Today, I have a guest blogger talking about something I am passionate about. It is way past time we start seeing and treating domestic workers as human beings first. Now on to the post.
“You have to understand. If these people have too much knowledge they can rob us and ruin our family”.
For the last three years I have been doing research on domestic workers in Lagos. When I say domestic workers, I am referring to the boys and girls, men and women working as housegirls, houseboys, drivers, nannies, cooks, ‘maiguards’ and even the gardeners and washermen, in most homes in Lagos. The ‘house-help’, ‘domestic’ or ‘servant’ has become synonymous with most elite families in Nigeria. These workers work behind closed doors in private homes carrying out domestic chores including cleaning of rooms and furniture, washing of clothes and plates, preparation of food, running errands and escorting their employers’ children to and from school’.
Domestic work is a highly discussed aspect of daily life in Nigeria, yet there is an increased protectiveness about disclosing information surrounding the details of the employment. So when I tell people that I am researching on domestic work, I am met with very different responses.
On one hand, I have met people who welcome the fact that I am doing it and willingly talk to me about the ‘house-help phenomenon’, the pros and cons of male vs. female house-helps, young vs. old, and the recruitment process. These people usually see my research as a way forward to highlighting as one lady called it, ‘the gross abuse that is occurring in many homes in Lagos today’. Natural Nigerian was one of them, and when she asked me if I would write a post on my research on her blog, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, these people that see my research as a way forward in Nigeria are very few and far between. Majority feel I am wasting my time speaking to the ‘house-helps’. I cannot count the number of times I have been told that domestic workers themselves were the problem and if I had to do the research I should be speaking to employers so I could hear the stories of the ‘nanny who gave her Madam’s children AIDS’, the ‘housegirl who bewitched her Oga and kicked the Madam out of the house’, and ‘the wicked nanny who kidnapped her Madam’s baby’.
Why then am I doing this? Because domestic work in Nigeria is part of people’s taken-for-granted reality. In fact, it was part of mine when I was growing up, as I lived with, saw and heard of domestic workers working for my family, relatives, and friends. But the situation of many domestic workers in Nigerian homes seemed strange to me. Domestic workers are seen as ‘informal’ help and so domestic work is not seen as ‘real’ work, and therefore they are usually treated as badly. It was this strangeness that raised the topic of domestic work and made problematic what had previously been taken for granted.
Being a Domestic Worker
I have met all kinds of men and women from different parts of Nigeria who have different stories to tell. And while writing this I struggled to decide what to include because there is so much to say on the issue of domestic work in Nigeria. I could have written about the reasons why people move into domestic work (poverty and lack of decent employment avenues are a couple of reasons), the modes of recruitment (middle-men play and important role), or on the ‘Calabar house-help phenomenon’ (domestic work is increasingly becoming synonymous with people from the Calabar region). I could have also written about the fact that there is a relative preference for younger domestic workers due to them being considered more submissive and easier to direct around as compared to older domestic workers. Or the fact that majority of the domestic workers I met started between the ages of 9 and 14, with some starting as young as 5.
While I could have written on anything, the most common feature shared by domestic workers is their uncertain working conditions as a result of domestic work being considered a low status job, by both domestic workers and society. This means that despite the enormous amount of work that domestic workers perform for the families that employ them, they are treated as inferior members of the household.
Along with the receipt of little or no pay, domestic workers (especially live-in domestic workers) have no clear division between work and private time as working days may run from 5.00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m. and they are rarely allowed time off. Some domestic workers can ask for time off, while others only get time off to attend church services on Sundays. In addition to that, they have heavy workloads, limited rest and leisure time, inadequate accommodation and food (live-in workers), job insecurity, and exposure to violence and abuse. Added to this is the fact that live-in domestic workers’ rarely have their own private space, and are often confined to particular parts of the house, such as the kitchen, and sometimes they eat separately and often only after their employers have eaten. Because of the unregulated nature of their work, they have little option to change their situation. Furthermore, they rarely have access to social support networks. This means that regardless of their pay and conditions, these workers are committed to work for their employers because they have “few marketable skills, little or no education, and no alternative employment opportunities” (PLA, 2007). To add to their harsh living and working conditions, domestic workers also have to face the issues of restricted movements, little or no social interaction, being seen as a sexual threat but at the same time sexually available, and are victims of sexual abuse. This aspect of domestic work, which I see as the ‘sexuality issue’ is possibly one of the most extreme aspect of being a domestic worker.
I still think that there are many things I could say about domestic work in Lagos – like the fact the current labour law of Nigeria doesn’t define domestic work (I define domestic workers as persons who are recruited from outside the employing household and paid by wage, or ‘in kind’, to perform labour in and around the household) or the fact that I am yet to find accurate data on the number of persons employed as domestic workers in private households in Nigeria (experience suggests that there is at least one domestic worker in each house and a large house could have as many as six). This article has only touched the surface of a very complex form of employment (yes, I regard domestic work as a form of employment) in Nigeria. There is still so much that needs to be said, and a lot more that needs to be done.
I would like to end by thanking the men and women who have taken the time to speak to me and let me know about their lives as well as Natural Nigerian for giving me the opportunity to write about something I am so passionate about. I see my research as one small step in raising awareness on domestic work in Nigeria, which I hope will go towards improving their living and working conditions. As for this post, I hope it will give people some insight into why I am focusing on domestic workers and why they need to be seen less as ‘informal’ help and more as ‘real’ workers.
Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics currently in Lagos doing her fieldwork on domestic workers in Nigeria. To find out more, share your views or even get involved she can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.