Underpaid and abused, Guinea-Bissau's domestic workers seek protection

by Nellie Peyton | @nelliepeyton | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 February 2019 12:05 GMT

Arminda Sa poses for a photo outside her home in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, February 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nellie Peyton

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Guinea-Bissau, one of Africa's poorest states, excludes domestic workers from its national labour law, giving them little protection against exploitation and abuse, activists say.

By Nellie Peyton

BISSAU, Feb 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Arminda Sa was working 15-hour days for half the pay she had been promised when her boss' brother tried to rape her.

Like most domestic workers in the small West African country of Guinea-Bissau, she had no contract, and after refusing him she lost the job. It was a situation familiar to most of the women she knew, she said.

"In Guinea-Bissau it's like that. If you want to work you have to give in," said Sa, a 39-year-old single mother, sitting outside her home in the outskirts of the rundown capital Bissau.

"Most of my friends have submitted (to rape)... because they needed work," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Guinea-Bissau, one of Africa's poorest states, excludes domestic workers from its national labour law, giving them little protection against exploitation and abuse, activists say.

But a handful of lawyers, policemen and volunteers are pushing to secure their rights - a tough task with the government crippled by political crisis and abuse of housekeepers a social norm.

The ministry of public service and labour declined a request for comment.

Survey data shows nine in 10 domestic workers in Guinea-Bissau are victims of sexual abuse, with other forms of violence common. In a recent case that made local headlines, a 14-year-old girl's employer doused her with boiling water.

"It's the culture here," said policeman Malam Cassama. "We want to turn the page, change the mentality," he said, sitting in a shabby roadside bar where the National Association for the Protection of Domestic Workers holds its meetings.

Established five years ago by a local activist, the association has no funding or even a computer. But since it started campaigning some employers have begun to pay attention, said Cassama, who volunteers for the organisation.

Members of the National Association for the Protection of Domestic Workers are pictured at a meeting in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, February 4, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nellie Peyton

LEGAL HOLES

Domestic workers are excluded from labour laws around the world, says Human Rights Watch, often because societies undervalue women's work.

The International Labour Organization established a Domestic Workers Convention in 2011, requiring countries to provide a minimum age and a weekly day of rest, among other measures. Only 27 states, not including Guinea-Bissau, have ratified it.

In a country where most people live on a few dollars a day, household help is cheap and one of few jobs available to women, locals said. Girls often work for no pay in exchange for food and housing.

"Here in Guinea-Bissau anyone can have a maid," said Sene Cassama, head of the association for domestic workers' protection, which ultimately aims to produce a domestic workers' rights law.

In 2017, the group surveyed over 7,000 household employees - mostly women - in the capital.

It found 89 percent were victims of sexual abuse, 80 percent worked more than 14 hours a day and 35 percent were under the age of 13. Almost none had social security or a contract.

Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, has been in political deadlock since 2015 when President Jose Mario Vaz controversially dismissed his prime minister, leading to frequent changes of government. "The chronic instability in recent years has hampered the government to improve the situation of workers in Guinea-Bissau," said a spokeswoman for UNIOGBIS, the United Nations peacebuilding mission in Guinea-Bissau, which has a human rights section.

UNIOGBIS said it was monitoring the situation and liaising with the association for domestic workers, but Sene Cassama said he had asked the mission for help and never heard back.

Sene Cassama holds up a photo of a domestic worker who was a victim of violence, Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, February 4, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nellie Peyton

NO CHOICE

Eustaquia, the teenager who was burned by her employer, thought it was normal when the couple she worked for beat her.

Her family had moved to the capital from a poor farming region and were relieved when a wealthier couple offered to take the child off their hands.

"I cleaned, I got water. It was hard work. I didn't have days off," said Eustaquia, sitting in a dark, unfurnished room in her parents' concrete home.

Her burns, covering most of her lower body, were punishment for letting the child she looked after fall and bump his head.

"There are lots of cases like this," said Victorino Domingo Jeta, a lawyer who is hoping to jail Eustaquia's ex-employers.

"It continues because no measures have been taken."

Eustaquia's case was one of several that appeared in local media in December, including another girl whose finger was cut off, said Cassama of the workers' association. He is hopeful the public attention will help drive change.

But Arminda Sa also tried to take her case to court, only to see her employer weasel out of a trial, she said. What frustrated her most was her powerlessness throughout the job.

Her boss would say, "If you don't want this job, leave," every time she asked for a day off or complained about him cutting pay, she said.

"I didn't have a choice," she said.

(Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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