Despite New Law, Domestic Workers Struggle to Care for Their Families in Kenya

by Global Press Institute | Global Press Institute
Tuesday, 1 November 2011 09:40 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

NAIROBI, KENYA - Underneath the scorching heat, Cynthia Shikuku, 27, walks as fast as her legs can carry her from Kikuyu town, an informal suburb west of Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Shikuku, a live-in domestic worker, needs to beat the setting of the Sunday sun. Her employer requires her to return from her weekend leave by 7 p.m. This is her eighth month working for a family of three. She says she is a happy nanny, housekeeper, cleaner and cook for the family, which treats her well. Shikuku has been able to earn a living in Nairobi for the last six years as a domestic worker for both high- and middle-income families. She works in order to support herself and her only son, 6. "I gained experience working for very rich people, but for short periods because I was stepping in for friends who were either sick or pregnant," she says. "Some of the employers were single mothers. Others were couples with several children. But for middle-class citizens, I have worked longer periods, ranging from six months to a year." Shikuku is a trained domestic worker, which she says entitles her to higher pay than untrained workers. "I was trained as a domestic worker at a local college for a year, thanks to my single mother, and I feel that no one should pay me less than 7,000 shillings [KES (${esc.dollar}70 USD)] a month," she says. "Most of my peers are paid about 4,000 shillings [KES (${esc.dollar}40 USD)] for similar work in families of five to seven people, but I cannot settle for that." She says these workers eventually gain experience, but that their salary never increases because they're not professionally trained. She says many of them end up quitting. "My counterparts, after being trained by their African employers, end up quitting and using their new skills to work for Asians," she says. "Although Asians treat them like slaves, they pay decently, 6,000 shillings [KES (${esc.dollar}60 USD)]." But Shikuku says her training enables her to chart a different course. "I prefer working for fellow Africans," Shikuku says with a grin. Still, she says she wishes she could devote her energy to caring for her own son instead of for others' children. Like many working mothers in these hard economic times, Shikuku is forced to parent less and work more as she lives apart from her son all week. "I am a [live-in] domestic worker," she says. "I work from Monday to Saturday afternoon, having the remaining weekend off. This is the only time I have to rest and spend time with my child." Her older sister and younger brother take care of her son during the week. The siblings live together in a two-room house in order to afford rent because of the high cost of living here. The one room of the house serves as the kitchen, living room and a bedroom, while the other room serves as a bedroom and storage. They share a communal bathroom outside the house with about eight other households in the neighborhood. "My son has joined nursery school this year, and it has enabled me [to] work more easily because I no longer have to pay a nanny or day care to nurture him as I work," she says. "My siblings help out with taking care of him when he arrives home from school. We have all worked out a comfortable schedule to bring him up." She says that she was also raised by her relatives, but that there were more people to help out back in the rural area where she grew up. "I was raised by my grandparents and elder sisters because they were farmers and did not have to work in offices or other formal jobs," she says. "We lived in the rural setting, and whenever my mother was away farming or harvesting, she would take us with her or leave us with a relative. We had enough to eat and drink and were always safe." But then Shikuku's father died eight years ago, forcing her mother to move to Nairobi in search of a formal job where she could earn more money. "I lost my husband, a high school teacher, and main family breadwinner to robbers," says her mother, Mary Ambetsa Shikuku, 45. She is a jovial, light-skinned mother and grandmother who lives and works in Nairobi. "They attacked and stabbed him as he was leaving a local pub," she says. "They robbed him of his coat and whole month's salary. They must have overheard that it was his payday." She starts to weep bitterly. To date, the family doesn't know who murdered their father and husband, and no one has been brought to justice. Shikuku joined her mother in Nairobi before too long. Two years after completing secondary school, Shikuku got pregnant in 2004. Forced into a marriage of convenience at 20 in western Kenya, she found herself a housewife to an immature peer, who she says lived comfortably under the control of his mother. "He was a mama's boy," she says. "His mother, a very rich woman from my village, was very cruel to me, possibly because I was a penniless girl from a poor family." Unwilling to accept this lifestyle, Shikuku contacted her mother. "Refusing to suffer, I decided to reach out to my mother who was, at the time, working in a big company in Nairobi," she says. "She sent me money to come to Nairobi with my child. There, I lived with her, and she paid for my college until I landed a job and moved out. This is when I became trained in domestic work." With no support from the father of her child, Shikuku could not afford a nanny. Instead, her mother found one from their rural village in western Kenya to watch her son for her while she studied. "My mother paid the lady for her services," she says. "She was introduced to us by a distant relative, so we trusted her with my son. Little did we know that all hell would break loose." Shikuku came home from college one evening to find