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.

 

A Restavek in Haiti.

Source 

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 z.nesbitt-ahmed@lse.ac.uk.

22 Comments

Fediben Gals

Girl you are right. Domestic workers in Nigeria are treated very badly.
I feel for the children who are basically being made slaves. Where is the law that protects children and state that any child under 16 should be in School.

Reply
Uju

I recently had a bad argument with a lady at work who said the the best domestic workers must be 12 and below unless they would not be submissive and unteachable.she could not see the irony when I pointed out that her son was 12, and would he be able to sustain good academics while waking up at 5am to sweep a house and get the ‘children’ of the house ready everyday. To her she was helping these people, and my idea of hiring an older/mature person who already had at least ssce was fanciful and oyibo because I would never be able to control them and they would steal my husband from under my nose.
I’m happy your looking into this area. It has always distrbed me the lack of rights for people in this sector.

Reply
Geri

I’m SO glad you wrote about this. I was in Naija last Xmas, and was humbled and appalled not only by the treatment of these workers, but also, by the cavalier and dismissive attitudes everyone around me had. I constantly felt like I was in the twilight zone.

Reply
chiomah

Why anyone would take a 6 year old child as a help is beyond me. I was raised to treat help as part of the family, my parents educated all the helps and ensured the got employment.. Today one of them is a graduate and is abroad with her husband (she met him in our family church,my mum always insisted that like her children we all went to church together) and 2 have their own homes. Today I am a mum and the three we are still close to our aunty and uncle to me and my children and we are still there for each other. Yes despite how my parents where we still had some that stole and did all sorts. I carried my parents ideology for domestic staff into my home and I thank God it has paid off one of my helps has been with me for almost 6yrs and she is like a big sis to my children, she is now in a college of education and still does her chores when she should. My own children also play their own role there is no point having children who are completely dependent on “aunty mary” or “mr james “. We all have to remember that its by Gods grace that we are better off and not because we are any better. I recently employed someone to also help around the house and with time if she proves to be dependable I will also empower her so that whenever she leaves my home she will be useful to the society. People love my childrens nanny and say how lucky we are to have her, and while I agree I also know that we are lucky to have each other. Cus in another home she may have been treated badly, behaved badly and would have been one of those “bad ones”.

Reply
Obi

Sometimes one can hire help, other times extended family members plead for you to take their children and help lighten their burden of raising them on meager or nonexistent incomes. Either way, these “domestic helps” have come to stay at your place and just like your kids are raised differently, they too have been raised differently. So, you should not expect a saint if you did not raise him or her by your own rules.

If you have taken up the task of helping the children of a VERY annoying family member, chances are that you will consider the children annoying much easier than you would if you were bosom buddies with the parents. I think that beyond the ignorance and wickedness exhibited by people at times when it comes to house helps, the existing relationship (or perhaps lack of it) between the employer and the help’s family needs to be addressed as one of the factors that affect the way people treat their helps.

Third thing: as long as evil remains in the world, there will always be house helps who will show you the other side of help. But like the old man said, who kept trying to help the scorpion out of a pond despite being stung each time, you don’t have to change who you are because the person you try to help is ungrateful. You simply change your strategy. If you desperately need a house help, then put your house in order and ensure that you and God partner up to control your home with love. If you don’t desperately need one but want to help out a less privileged family, do the same, but be careful not to take advantage and then turn around and say if not for me he/ she would have …

Reply
ttemfash

What bought this complex issue home to me was a situation I witnessed when I was about 10years old with my aunties home help who was so home sick and cried daily for her family. I put it in perspective and imagined myself in that situation as we were the same age I vowed never to employ children or anyone who may have been kidnapped or taken from their family by force and sold on or exploited as a home help. One of my other aunties had a mature lady as a home help and I felt it was more of a symbiotic respectful relationship.
Another pressing issue that needs to be addressed is the sexual abuse and exploitation that takes place within these settings, no one bats an eyelid but the blame is always laid at the foot of the victim namely the home help who has had to fight off the advances of lecherous sons and husbands.One of the reason why transatlantic slave trade thrived for so long was because Us as people didn’t value each other. This is a modern form of slavery under a different guise.

Reply
MasukaM

A few months ago in our Book Club (in Lusaka, Zambia), we read The Help – a book based on the American deep south in the 1960s about the life of maids. It was made into an award-winning film last year. What was interesting about the discussion was the parallels we found with the racist and discriminatory way the white southerners referred to and treated the black domestic works and how that was almost exactly how many Zambians (and I suppose Nigerians) treat and refer to their domestic workers. And yet, when it is about looking down on someone because of the colour of their skin, it is wrong. But when it is about class and social-economic status, we just say that is how it is. These are the exact same excuses used to justify apartheid, slavery and racial laws ad segregation in the United States and other developed countries.

