: in total it impacts about a hundred women. We have also started a health insurance network, with a pilot project for which the secretary-general of the CNTS provided funding. This is a test run, with the aim of building a network that will cover the whole country (1).

What are the results in terms of membership of workers from the informal sector?

Membership increased from 3000 to 11,000 once the oyster openers and domestic workers joined. It’s an enormous undertaking but we are making progress, step-by-step… The women raised the issue of the overly high cost of the social security contribution. We reduced the amount from 6000 to 2400 CFA francs per year, in order to show them that we want to help them to get a trade union card, of which they are extremely proud. They are highly motivated. I should say here that it was they who helped me get elected to the confederal committee as deputy secretary-general. We are asking that the same approach be applied in all trade unions that are members of the confederation, in order to achieve genuine synergy between men and women in the work that is being done at trade union management level. For example, the secretary-general of the truck drivers’ trade union was persuaded by his (female) under-secretary-general to organize the female railway station workers (in particular, all the small-scale food businesses) and now the trade union has been strengthened by the membership of many of these workers.

What is the role of the women’s committee?

Having a women’s committee creates a very strong dynamic that helps to develop leadership among women and to change the image of trade unions by showing that women are becoming a strong force for initiative. We have also requested that the CNTS statutes be reviewed from a gender perspective. We need to make ourselves heard, but alongside men, so that we may all progress together. Women have succeeded in finding their place. Even the oldest generation of men who initially resisted are now beside us, we explain to them that we are not enemies, that we want to participate and that we want to learn! Here, men are not used to negotiating with women. Some are taken by surprise and sometimes that can even lead to more advantageous outcomes. Despite extremely limited resources, the women’s committee draws its legitimacy from the fact that the women were chosen by other women, it motivates them to give themselves to the task, body and mind. In 2008, the presence of women at the World Day for Decent Work on 7 October got people talking. At the 2009 decent work day, women were also extremely visible, since the day was dedicated to domestic workers.

How did you begin to approach domestic workers?

During a trip to the Netherlands, in a private home I saw how domestic service was managed, with workers protected and paid €10 per hour. On my return, I spoke about it to the secretary-general, Mody Guiro, who told me that he had also been thinking seriously about this within the context of the decent work issue. We began with a survey on the ground to assess the situation and see how we could help to raise awareness and educate domestic workers. We truly began to organize them in 2008.

We found that domestic workers often came from the poorest rural areas and that migrants from abroad are in the minority. In contrast, many Senegalese domestic workers go abroad to work. The Dakar, Thiès and M’Bour zones have the highest concentrations of domestic workers. We approached the household workers’ trade union affiliated to the CNTS, which covers all household occupations such as drivers or gardeners, who have no social security. There is also the “Fatou” trade union, which includes about a hundred female domestic workers who work for expatriates and which is part of the French armed forces trade union. They have social security, but they have a big problem in terms of the precariousness of their employment, given the fact that expatriates move frequently.

What are the main difficulties for female domestic workers?

Housing, salaries, health coverage and a lack of respect. They sleep up to ten in a room. Their income is so low that, with the very expensive rents and the necessity of sending money back to the family in the village, they only manage to survive with great difficulty. It is often the hardest on arrival. When they are given a place to sleep in the house, it is so that they can be exploited even more, and sexual abuse is common. There are rapes and women may be forced to run away pregnant. Salaries vary between 5000 CFA/month (less than €10) for the youngest workers, who look after the children, and 30,000 CFA/month for those who are more experienced and take care of everything: cooking, housework and children. Health is also a problem as they need health insurance. I know one, Fatou, when she comes for meetings, you can see straight away that her back is extremely painful but she can neither take sick leave in order to rest nor can she pay for medical treatment.

Are there cases of trafficking and forced work?

