I recently celebrated my house help’s 35th birthday with the same enthusiasm as if it were my sister’s special day. When I posted on my WhatsApp status with the caption: It has been five glorious years together, I was met with an overwhelming response from my lady friends, many expressing shock that I was still with the same house help for that long. Outside the daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for the children, my house help has been a great source of companionship and emotional support. I recall as I was growing and the efforts my mother took to ensure that I treated our house help like family. She was determined that no-one should be able to tell the difference between us.
The “Ghost” Sector
Though domestic work is essential for many households, the global recognition of the sector as an important form of labour is still relatively low, and workers remain highly vulnerable to exploitation. This largely unregulated, informal economy of domestic labour exists on a global scale. This is a sector of work characterized by the exploitation of vulnerable people, often immigrants, who are hired by households and businesses in the absence of legal protection or other benefits. In instances of regulation, the lack of enforcement often leads employers to hire workers without a contract and the pay is usually below the minimum wage. Ignored and underappreciated for the essential service they provide, many domestic workers around the world endure forced labour, rape, daily beatings, wage theft and excessively long working hours without breaks.
Why the stigma?
The stigmatization associated with domestic work often centres on the perception that this type of work is somehow for the unlearned and beneath those who do it, or that it is a form of servitude that is not as honourable or respected as other jobs. Oftentimes, this leads to gross discrimination. Human rights campaigners have documented numerous cases of exploitation and abuse faced by domestic workers.
Does Slavery and Colonialism contribute to domestic worker mistreatment?
Reserved for the poor and marginalised, and treated as commodities, domestic workers were bought and sold and expected to comply with every demand of their employers. This led to a severe power imbalance, where employers held ultimate control over their domestic workers, deciding what tasks they should complete and how they should be treated. It is therefore generally believed in many circles that colonialism and slavery have had a significant role in the mistreatment of domestic workers, often resulting in the exploitation of cheap labour.
The “Child” Domestic Worker
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of young girls, typically aged 10-18 working as domestic workers in many countries around the world. This is due in part to a growing demand for cheap labour in many households, driven by a combination of social, economic and cultural factors. According to a report by the International Labour Organisation, there are various “push and pull” factors that constitute the root causes of child domestic work and these are: poverty and its feminization, social exclusion, lack of education, gender and ethnic discrimination, violence suffered by children in their own homes, displacement, rural-urban migration and the loss of parents due to conflict and/or disease.
Call to Action
The dynamics of the domestic worker depend on the employer and the relationship between the two parties. Employers should strive to create an environment of mutual respect, trust, and cooperation that benefits both the employer and the domestic worker. In most cases, it is important for employers to have clear expectations of their domestic worker and to communicate openly with them. It is also important to respect their rights and to provide them with fair wages and working conditions. The domestic worker should be provided with any necessary training and should be given opportunities to express their opinions and provide feedback to the employer.