her 4-month-old baby crying with a tired and hoarse voice. From the cries, she says she could tell that he was in pain and had been crying for a long time. The baby had been crying for so long that neighbors and passersby were peeping through the window of her mother's one-bedroom wooden house in Kawangware, a rural suburb of Nairobi. The boy had been left unattended and was soaked in urine. "When I opened the door, I could not find the house help," she says. "I just screamed in disbelief. She had left my son and ran off to God knows where." She says his diaper hadn't been changed for hours. "On opening the nappies, the boy's genitalia and bottoms were all reddened from soaking in soiled nappies," she says. "His skin was badly damaged. We rushed him to Kenyatta National Hospital, which is Kenya's largest referral government hospital." She says she was afraid he was going to die. "I had to spend over a week with him there, and they put him on a drip, among other treatments," she says. "I was afraid I would lose him, but I thank God he survived, and his genitalia are well." This family didn't filed a lawsuit against the nanny, who never gave a logical explanation for why she left the baby unattended. Upon returning home from the hospital, Shikuku says she swore never to employ a domestic worker to take care of her son or to get pregnant again. "One son is enough for my lifetime," she says. As a domestic worker, she has also sworn to rear her employers' children with the same care she wishes her son had been treated with. "I know the pain of almost losing a son to the foolishness of an untrained house girl," she says. As family structure in Kenya has shifted from extended families, which used to share the burden of child care, to nuclear families, a recent law aimed at improving domestic workers' pay also makes it more costly for them to hire house help while they work. Mothers who make their living as domestic workers say they spend more time with their employers' families than their own in order to make ends meet. Employers and Kenyans in other careers say the domestic workers earn decent pay and are treated with respect. More than 1 million Kenyans earn a living as domestic workers here, according to the Center for Domestic Training and Development, a resource center for domestic workers. One in two families in Nairobi need the services of a domestic worker, according to an International Labor Organization report. But many can't afford them, as more than 45 percent of the more than 40.5 million people in Kenya were living at the national poverty line in 2005, according to the World Bank's most recent statistics. Grandparents, siblings and other close relatives helped to raise the young in the traditional African family. Parenting was a communal responsibility, and even relatives could discipline another's child. With plenty of support from family and close relatives, there was always someone responsible for the children. Today, Kenyan women are receiving formal education and jobs in cities and are becoming breadwinners, a role which used to be reserved for men. Young mothers have to resume work three months after they deliver their children. Since their parents live far away in rural areas and relatives are scattered all over the country because of rural-urban migration, they have to resort to employing domestic workers, which have become a necessity for working mothers. Wealthier families can afford to send children to day care or hire a nanny, whose sole responsibility is to care for children, but others don't have this luxury. The Ministry of Labor recently passed a law setting the monthly minimum wage for domestic workers at nearly 7,600 shillings KES (${esc.dollar}76 USD) in Nairobi province and 7,000 shillings KES (${esc.dollar}70 USD) in other provinces. The law also entitles domestic workers to at least two days of rest per week and 21 days of paid leave per year. Domestic workers say they appreciate these new labor requirements that have improved their working conditions. But at the same time, it also means the ones who must employ help to make up for their absence in their own homes must pay their help more, too. Others say the law is difficult to enforce, as there are always other people who will do the job for less pay. Harriette Etemesi, 39, is a domestic worker who lives in the heart of Kibera, Kenya's largest slum. She is one of the wives of a 57-year-old pastor of a local religious sect, and they have three children together. "I am a third wife, and I have two boys and a girl," she says. But like Shikuku, she says she must spend more time caring for other people's families than for her own in order to make ends meet. Etemesi works as a housekeeper from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. from Monday to Friday for a nuclear family of seven. Unlike Shikuku, she isn't a live-in domestic worker but rather journeys daily to the family's home in Ngumo, a Nairobi surburb that neighbors Kibera. She cooks, cleans and does the laundry by hand. She sometimes also helps with feeding, changing and bathing the youngest child. She has not undergone training for the career, but she has had 10 years of experience. She earns 4,000 shillings KES (${esc.dollar}40 USD) per month, which is about half of what the new law sets as the minimum wage for domestic workers in Nairobi province. But Etemesi says the law isn't enforced, and her bargaining power is minimal. "I will lose my job if I demand for more pay," she says. "My employer can easily get another help from Kibera." Because this isn't adequate enough to supplement her husband's unreliable income, Etemesi says she must find additional work during the weekends, which takes her away from her family even more. "I wash clothes for Ethiopian families who live at Kilimani suburb," she says. "I fetch only 300 shillings [KES (${esc.dollar}3 USD)] per household