People don’t dare to say so, because of customs and mindsets. There are women who would never admit that they were supposedly sent "on holiday" by the family but that they really found themselves doing domestic work. It may not be called by its name, but it is trafficking nonetheless. Working in exchange for a meal and a little bit of money to send back to the family in the village. In the cities, it is common to hear women say that they are going to the village to look for new girls, who are often no more than 14 to 18 years old. Because once they are mature, they accept the situation less readily; they prefer, for example, to work as laundry women in order to have a bit more freedom, even though that is also a very difficult job.

What legal provisions do you have to defend them?

If we alert the labour inspectorate that a child is working as a domestic worker, they don’t do anything; there are no suitable legal provisions. That is why it is also important to fight for legislative change. There should be a statute in the national plan and also an international agreement specifically covering domestic workers.

Why do you insist on the need for a trade union specifically reserved for female domestic workers?

We insist on there being a specific trade union for female domestic workers because here in Senegal only women do domestic work, the men do other jobs that are much better paid (gardening, security, etc.). They have their own particular difficulties. We ran a campaign to recruit them. Some young, female domestic workers have completed secondary school, they need to be integrated and their skills nurtured. At each training seminar, we make sure that there are representatives of the informal sector and at least one or two domestic workers, to train them up little by little. It is also necessary to fit in with their constraints. For example, I meet them on Sundays, as it is impossible for them to be free on any other day as they risk losing their jobs. That is why the activities for 7 October were organized in the afternoon, after their work. Women from civil society NGOs came to participate in the day. We were able to recruit them to the cause and now they better understand the slogan of decent work and are asking us to help them in their research. We also invited the Ministry for Women. We prepared a poster campaign and at 4 p.m., after their work, they themselves came in order to explain their situation personally.

Many trade unionists themselves employ domestic workers. Are attitudes towards them changing?

Attitudes are beginning to change. Within the trade unions, after having marched alongside female domestic workers, women from the formal sector say that they have understood the issues and will change their attitudes. On the way home from the march, one woman said to me, "My maid will no longer sleep on the floor in the kitchen, I will give her a mattress in the living room.” Men also say to their wives, "That’s enough of treating the maid like that!" There is genuine awareness that they should be respected more.

Tell us about your plans to create a training centre for domestic workers.

Training is the key cornerstone of any sustainable action. We plan to launch two training centres in 2010, one in Dakar and one on the way out of Dakar, in a crossroads area. The aim is to help domestic workers to improve their qualifications (for example, in cooking, child care, caring for the elderly, housework, etc.) because once they are qualified they will more easily be able to demand increased respect and improved salaries. Sometimes they need to learn the very basics of the job. Some employers complain that young girls arrive from the country without knowing anything, that it takes time to train them and that then they make demands… Some are extremely frightened that asking for an increase in salary might lead to their boss firing them. When I spoke to female domestic workers about it, they jumped at the idea, they are acutely aware that they need training. Sometimes in order to learn such basic details as closing doors, simply because the houses in the villages have no doors! In the centre, additional activities open to the public would also be organized (catering, dying, sewing, etc.) in order to generate income. Help with access to microcredit would make it possible to develop additional activities to bring in funds.

What help do you need to make this planned training centre into a reality?

UNESCO has promised us financial aid in order to fit out the building and a Dutch NGO might help with construction. But we still need help, in particular in finding a plot of land. We are hoping for assistance from the Ministry for Women, to whom we submitted a request. We would also like to be in contact with similar centres in other countries, to exchange experiences and link our actions with the issues of migration and combating forced work and trafficking. Senegalese women work all over the world as domestic workers, in Mauritania, Mali, Morocco, Spain, France, Libya… This centre will allow us to inform them about their rights and to train them before their departure (2).

Interview by Natacha David

(1) See the interview with N’diouga Wade (CNTS-Senegal), "Faced with the tragedy of illegal migration, people must be informed and given alternative employment opportunities"

(2) See the interview with Moulkheiry Sidiel Moustapha (CGTM-Mauritania) "Combating silence and impunity in order to help migrant domestic workers"

- See the complete report on the Mauritania/Senegal bilateral trade union project, Mauritania-Senegal Defending the rights of migrants (16 pages)