Reply
Zahrah

Thank you for this comment. I read ‘The Help’ and loved it, despite the mixed reviews it had. I found many similarities between the situation of maids in Southern America in the ’50s and domestic workers in Nigeria today. I constantly have this discussion that the issue of race and domestic work found in the USA in the ’50s between white employers and black workers is very similar to the issue in most African countries. The only difference is that race is substituted with class and in some cases ethnicity. In domestic work (as in slavery, apartheid and all that you mentioned), difference is usually used to emphasise superiority and inferiority – be it difference in terms of race, class, economic status and even gender.

Reply
Titilola

early this year my aunt got a new house help that was just 7years old. The little girl was always crying. My mum forced her to return the girl and threatened to report her to the welfare office if she did not. These continue because even the existing laws are not enforced.

Reply
Maya

Presently, I do not have any domestic help. With a husband and a 6 year old child, I manage to do the cooking, housework and school runs myself. It’s a lot. But with proper organisation, not too difficult. I have had househelps in the past, but I can’t with a clear conscience use someone else’s child (under 18) for my housework, while they miss out on an education. Those over 18, I may hire for 9-5 jobs. So as to give them time to relax and perhaps pursue other personal interests or part-time education.

Reply
DiDi

So true. They have to be treated with respect coz they work hard,round the clock too.. There still are some nice bosses out there though..

Reply
Zahrah

You are very right. And in my research I highlight all aspects. To sound a bit cliched, but the good, the bad and the ugly of domestic work in Lagos. From the employers who actually treat their domestic workers as workers, and pay them and treat them well, to the ones that see domestic workers as inferior beings that can be treated anyhow. Unfortunately, the problem is that there are more bad employers than there are good employers. And we currently live in a society where domestic work itself is not counted as a form of employment, despite the fact countless number of people are involved in it.

Reply
Myne Whitman

I will like to see the result of this research when done, it is indeed high time more information is available on the issue of domestic work and how it is considered in Nigeria.

Reply
Zahrah

I am currently in the process of writing up my research findings and if NN will permit me sometime in the near future, I will definitely love to share it here.

Reply
Ladi

I was in the salon last week when a customer suggested that the hairdresser (who had her 10month old baby in the shop) get a help to babysit the child until school age.Two other women (including one who travels to US regularly- so I would assume exposed) joined in the conversation and I was appalled that they had and still have maids who were under 15. And they proceeded with how some children are wicked and evil or witches.

What else do you expect when a child is missing out on school, toys, playing outside etc? While they are babysitting their own agemates.

My mum actually had a distant relative join our house to help at 8 or 9years old when I was a toddler. My mum was also a help at that age while she went to primary school simultaneously in the village. My cousin become part of the family as an adopted older sister my parents put her through school in Abuja and now she’s a youth corper. Not everyone has to mistreat their help but at least send them to school. In this generation, I will definitely NOT employ a help below 18.

Reply
Zahrah

Thank you all for the comments on my post and for sharing your thoughts on domestic workers in Nigeria. And thank you NN, for giving me the chance to write about it on your blog. There are so many comments and I will try and respond to them all. With regards to laws to protect those under the age of 18 from working as domestic workers (or in any form of child labour), there is actually a law in place by NAPTIP. Unfortunately, like most laws in Nigeria, it isn’t enforced. Additionally there is still the notion of ‘child fostering’, which is still widely practiced. And while that isn’t a bad thing. The traditional ‘fostering’ was meant for a child to live (usually with distant relatives) and in exchange for their labour they would get sent to school or get some kind of vocational training. Unfortunately, those ties to the traditional way of fostering are slowly being severed – so in most cases the child still performs the work without getting the education or vocational training.

Reply
OK

D issue of help is one I don’t like to talk about. My mum ensured that every help we had was properly educated up to higher education.but d heart of man is ungrateful n wicked. Becos many years later, these helps (both males n females) we had, don’t even call mum to ask hw she is doing. I was sexually molested for a long period of time…(btw age 4- 9) by this same helps…
Its just to pray that one does not get help from the pit of hell…

Reply
Babesummy

I am more than 1 yr late in reading this article however I am quite passionate about the topic. I blame the parents of the said domestic workers for their plight. Some parents do actually auction off their kids to the highest bidder. Our society needs to modernize. Why will you dump all the house work on a poor kid and leave your kids doing nothing? My loved ones are guilty of this……I have resolved never to have a house help and if I ever foster a child, he/she will be raised the same way i will raise “my child”. This is the best I can do I guess.

Reply
Bash B

Thanks so much for your research work – is the final report available for those of us that are interested in the output? I thought I was the only one that cringed @ the sight of a 7yr-old with a 9mo-old strapped on her back, obviously not the baby’s big sister, and in the middle of the morning on a school day! So sad… and even sadder is that those who should know better see nothing wrong :-(…

Reply

Add Your Comment

  • (will not be published)
  • XHTML: You can use these tags <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

    © 2014 Natural Nigerian. All rights reserved.

    Switch to our mobile site