It's Time We Talk about our Sèvant(s)
In nearly every comfortable household in Haiti, we are sure to find certain commonalities. We find indicators of wealth around the home with some more subtle than others: rare paintings, draped curtains, healthy green plants. Looking a little further, we’ll notice impeccably kept sofas, spotless windows, floor tiles that are so clean, they reflect the sun. As we step outside of these houses, we find more plants, we find cars, at times more than one car. They are washed, polished to protect their gloss. It’s true that when we come to nearly every comfortable household in Haiti, we are announced at the door, we are greeted properly, we are served beverages. And guess what? we feel great. I’ve always felt great.
In the comfort of our middle-class ease, we also forget. We forget that, underneath the practicality; behind the comfort of our homes –there are people who wake up every day and whose roles are to orchestrate our lifestyle. These people are service workers.
Exploring the lives of the people in these roles has intrigued me for the past year and that is why, for the past month, I went to work. I have conducted interviews, I have gathered research and I set out to understand the way services workers are treated, compensated and at times even discriminated against in households where they are rarely absent but so often forgotten.
Working Etiquettes & Dynamic with the household
When I speak of service workers, I refer to the people who are typically employed in a household and perform domestic work. These people have roles that range but are not limited to being Maids (Sèvant), Cooks, Ground-Keepers (Jeran Lakou), Gardeners, Messengers. It’s important to note that for the purpose of this article, I will exclude chauffeurs & security guards due to the fact that they do not physically sleep in the homes overnight, but I am aware that they mostly share the same experiences as the latter group.
I interviewed 8 services workers and asked them what common rules they were given in the households they have worked for. Some answers were surprising while some other were peculiar. Rule number one, never use the inside bathrooms, living rooms or any visible common space. Second, not fraternize with workers of the other gender. Lastly, not to bring their own guests, family members on the premises.
“There would be a level of dishonesty if we didn’t acknowledge that these rules were deeply rooted in the classist, pre-colonial nature of slavery”
As I heard these first-hand accounts, the first reaction I had was to rationalize these rules but, the more I thought about them, the less they were justifiable. I wanted to justify them because my own mother did enforce these rules. For me, admitting that these rules were awful would subsequently mean that I would concede that my mother did an awful thing. We did not want them to use the inside bathrooms – the ones they clean daily – because the idea of them defecating in the same place we do, disgusted us. We did not want maids to fraternize with groundkeepers because we do not want them to have sex. How dare them, have sex under our roof? Only we can try to find love, only we should have sex. We do not want them to bring guests because the more of these people come in and out of our houses, the less comfortable we feel. When we examine these rules, the excuses that we give to rationalize the rules are endless, we throw in the argument of professionalism, discipline or safety. Yes, a few of these rationalizations do bare some truth, professionalism and discipline should be upheld and any workplace. However, there would be a level of dishonesty if we didn’t acknowledge that these rules were deeply rooted in the classist, pre-colonial nature of slavery.
Service workers & the Informal Economy
Haiti as a country is a very unique in the degree that the majority of the population participates and what is commonly called the informal economy. The informal economy is essentially where people will provide their seemingly unskilled labor in exchange to monetary incentives. It differs from a formal economy in the way that the informal market isn’t monitored nor is it regulated by any governmental institutions. It operates by word of mouth and is based on trust and dependency. Service workers constitute between from 60% to 80% of this informal economy and by participating in that system, they do not benefit from any labor protections, their salaries aren’t monitored in a way that allows them bargaining power not transparency and lastly, they are not provided healthcare of pensions.
This informal sector work against them in ways that we are only starting to scrap the surface. Haitians in the informal sector pay about one half to one fourth the rate that formal sector or international corporations pay Haitian employees. In 2016, according to the International Trade Center, a maid working for an NGO or in the home of an expatriate earns about US $7.26 per day; a maid working in the Haitian informal sector earns about $3.95 per day.
The average service worker works more than 10-hour days because they sleep overnight, which means that they are always on call ready to tend to our needs. They generally get one informal day off and are looked down upon if they dare to take more days.
Labor Laws & living conditions
Despite popular beliefs, Haiti even as a country with several infrastructural gaps, does have in place clear laws and regulations to protect the interest of service workers. Since February 24th, 1984, the “Code du Travail” under Title 5, there are specific laws that have existed to protect the interest of service workers. There were attempts to modernize and reform these laws in the early 2000’s by Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassègue when she was appointed Minister of women’s rights and feminine conditions.
Article 254 to 265 of title 5 indicates clearly the obligations of employers and the expectations of work of domestic workers. Part of these obligations for instance is to afford a minimum of 10 hours of absolute rest per day. Another one would be to authorize service workers to participate in alphabetization school a minimum of 3 days a week. So, if these laws exist, where did we go wrong? Lawyer and professor Phillipe Volmar studied labor conditions in Haiti for more than 15 years and he has some thoughts. He hypothesizes that due to the isolative nature of the work, the lack of legal literacy of service workers as well as the high bargaining power from wealthy employers has caused these labor laws to exist without being strictly enforced strictly by the government.
“There is a fallacy perpetuated by higher classes & westerners that justifies the low wages in Haiti because the standard of living is significantly lower. And we, as educated folks just to go along with it? As if the cost of rent, gas, food and education in Haiti do not mirror western countries.”
How do they survive?
They can’t. The fact of the matter is that even though you employ them, they barely survive. There is a fallacy perpetuated by higher classes & westerners that justifies the low wages in Haiti because the standard of living is significantly lower. And we, as educated folks just to go along with it? As if the cost of rent, gas, food and education in Haiti do not mirror western countries. The reality is that they cannot afford to pay for a good school for their kid, however much money your loving parents decide to contribute to the Pseudo schools their kids attend. They cannot afford to rent decent living spaces for their family, they cannot afford quality food, quality clothes, regardless the amount of hand me downs you provide them. They never will. Compensating people for their work shouldn’t be the end of the discussion if we do not look at the overall cost of working informally.
What can we do?
The point of this article isn’t to encourage people to fire service workers and start doing all of the domestic works yourselves. There is great dignity in participating in the labor force and earning an honest living. The purpose of this article is to questions the service work practices we have been enforcing, as we the ones holding the bargaining power. The first thing that I would urge households to do is to be informed on constitutional labor laws and enforce these laws. We can start by paying them a fair wage – one that they can actually live on, support their families and aspire for socio-economical mobility. We can offer them the same level of empathy we expect when we ourselves go to work. We can admit that, even though there are systematic issues that are beyond our control, they are also several practices we can actually set in place to change their work standards. We too, can do things in the comfort of our middle-class homes.
Written by Sarah Mikal