for four hours' work, servicing up to five families all weekend," she says. "Thus, I sometimes miss out on Sunday worship services with my children." She can't afford public transportation, which would be faster but would eat up more than a third of her weekend pay per household. "I usually have to walk for about an hour to reach Kilimani," she says. Etemesi says that most times, the families don't pay her right away for washing a mountain of clothes - or sometimes ever. "They ask me to come in a day or two, and sometimes they refuse to pay up," she says. "But I can't quit. How will we survive if I stop trying?" She says the family struggles to make ends meet daily, while she desperately wishes the month would end so that she can collect her monthly pay from her housekeeping job. "I cannot afford a nanny or day care either for my last child," she says. "The others are already attending primary school." She says there are cheaper, informal day cares nearby that cost between 10 to 50 shillings KES (10 to 50 cents USD) per day but that you have to pack children a lunch. She also says she doesn't trust the staff for fear that they will sexually abuse, kidnap or sell her child. So she says that she is lucky that her sister is her neighbor so they can help take care of one another's children. "My younger sister, also married, and I alternate to take care of each other's children when the other is working," she says. Still, Etemesi says it upsets her that she hardly has time to parent her young children or help them with their homework. "I have become a stranger to my children," she says. "Their father is more familiar to them. I get home too tired, only to find a dirty house and hungry little beings. By the time I lay my head to rest, the cock crows, and it's morning again." Ken Mburu, 30, is a security guard at night in Riara, a serene, leafy suburb west of Nairobi. He says he and many of the security guards interact with the domestic workers here more than the women's employers, who work away from the neighborhood for most of the day. He says that most domestic workers in the estate, which houses 20 families, are paid an average of 5,000 shillings KES (${esc.dollar}50 USD) a month. He says that live-in domestic workers there are lucky for the wages they receive. "I think that house girls should be paid 5,000 shillings KES (${esc.dollar}50 USD) only, because they eat, sleep, shower and have the benefits of comforts in their employer's house," he says. He says that they should be grateful for what he considers a high income for little or no training. "As a watchman, I am paid little above that amount, and yet I have to stay watch in the cold night and do not eat or sleep in my employer's home," he says. "And believe it or not, I am formally trained for my job, unlike most of them." He says that he has heard about the Ministry of Labor's decision earlier this year to set minimum wage and vacation requirements for domestic workers. "Maybe the move will reduce a high turnover of house helps," he says. "It's a worrying trend and a security threat to this estate. Sometimes I am cruel to strangers, only to discover that they are new domestic workers." He says that wealthier families can afford to pay their workers higher wages and, therefore, reduce turnover. "Compared to Africans, the rich white men keep their employees for [a] longer period," he says. "One white family here has had the same live-in for close to five years now. She gets two days off a week, is paid very well and often gets gifts to take to her family. The Africans keep changing house girls every few months. I have met so many new ones in my three years of working here." Jane Muchiri, 34, a banker from Nakuru, the capital of Rift Valley province, is a mother and a working professional. She says that domestic workers are human beings and should be treated as such. "I treat my house help with respect because I am also an employee and want to be treated equally well by my employer," she says. "They need to be paid, to eat what the family is eating and be given time to rest. After all, we leave them with the most precious of our possessions - our babies and our household items." She says they also deserve fair pay. "The pay should be negotiated and improved with time if the working relationship is cordial," she says. She says that families must also protect themselves. She says they must exercise caution and double-check domestic workers' references because they can't all be trusted, as Shikuku learned the hard way. Shikuku says her employers treat her well. "I eat what they eat, and there is plenty that is left over," she says. "I have my own room, use their hot shower and soap, wash and iron my own clothes in their house - all for free. You do not get that from many employers." Though happy, Shikuku says she still hopes for better working conditions. She says that there are African employers who are gracious, but that it's rare to find open positions with them. "I hope to become [a] nanny - only caring for children - because I am afraid to break my back as I am aging really fast," she says. "My boss, who is an African, has promised that as her family grows, she will employ another cleaner and my work will reduce. I feel that we are headed somewhere with my employer, and I want to stay longer to see how things will go." But Shikuku's son, John Shisiali, 6, says he wishes he could spend more time with his only parent. "I am sad when my mum has to work all week," he says. "Sometimes she gets leave for more days than usual when her boss has to travel for a holiday, and she picks me up from school." He says this is a rare treat. "I am usually surprised by this," he says. "She brings me sweets or jeans, which make me happy, and I forget that I had cried because I missed her so much. I love it when she cooks for me. Her food is better than what my uncle makes for us."