Trade unions in Dominican Republic want work-life balance rights to be recognised

Trade unions in Dominican Republic want work-life balance rights to be recognised

Balancing the responsibilities of work and family life is on the list of trade union proposals put forward for consideration in the reform of the Dominican Labour Code. Although women shoulder most of the family responsibilities in the Caribbean country – as is the case in much of the world – trade unions are also pressing for men to benefit from a better work-life balance.

(Pedro Bazil)

Dominican workers’ unions want a fair work-life balance in their country. It is one of the proposals they have taken to the ongoing discussion on the reform of the Labour Code, a legal text that has been in force for 30 years.

Longer maternity and paternity leave as well as provisions to prohibit employers from terminating employees’ contracts on account of their family responsibilities, discriminating against employees, or coercing them directly or indirectly to terminate their contracts on such grounds, are among the proposals that trade unions have brought to the table in the tripartite dialogue with the government and employers.

For employers, implementing such proposals is complex in the current climate: they argue that they would increase labour costs at a time when they are seeking to reduce them, in a country with a labour force of over four million people – half of whom work in the informal sector – and a population of around 11 million inhabitants.

Verónica would probably still have a job if the Dominican Labour Code already recognised – as the trade unions have proposed – that workers with family responsibilities include those looking after dependent children, older adults who cannot look after themselves, as well as people with functional diversity, a disability or an illness that requires special care.

This mother, who has chosen to use a fictitious name to protect her identity, had to give up her job in February 2022 when she was unable to convince her employer to accept her proposal to work two mornings a week from home on a teleworking basis and the rest in the office. The reason for the request was to enable her to combine her work during those hours with caring, at home, for her two daughters, aged ten and six, and her 75-year-old mother, who had suffered a stroke.

“I was told that the company didn’t have such work practices and that it wouldn’t be possible,” Verónica recalls, with regret. “It was very difficult for me,” she says of her decision to resign. “She [my mother] was the one who used to take care of the children, so, given her condition, I needed someone to take care of the children as well as my mother.”

Paying someone 12,000 pesos (around US$215; €190) to help care for her mother and daughters, plus providing food, was an expense the family could not afford. It amounted, in fact, to more than half of Verónica’s salary at the time.

Work-life balance: a question of values and of who pays for what

Adopting the reforms needed to balance work and family responsibilities is on the list of proposals presented in February 2022 by the Dominican Republic’s trade union confederations – CASC, CNTD and CNUS – for consideration in the reform of the Dominican Labour Code.

But it is not the first time the proposal has been put forward. Cimtra, the inter-union women’s committee with representatives from the three union confederations, already presented it in a demands document drawn up ahead of the change of government for the 2020-2024 period.

The document calls for the inclusion of clauses in collective bargaining agreements to ensure gender equality and equal treatment of workers with family responsibilities, based on the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on equal remuneration, non-discrimination in employment and occupation, and workers with family responsibilities, among others.

In 2014, it was also presented in the proposals put forward by a cross-sector roundtable made up of teams from the trade union centres represented in Cimtra, the Association of Domestic Workers, the Feminist Forum, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Gender Studies Centre of the Technological Institute of Santo Domingo.

The proposal also included a provision in the Labour Code for employers and workers’ organisations to establish affirmative actions aimed at creating working conditions that foster a better balance between the fulfilment of workers’ professional or job responsibilities and their family responsibilities.

The unions are also pressing for maternity leave in the Dominican Republic (raised from 12 to 14 weeks in 2017), to be increased to 18 weeks, in line with the minimum suggested by ILO Recommendation 191, as well as an increase in paternity leave from two to a minimum of 15 days, and the same rights to parental leave for those who adopt. In parallel in October 2021 and in response to continued trade union and feminist mobilisation in the country, the Chamber of Deputies approved ILO Convention 156 on workers with family responsibilities – although its ratification is still pending – which can be seen as a step forward in the work-life balance agenda.

“Parental leave, long-term care leave and other special care leave are essential to support carers, especially in Covid-19 times,” says the ILO in its recent report, Care at Work. It notes, however, that unless they are well designed and widely available, these will continue to be marginal care solutions.

“With ageing societies, paid long-term care leave can play a key role in supporting new and increasing care needs,” says the ILO.

It nonetheless goes on to point out that the statutory right to long-term care leave is only enjoyed in 55 countries, or by two in ten adults globally. “Moreover, this leave is paid in only 34 countries; however, when paid, long-term care leave is funded by social protection – although self-employed workers remain largely excluded from this entitlement,” adds the ILO report.

“Employers must recognise that both male and female workers have family responsibilities, regardless of the paid work they do, and that they need leave to care for their families in certain circumstances,” says Eulogia Familia, gender policy officer and vice president of the CNUS.

The union leader has not, however, seen any openness to this proposal among the Dominican private sector during the discussions on the reform of the labour code, which have been underway for more than a decade.

Circe Almánzar, executive vice president of the Association of Industries of the Dominican Republic (AIRD) and of the employers’ sector representatives in the tripartite dialogue, argues that increasing maternity leave to 14 weeks in 2017 has affected the fund that covers this subsidy, as it has to cover more time, and it is a decision that cannot be made without financial calculations.

“First, there is the financial aspect: who pays for that maternity leave? Right now, you have a subsidy that is covered by social security and that was not included in the calculations to be covered by the healthcare fund, so a new agreement would have to be reached to see how it would be paid for,” she says.

In 2021 alone, over 3 billion pesos (around US$56.5 million; €50 million) were earmarked for maternity benefits for 27,713 female workers affiliated to the Family Health Insurance of the Dominican Social Security System, reports the Superintendence of Health and Labour Risks (Sisalril).

This subsidy covers a reimbursement that Sisalril makes to the employer, equal to three months of the contributory salary, during the pre- and post-natal leave period.

On paternity leave, Almánzar argues that there is a sociological component to consider. She remarks that the beneficiaries could be responsible fathers, who support the mother who has just given birth, or fathers with an irresponsible attitude to their family duties, who will not.

“Depending on the job, work life and family life will become more and more intertwined. So how are you going to regulate that? That’s part of the dynamic,” adds Almánzar.

International labour standards on social security call for the overall and primary responsibility for the provision of long-term care services to lie with the state, notes the ILO. “Globally, only 89 out of 179 countries have a statutory provision of public long-term care services for older persons,” it adds.

“We not only have to adapt our production to technology but also to human rights and values,” says union leader Eulogia Familia, pointing out that the Dominican social security system needs to adapt to be able to cover the leave and leave payments of workers who need to devote themselves to care.

The only time, Verónica, who is 41 and has a degree in accounting, has ever been off work was when she was suspended from her job for a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Her decision to quit her job in February of this year marks the first time she has been out of a job by choice. In the meantime, she is trying to help her husband with the household income by selling clothes on social media.

“There are many people who are in the same situation or worse, because there are mothers – including single mothers – who have to leave their children on their own, because they don’t have the money to pay anyone to help them, and they have to go out to work. It really is very difficult,” she concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin

This article was produced with the support of the Belgian trade union ACV-CSC and the Directorate-General for Belgian Development Cooperation.