Domestic workers should be treated with dignity and respect

May 1, 2018

ByJames Wangombe

The Domestic Work sector remains a key sector in the Kenyan economy that is not properly regulated. It plays a key role in economic growth and development and is a major source of employment in the urban and peri-urban areas of the country. Domestic workers are those who work in and for a household or households in an employment relationship. They perform a range of services and tasks including cooking, cleaning, laundry, child care, elderly care and other duties as assigned. Although domestic workers perform essential services for the wellbeing of families and the smooth functioning of the national economy, they have long been ignored in labour legislation and social policy.

Domestic work, mainly done by women, takes place behind closed doors, privatized and almost invisible to the outside world. These workers are susceptible to long working hours, poor pay, physical and sexual abuse. Majority of domestic workers work without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any records and excluded from the scope of labour legislation. This in essence means that they do not belong to any union to represent their labour interests leaving them exposed to exploitation and abuse.

Labour Legislative Framework on Domestic Work

The continued exploitation of domestic workers is majorly driven by many employers who do not subscribe to Kenya’s labour laws. Surveys conducted on employers reveal that most of them do not understand the bare minimums that should be accorded to a domestic worker. Domestic Workers also have little or no awareness of their rights, suffer the tilted power relations that hinder negotiations when it comes to their work conditions and operate in an available pool of domestic workers willing to take any amount offered to them.  An alarming statistic is that many Kenyans in cities like Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu do not pay the minimum wage. According to the Regulation of Wages (General) (Amendment) Order, 2017 of the Labour Institutions Act, the Monthly contract rate for a domestic worker in the three cities is 12,926.55Kshs (equivalent to USD 129) per month for those employed on a contract, 622Kshs (equivalent to USD 6) on a daily engagement and 115.50Kshs (equivalent to USD 1) as the hourly rate. In addition, the domestic workers are entitled to 1 day off a week. It is not uncommon to find majority of households paying their domestic workers a measly 5,000Kshs (equivalent to USD 50) or less and work for seven days a week with no break.  This represents a gross violation on the labour rights of the domestic worker.

There are minimum labour rights that a domestic worker is entitled to which include the right to an employment contract if employed for more than 3 months; National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) remittance if earning more than 1,000Kshs (equivalent to USD 10) per month and National Social Security Fund (NSSF) remittance. Furthermore, they have the right to form and join and participate in trade unions, entitled to three months paternity leave or two weeks paternity leave with full pay and compensation in work related illnesses or death. The employer is also responsible for providing protective clothing, decent housing or payment of a housing allowance or a consolidated salary in lieu. It is important to note that the minimum monthly wage is exclusive of a housing allowance whereas the minimum daily wage is inclusive of a housing allowance.  

Ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention No. 189

As a signatory to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Kenya Ministry of East Africa Community (EAC), Labour and Social Protection is yet to ratify the ILO (2011) Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, which articulates the global standards for decent work for domestic workers and accurately frames the current reality of domestic work. The ratification of the convention would be a positive step towards achieving decent work for domestic workers in Kenya.

Call to Action this Labour Day

As a country, we need to recognize the positive contribution domestic workers play within our families and their direct and indirect contribution to the economy. Paid domestic work will continue to be an important source of employment for both women and men in our society.

The multiplicity of actors who interact directly or indirectly with domestic workers need to harmonize their efforts to ensure the sector is regulated, provide a safe environment free from physical and sexual abuse, pay a minimum wage and respond to the socio-economic needs of the domestic workers. Importantly, most domestic workers need financial management training to help them actualize their ambitions of self-employment or savings for the future. There is need for concerted efforts to create an enabling policy environment that encompasses all actors working in the domestic workers sector. This will ensure implementation and enforcement of the Employment Act thus contributing to the streamlining and regulation of the domestic workers sector.

Trade Unions like the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied (KUDHEIHA) need to lobby the Government to ratify Domestic Workers Convention No. 189 and work closely with the relevant labour agencies and departments to enforce the Convention. In addition, registered trade unions should undertake massive domestic workers recruitment drives to ensure they are unionized thus giving them a voice and also sensitize them on dispute resolution and grievance handling. This way, domestic workers can be protected from exploitation and abuse by their employers.  Employers too need to be sensitized on the Employment Act and best practices that work for the benefit of the domestic worker. The relevant labour authorities and the Ministry of EAC, Labour and Social Protection should enforce adherence to the minimum wage provisions for domestic workers to eliminate exploitation.

As we celebrate this year’s Labour Day, the Government and Employers need to recognize the need to gradually shift remuneration from Minimum Wage to a Living Wage. Through this, we will ultimately ensure that domestic workers have income to meet their basic needs and have a decent standard of living.