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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

Need to consider welfare of domestic workers

22nd November 2012
A Kenyan domestic worker attends an ILO conference on the welfare of domestic workers. (File photo)

Most well-to-do homes in villages, towns and cities need regular intensive housekeeping. Although in some houses the chores are performed by family members, others have to employ people from other families to do the work. Some such servants are relatives, others are neighbors to owners of the houses, while others are complete strangers, brought from long distances, some not even being aware that they are going to be employed as housekeepers; only relatives were given presents and promised money which in some cases is paid for a while only to cease without a reason of any kind. This is not a new subject in the media but in spite of numerous writings and broadcasts, the domestic servants’ welfare has remained as hopeless as it used to be decades before.

Although these servants come from both sexes, girls are more inclined to be employed in housekeeping and baby-sitting. They are more prone to maltreatment and subjected to modern slavery. For example, a woman who earns 60,000/- as a barmaid will employ a babysitter. Such a servant must be young to accept working for a woman like this, because being young and inexperienced, she’ll not be much inquisitive regarding her employer. A girl with such qualities sometimes must be below in the whereabouts of 12 years and in many cases had not been to a school of any kind. Some orphans fit this description, although there are parents who’ll give away their daughters, under such circumstances. This is how it happens, till they find themselves in homes like these, where all kinds of brutality will be inflicted on them.

Many women who live in towns and cities pose as wealthy town dwellers when they visit old folks in their villages. They come with small gifts like kanga and sugar which they give to their parents. Their problem, they say, is only a house help and all will be going on well. This prompts her parents to hasten to a place they know to live a girl. The town dweller’s mother will plead with the girl’s parents or caretakers, whereupon she’ll be asked to ask the town dweller herself to see them. The woman will go to them with several promises: “I’ll send her to school; I’ll send her for apprenticeship at a workshop” and many more she’ll do to the girl, while she promises to send the girl’s salary to them. These poor parents or caretakers will be tempted by the promise of salary, which might be sent once or twice, before silence breaks in. Of course they’ll enquire from the girl’s parents who will also not be aware of what happened.

The girl will not be sent to school or anywhere else apart from caring for the baby.

In her youth, she’ll be like a mother herself, because some of the women who work in bars have very little time for their homes; there are days they report in their houses just to change clothes for a new trip to ‘look for money’. Others do not even sleep in their rented homes. What would become of the babysitter? She’ll cook for herself and the baby; she’ll do all the cleanliness in the room, including washing and caring for the baby’s diapers. Whenever things become too difficult for her, she will sit down, look at the crying baby and join him/her in crying. She would have sought for help somewhere but she does not know any person in the neighborhood, and in some cases might be unable to talk to the neighbors because talking to a person is rule no.1 taught to these girls brought to towns to work. The fear of losing a servant to someone who might come with promises full of greater benefits has made employers of these house girls warn them against talking to other people. Of course they are not told they’ll be asked to leave for better payment; they are told they’ll be abducted or subjected to hypnotism, or skinned alive, just to scare them.

Even if they are employed genuinely like house girls, some find themselves working the whole day till some minutes past midnight and waking up as early as 5.00 the next morning; some are raped by their masters’ sons; while others become mistresses to the owners of the houses they work in, some times causing enmity between themselves and the wives they work for. Minor repercussions have been witnessed, like one in which a house girl was flogged by the housewife and ordered to cut her hair which she had braided. After returning home with a bold head she was accepted back like a loyal servant of her mistress. In her braided hair she was threatening the housewife’s marriage to the master of the house. Some suspected of having an affair with the master of the house have caused clashes which have gone to extremes. One house girl was splashed with boiled water straight from the kitchen into her private parts. Some cases like these are not reported in the papers or elsewhere. When a daring servant or rather incited by neighbors or sympathizers reports the matter to police, that’s when the government takes action against the cruelty done to that specific domestic servant, while other unreported cases go unnoticed.

The purpose of this writing is to plead with the government to look into the employment of domestic servants with a keener perspective. An uneducated girl who is employed at the age of 13 or thereabouts, in case she grows up working as a domestic servant, is very likely for her to have children of her own before she reaches 18. Since she’ll have no work, she will ‘chase’ men and bear children whom she will rear by the same means of chasing men, thus strengthening the intensity of poverty in the nation. If she has some education, she’ll be in a position of choosing a better way of running her life, than seeking the short-cut which will end up making her a mother to children she’ll not be able to feed.

This does not mean that there should not be domestic servants in homes; we need them.

Rather the public should be made aware that house-keeping is expensive and offer reasonable wages to domestic servants. All domestic servants should be monitored by the social welfare and their status adjusted to a standard that will be agreed upon. Furthermore, a monthly salary of an employer should be considered. A woman who earns 60,000 shillings cannot employ a servant with an intention of paying her; the amount is not enough to run her own house. A questionnaire should be filled by all employers, regarding their income, the amount they pay to their servants and other data like working hours and other interests in favor of the servants. This will be difficult since some of the civil servants in the system have servants they treat like slaves, but may I tell them not to do what they would not want done to them or their children.

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