Will female domestic workers have anything to celebrate this Labour Day?

domestic workers

 Domestic Workers march during the Labour Day celebrations at Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground in Kisumu on May 1,2019.

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

On this Labour Day, workers across the world will either march on the streets or assemble in big stadiums to celebrate their achievements.

However, women domestic workers in Kenya, who remain the most industrially exploited and abused, will be taking stock of hours overworked, minimum wages never received, incidences of physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse; and dead bodies of their peers arriving from the gulf countries. 

On this Labour Day, just like the name suggests, they will likely toil more because even though it’s a public holiday, their “deserving” employers will be taking the day off. After all, to the bosses, domestic workers just spend their day in the house cleaning and cooking.

And on this day, their work is cut out, they will deliver on the routine house chores; clean, cook and mind children the whole day. But truly, don't they work every day?

Amidst voices of screaming children and clangs of pots and pans; they will overhear, through their employer’s televisions, great speeches by union leaders on achievements made by workers in other sectors, salary increment commitments by government leaders for underpaid workers and many more.

Domestic work

But like every other Labour Day, none of the speeches will likely mention their critical industry, domestic work. To the masters/mistresses, domestic workers fall short of valued industry players, and domestic work isn’t really one.

While they equally deserve time off with their families and friends or to attend to personal commitments, they will surely be locked in kitchens for endless hours to deliver the sumptuous meals and drinks their employers will toast and make merry over, with their families and friends; after all it is Labour Day!

While the employers will have automated their “out of office” responses to anyone who dares send them emails; domestic workers will be stealing moments amidst their busy day to stand in balconies of huge apartments to answer calls or texts from their loved ones, explaining why they can’t be home on a Labour Day.

While their employers will be splashing the hefty April salaries in parks, restaurants and liquor joints, they will be busy borrowing from the litany of digital money lending platforms to pay for goods sought on credit to support their families back home,  because they are yet to receive their paltry wages for the month of April.

Casual jobs

Driven by poverty and lack of opportunities, the unemployed domestic workers, popularly known as  “Mama Fua” (women who wash clothes), will be traversing the leafy and gated suburbs of Nairobi today, knocking from door to door in search of  casual jobs.

For the lucky ones, they will spend six to eight hours scouring, scrubbing, and cooking for a paltry Sh500. The unlucky ones will sit or parade themselves along the busy streets of the suburbs, hoping to be spotted by Kenyan middle-income earners for casual jobs or food donations.

Whether seated along estate streets, standing on employers’ mansion balconies, or chaperoning screaming children in play grounds on a designated public holiday, they will all take stock of their tribulations; payment of wages below the statutory minimum, unregulated working hours, absence of formal contracts, absence or restricted freedom of association by employers, denial of food and other basic needs, bondage through confiscation of identification documents, termination of services whenever employers are on leave and lack of social security to name but a few.

On this day, just like past ones, the government will be tight lipped on enforcing the statutory minimum wage. Policy makers won’t remember that the International Labour Organization Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers has not been ratified.

Employers will continue to ignore formal contracts when hiring domestic workers, and when violated by their bosses, they will have nowhere to go, because long working hours, abuse and mistreatment are a daily private reality.

Their rights will be completely trampled on and no one will believe their violation pleas. Are they children of a lesser God?

Today, even as the country marks the 57th International Labour Day under the theme “Political Change for Industrial Peace, Stability, and Job Creation,” the domestic work sector in Kenya remains unregulated, undervalued, with a workspace that continues to perpetuate human rights violations while leaders sit unperturbed.

Millions of domestic workers remain invisible, yet they are the unsung heroes of our economy, the foundation within which our society is built. This status quo must change.

As we anticipate the political transition in August, we hope the new administration, and in line with this day’s theme, will fast-track the ratification of the ILO Convention 189 to ensure domestic workers enjoy their labour rights.

They will also enforce the implementation of the Employment Act 2007 and Article 41 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 that guarantees every worker favorable labour practice including reasonable working conditions that are consistent to and uphold human dignity.

Anything short, shall only reinforce pain and render the next Labour Day, a frustration and destitution reminder to domestic workers in Kenya.

Blandina Ijecha Bobson is the Director of Programmes for Oxfam in Kenya heading the Women’s Rights and Gender Justice, Governance and Accountability and Natural Resources programme pillars.