Four years ago, Esther Wangui, 35, was preparing to travel back to Nairobi from Kampala when she made the acquaintance of a woman in the company of two young women who were to join their prospective employers in Nairobi.
The acquaintance, who was not going past the border, requested Wangui to ensure that the two got in touch with their Kenyan host when they arrived in Kenya. She agreed to help.
When they arrived in Nairobi the following day at dawn, the host failed to pick up Wangui’s calls. Though frustrated and inconvenienced, Wangui could not bring herself to leave the two stranded in a strange city, so she took them home with her, hopeful that their host would eventually get in touch with her. But it was never to be.
Then living in a studio apartment, she couldn’t afford to house them for long, so she decided to help them look for jobs. She wrote a social media post seeking people in need of domestic workers, getting several messages from interested people.
“I realised then that many people were in dire need of househelps, in fact, both were hired in less than a week. I didn’t know how much to charge as a service fee, but no one objected to the amount I asked for.
That incident made me realise that I could make a business out of placing domestic workers with employers, the job would even bring in more than what my handbags business was earning me,” explains Wangui.
Motivated, she began to look for women in need of the job, and slowly built her clientele. That same year, she opened her house-help placement agency along Kamiti Road in Nairobi, called Fiftess House Help Agency, which she runs to date. She registered it last year.
Starting out, the challenges she encountered included accusations of human trafficking. She also had to stop training her charges since her bureau was located on rented property, and regulations limited her scope of operations, forcing her to convert her bureau into a placement agency.
“Since I don’t put them through a training course, it means we only rely on the skills they have, and some can lie about them. Some workers can also be alcoholics or drug addicts, or thieves, while others may not understand their rights, leaving them open to exploitation,” she explains.
Once she gets prospective employees, she interviews them, aiming to gather information about their work experience and level of education.
“Some clients visit my office and conduct the interviews themselves while some do so on phone,” she says, adding that the business has taught her to be flexible and accommodating even in other areas of her life.
“There are clients who can call and ask for a replacement when those they have employed fail to meet their expectations. In such a case, I look for someone else and make the replacement, then find another employer for the one who has been turned away. Sometimes, depending on the issue of conflict, say laziness or dishonesty, the client can release them, but if they commit a serious offense such as mistreating the children in their care, I advise the client to seek help from the police,” she explains.
But employers, too, wrong their employees. She has had complaints of employers who either don’t pay their workers or fail to pay them in time, and sometimes pay them in installments, which is inhumane.
She observes that lack of a government body that regulates this sector means that both employer and employee operate informally, leaving them open to exploitation, if such a body existed, she points out, domestic workers would not be terminated from work unceremoniously, they won’t be terminated without pay, and cases of physical and sexual assault would be handled effectively and justly.
“I expect that one day there will be a body that will regulate the domestic workers sector and form a tribunal (such as the rent tribunal court) where both parties can take their grievances,” she adds.
Amid these challenges, the mother of two is proud of herself for having spotted a job opportunity and taken advantage of it. This, she says, is her full-time job, how she earns her rent. The opportunity had presented itself at a time when she needed it most since she did not have a stable job.
“I pride myself in being able to listen to the client’s and employee’s needs. I feel satisfied when my girls return to say thank you and to refer me to their friends, and also when they call me to say that they have saved enough to start a business or return to school.”