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The Harrowing Life of Domestic Workers

14 Jan 2013

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Adeola Akinremi writes that increasing numbers of domestic workers face difficult times in the hands of their employers


On a bright, cold morning in January 2005, Rosemary arrived in Lagos bubbling with life.  Her prayer on New Year’s eve had been answered. It centred around one thing. It was to get a job in Lagos. Domestic work appealed to her more than anything else.


A 12-year-old girl from Otukpo in Benue State, she had completed primary school education at age ten, but her dream of getting further education was crushed by poverty. But Rosemary had been told how all that would change in Lagos.
“I was told I will further my education, I will eat well and I will have a room to myself,” said Rosemary. “Now that dream of getting that education is shattered because I work from 5 am to 1 am.”


Seven years after she arrived in Lagos, Rosemary has joined the hoard of street hawkers on Dopemu Bridge. She abandoned the people she once worked for last July over what she described as “maltreatment and abuse”.


For Agnes Dike, a house help from Umuekwule-Afugiri in Abia State, the tale was not so different. “I was told that I will just be like a child to my madam who will shower me with love and send me to school, because she specifically requested for a girl of my age who is smart enough to run errands. But I have been dehumanised by the same woman who says I am a witch after serving her family for five years.”


Unlike Rosemary who has become a street hawker, Agnes ekes a living as a factory worker in one of the artificial hair manufacturing companies in Ikeja, Lagos. At 16, she had never seen the four walls of a classroom.


In Lagos, live-in workers have existed for decades, especially in homes among families raising children and among young couples between the ages of 28 and 50.
“It’s just hard to cope with kids without a house-help. I can tell you that whether you are a working mum or not, you will always need a support,” Wunmi Adebanji, a housewife told THISDAY.


“The need for a live-in worker is enormous in a city such as Lagos with all its challenges.”
In Lagos, live-in workers work behind closed doors in private homes carrying out domestic chores including cleaning of rooms and furniture, washing of clothes and plates, preparation of food, running errands and taking their employers’ children to and from school.
But live-in domestic servants are seen differently as “informal” help and so domestic work is not seen as “real” work, and therefore they are usually treated as badly.


Beatrice Adjadi, a Togolese who has been from one house to the other as a live-in domestic servant in Lagos says, “Life can be hard for a house help. We receive little or no pay at all at the end of the year. The only rest, in most cases, is when you follow your employer to the church on Sunday where they tend to behave normally to you. As a house help, you rarely have your own privacy. I slept in the living room for a whole year and in most cases, I am confined to the kitchen during the day.


“One is constantly a suspect for anything that goes wrong in the house with so much screaming that can make you empty your bowels unconsciously. As a house help, you eat separately and often only after your employers have eaten.”


What’s more, domestic workers also have to face the issues of restricted movement and little or no social interaction.
Although before taking them in, employers of live-in workers would first take them to the hospital for medical tests to ensure they are not carriers of any disease that could affect their families, these same live-in workers are subsequently exposed to situations that could make them sick.


For instance, domestic workers with responsibility for caring for young children in particular are at greater risk of becoming infected with a variety of illnesses and from contaminated food and water. In some cases, there are chemical harzards experienced when working to clean the furniture.


Gbenga Komolafe, General Secretary of Federation of Informal Workers' Organisations of Nigeria (FIWON), confirms that domestic workers are exploited and abused in Nigeria. According to him, the gruesome stories of gross abuse and inhumanity suffered by domestic workers in the country, demonstrates the pivotal importance of a legislation to protect them.


He said: “Isolated in private homes, domestic workers suffer psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Women and girls have told us that their employers beat them with belts, sticks, and electrical cords, knocked their heads against walls, and have burnt their skin with irons, chemicals and boiling water.
“They described being propositioned, groped, and raped by men in the household. Many were afraid of reporting sexual violence because of the risk of being fired from their jobs and sent out into the streets.


“Domestic workers are often regarded as mere ‘slaves’ without any rights either as workers or human beings and in gross violations of the Child Rights Act and the Universal Basic Education Act, many children, mostly young women and girls as young as eight years old are forced to work as domestic workers under gruesome conditions without access to any form of education or schooling all for very little or no pay whatsoever.


“We are dealing with a complete range of abuses from exploitation, physical, psychological, sexual in some areas, to carrying very heavy load, being exposed to chemicals, working long hours, working at repetitive tasks and working in isolation – all conditions that stunt normal physical and mental growth and development of children.”


A United Nations report released last week said millions of domestic workers around the world are not protected under general labour laws and are highly vulnerable to exploitation. It called on countries to extend social protection to them.


“Domestic workers are frequently expected to work longer hours than other workers and in many countries do not have the same rights to weekly rest that are enjoyed by other workers,” said the Deputy Director-General of the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO), Sandra Polaski.
“Combined with the lack of rights, the extreme dependency on an employer and the isolated and unprotected nature of domestic work can render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” she added.


According to the ILO report, more than 52 million people worldwide are employed as domestic workers. While a substantial number are men working as gardeners, drivers or butlers, 80 per cent of them are women.


Of the 52 million domestic workers, only 10 per cent are covered by labour laws to the same extent as other workers, and more than one quarter are completely excluded from national labour legislation.


This disparity in conditions translates in longer, more unpredictable working hours with no appropriate remuneration for domestic workers, rendering them highly vulnerable economically, as well as affecting their health.
The report states that more than half of all domestic workers have no limitation on their weekly normal hours of work and about 45 per cent have no entitlement to weekly rest periods or paid annual leave.


“Long working hours, night working and patterns of shift work that involve an irregular distribution of working hours are among the factors that have the greatest negative effects on workers’ health,” said an ILO domestic work specialist, Amelita King-Dejardin.
He added, “They carry especially important risks for women during and after pregnancy and for young workers.”


Long working hours are especially common among live-in workers who are expected to be available at all times of the night, the report notes. “The large disparities between wages and working conditions of domestic workers compared to other workers in the same country underline the need for action at the national level by governments, employers and workers to improve the working lives of these vulnerable but hard-working individuals,” said Ms. Polaski.


The report’s findings are intended to act as a benchmark against which progress in extending legal protection for domestic workers will be measured. It also calls for joint action taken at the national level by governments, trade unions, employers and domestic workers’ organisations to bring about reform in legislation as well as in practice.


In Nigeria, a domestic worker starts work as early as age six or seven and could be a male or female. There are many groups who have recently made a profession of providing domestic workers and are making a huge business out it.


They scout for them usually from the south-east and south-south parts of the country, Benue State and neigbouring Benin Republic and Togo. They bring in the live-in workers to employers for a profit.  Some of the people involved are even smart enough to use the social media and the internet to advertise their services. They are also listed on V-Connect and some other organisations with yellow pages or data collection and provisioning.  Those who supply house helps to Lagos households collect N20,000 for each child.


But, Salmot Adekunle, who has pratronised them before says, “They usually collect the money without a remittance to the parents of the children in the village. All they do is promise the parents a good life for their children and education, but that is hardly discussed at the point when you collect the child from them.”


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