Thursday, March 24, 2011

Honouring Cayman's women - or not

It’s a pity Cayman’s “Honouring Women Month” is so narrow in its application. It honours true-born Caymanian women well enough, but foreign women are left un-honoured - dishonoured by default. Our migrant domestic helpers are the most vulnerable people in Cayman, and among the most admirable, and should not be discriminated against in this way. Until due notice is taken of the need to ease the burden on them, the Month is nothing more than an exercise in humbug.

Britain is proposing to end its exemption of Cayman from the application of The United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but unless discrimination against migrant domestics is ended, what would be the point? Our MLAs and Civil Servants shouldn’t need an International Convention to make them act humanely, anyway.

As we are all aware, foreign helpers aren’t granted equal protection under the law. Too many of them must reimburse their employers for their Work Permit fees. Too many are not covered by medical insurance. Too many are owed back wages, sometimes for several weeks. Requesting back wages is too often taken as insolence by their employers. Sometimes that “insolence” serves as an excuse to cancel their Work Permits, and to send them home without ever receiving their money.

How can prominent members of our community be so full of humbug as to celebrate the women of Cayman while pretending not to know about the exploitation of foreign domestics? By their silence, our rulers - both local and in London - give their consent to the exploitation. The celebrations are based on a lie. I’m sorry to say this, but Caymanian women should not celebrate any freedoms that exclude their sisters in indentured service - in actual servitude close to slavery, some of them. Let Caymanian men celebrate what they will or will not, in Honouring Women Month. Caymanian women should know better, and should have nothing to do with it.

Our public sector has a Department of Gender Affairs and a Women’s Resource Centre. What do they do to protect female domestics who come from Jamaica, Latin America, Philippines and other Caribbean islands? I haven’t heard of anything. By their silence, those Offices endorse the exploitation.

Our private sector has a Business & Professional Women’s Club. I don’t expect them to represent the interests of female domestics any more than I expect the Chamber of Commerce to do so. All the same, a modicum of compassion wouldn’t be amiss once in a while (during Honouring Women Month, for instance): a bit of recognition, perhaps.

Some years ago I resigned from our local Human Rights Committee because it wouldn’t do anything for the exploited migrants of Cayman, or for the Cuban boat people. (There are women on those boats too, you know. Do they deserve to be shoo’d away like stray hens, in Honouring Women Month?) What is wrong with our values, that we can allow our agents to act callously towards our fellow humans, day after day?

No wonder our new Human Rights Commission is a flop. No wonder its public-education program is stillborn; nobody can decide how to reconcile the anomalies. The Commission’s members either don’t know how to get the programme going, or don’t care. There must be people out here who could and would do it for them. Ah, but could we be trusted not to tread on political toes? That’s the main question, right? A cowardly Human Rights Commission is a disgrace. Unless its members find the courage to publicly oppose the exploitation of low-paid foreign workers - especially the women - they ought to quit. There is no merit in sitting around shuffling papers.