In the average Kenyan household, domestic workers (house-helps), play a very important role. They help alleviate the burden of the employer by doing chores that they cannot fit into their more demanding schedules.
In Kenya, nearly everyone, except the very poor, hires domestic help. The Kenyan government and other groups studying the issue estimate that almost 2 million households in Nairobi alone employ nannies, cooks, maids and gardeners.
However one cannot help notice the cultural stigma that surrounds domestic workers. They are seen as uneducated and unskilled. The domestic worker is not valued or viewed as a person with needs, feelings or desires. They are not seen as individuals with lives outside the services they are hired to perform but are servants who should be seen and not heard.
Domestic workers, regardless of age, are still referred to as “house girls” and “house boys,” and are often subjected to abuse and exploitation by their employers. This mistreatment comes in many forms including emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse and varies in severity across the country. Employer mistreatment of their domestic workers is alarmingly common. In some households, domestic workers are not given food by their employer, their identity cards are confiscated, they work from the wee hours of the morning till late at night, they are underpaid and risk having their pay docked or denied over the tiniest mistake. Many of them are put in danger by the employers, for example locking them in the house when the employer leaves puts them at risk of being unable to escape if there is a fire. In the case of illness, they are denied time off to go visit the doctors and in most cases cannot even afford healthcare. Of course not all employers are this callous, but statistics show that an estimated 70 percent of employers in urban centres alone are underpaying and overworking their staff. So clearly, therein lies the problem.
Domestic work is an acceptable line of work, but it is not a career most girls would willingly choose to pursue. Most of these young women are either orphaned, destitute or from families facing conflicts or too poor to support their education. Poverty stricken families send their children to towns to look for employment but since they are illiterate or undereducated, they are unable to secure well paid employment, which in turn opens them up to exploitation. Many orphaned or abandoned children that are taken in by their relatives to “assist round the house” end up being subjected to modern day slavery. They are made to work impossible hours and are often denied education and other basic needs.
Because 4 out of 5 domestic workers is female, they are likely to face sexual assault and abuse from the male members of the employers family. There are several cases of husbands, and sometimes sons, sexually harassing and assaulting domestic workers. Most likely the domestic worker has little access to alternative sources of livelihood because of poor education and a lack of other vocational skills, therefore will remain in employment situations in which they are being abused just to ensure their survival. Women already have a difficult time even speaking up against sexual harassment and other gender based violence because of the consequences that come from it, but because of the low regard that society views domestic workers, they are likely to face even more stigma, ridicule and victim shaming when they speak up against their employers. They may not even have access to social media, thus have less access to avenues that they can use to expose their employers or even seek comfort for their trauma. Employers are able to shame and bully the employee into silence because speaking out means the possibility of stopping the flow of income.
If they do speak up, their employers are able to cover up their stories and will be automatically believed because of their raised position in society. Employers are in a more privileged position than their employees and can use this structural power to silence them. If a domestic worker does manage to follow the proper avenues and files a report, the police will require a witness to confirm the incident. In cases where a domestic worker is making such a claim, finding a witness would be difficult as they are normally left alone to tend to the households as their employees go to work. They are also likely to not get results from the police, as their employers are in a better position to bribe corrupt officials or use suspicious means to get rid of the story. For example, Kiambu Senator John Wamatangi, who you may know if you are unfortunate to have received annoying spam messages was once in the tabloids for allegedly raping his domestic worker. When the Standard Group owned publication, The Nairobian ran the story, unknown people, allegedly were instructed to buy and burn copies of the paper.
What’s interesting to note is that a large number of women also perpetrate terrible forms of abuse against domestic workers. In some extreme but rare cases there are incidences of sexual abuse, but female employees resort to physical, emotional and financial abuse. One writer tries to explain this phenomenon like this:
“When the housewife gained economic empowerment and moved to the office, the maid took her place in the home. With the empowerment of one group of women came the oppression of the other. What makes it a classical example of the oppressed becoming the oppressor is that the housemaid’s biggest obstacle to progress is the female employer.”
The cases are not rare. There are some bizarre incidents like the woman who bit her househelp for wasting water, and grisly ones like the lawyer who was found to be torturing her 13 year old houseboy with an old fan belt.
Many female employers mistrust domestic workers as they are normally accused of stealing husbands and corrupting sons by the wives and mothers. There are a lot of negative stereotypes surrounding female domestic workers and most likely they will not be believed if they come forward with an accusations against a member of the employer’s family. They face the possibility of being accused of trying to ruin a happy family or wanting to take the husband for herself. When this happens the domestic workers are fired and sent back into desperate situations. These matters might get even worse if they get pregnant or infected with STI’s or HIV/AIDS. This throws them back into the cycle of poverty and exploitation that they had tried to escape.
The government has taken steps to ensure that domestic workers maintain a suitable standard of living. President Kenyatta last year increased the minimum wage by 14% to Sh13, 674 up from Sh11, 995, which is a great step in the right direction. However, these laws are difficult to implement for several reasons. Most of the people for whom the new measures are meant to assist, are oblivious to them and are not aware of their rights because they are still very young or have been employed since childhood. Domestic child labour sometimes begins at the age of 10. Even though child labour is illegal, it is difficult to investigate these type of cases, as they can easily be passed off as relatives if any government agency comes to investigate.
For those who are not in working in inhumane conditions, they are well aware that any complaint can change their situation and continue to be grateful for their pay, even if it is below the required minimum wage. Due to the high cost of living, most employers will be reluctant to educate their oblivious employees because it means sacrificing more money. Considering that the minimum wage applies to all professions, it is difficult for those who work in an equal or slightly similar tax bracket to pay someone else the required amount of money.
Despite their almost invisible position in the social hierarchy, domestic workers play a significant role in our economy. They are more likely to purchase locally grown produce in the marketplaces and avoid those that are imported and likely to be tainted with dangerous chemicals. They keep your house and/or workplace clean and up to standard, which in turn gives you a sanitary and fresh environment that will increase your general productivity and affect your contribution to society.
Being a domestic worker is not as easy as one would think. They are constantly surrounded by our valuables and belongings, ones which they cannot afford. For those who have hired nannies to help with their children, they are with your child for long periods of time. Some have left their own children at home with neighbours and relatives to take care of other people’s children. It is also not rare to see children being utterly disrespectful and rude to their domestic workers. They have to exert large amounts of self-control and show respect to people who constantly abuse and belittle them, because to revolt and demand their basic rights of humanity would do them more harm than good.
Obviously there are some cases in which domestic workers have stolen from their employers, poisoned them (accidentally or not) and even harmed their children. Their motivations are dismissed as greed and ungratefulness which has become the operating narrative, however in the rare occasion that we get to hear both sides, they were simply lashing out from mistreatment.
Because of the low levels of education, domestic workers are unaware of their rights, and the nature of their work makes it difficult to set up avenues for collective bargaining. The Kenya Union of Domestic Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) is the only available union for domestic workers to join. It has been organizing women workers since 1948, long before independence. They have around 40,000 members in different fields such as chefs, nurses and out of this total, nearly 5,000 are female domestic workers.
The inadequate number of policies regarding and approaches to the rights of domestic workers has ‘othered’ them to the point they are not seen as human beings who warrant the same working conditions assigned to the rest of us. There is a need for governmental support and sufficient advocacy for and training of domestic workers. Society at large needs to reconstitute its idea of domestic work. The continuation of this negative attitude has left hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children unable to break free of the abuse, neglect, and cycle of poverty associated with working as domestic workers.