Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

My experience as a domestic worker union leader in Nairobi

Union officials alerted me to the wrongs happening in my own workplace. Now I campaign with them to promote the rights of all domestic workers in Kenya.

Ruth Khakame
29 June 2017

Domestic workers celebrating Labour Day in Kenya. IDWF/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After completing my O levels, I had the ambition to pursue a course in the medical field. My dream, however, could not materialise due to my family’s financial situation: we could not afford the college fees that would enable me to realise my dream. I therefore began working for a woman living in the urban centre, in order to have her support to raise the funds for the college fees.

Upon arriving to her house, my employer informed me that I would need to wait for the next college intake period, which was six months later, and assist her in her household chores and other domestic duties in the meantime. I was a little disappointed by this, but I had no choice but to be patient and to devote myself to the tasks assigned to me. Being fresh out of secondary school and still naive, I was somewhat satisfied with this situation. This was also the first time I felt free from strict parental restrictions and close supervision, since my mother was very strict in out rural home. I therefore took full responsibility of the house and the homestead at large as a domestic worker.

In the beginning, I only undertook some duties but things took a turn when the six months elapsed and I was informed that the long awaited college-intake had been cancelled for the foreseeable future. My employer informed me of the situation and resolved to keep me as her domestic worker with a monthly stipend, a small amount of which I was able to put away as savings.

The stipend was however insufficient, as I also had to spare a portion of it for my mum and siblings back in our rural home for their sustainment and to help supplement my mother’s small-scale vegetable business income. I tried to negotiate for better remuneration with my employer – whom I then viewed as my employer – but she seemed adamant that between my accommodation and meals, I was better off than other domestic workers who didn’t live with their employers and therefore had to report to work early in the morning and leave late in the evening.

Realising she was unwilling to increase my remuneration, I felt obliged to abide by her terms of service and employment, given my family’s desperate financial situation. I committed myself to high levels of honesty, integrity, and diligence in my duties as a domestic worker, with the hopes that things would eventually change for the better or that I would secure some better casual work or an informal sector position elsewhere in future.

The long hours of the daily routine

As a domestic worker, I programmed myself to work very long hours: I woke up at 4 a.m. every day, except on special days, where my employer and her family were away, which was a rare occurrence. Upon waking up, I had to ensure that breakfast was ready and that everyone had had their bath, all while preparing the children for school. Since it was very early in the morning, the children often resisted getting up or taking their bath, which often resulted in commotion and tears. Their parents misunderstood the children’s behaviour as a response to gross harassments or mishandling on my part, which then led them to direct harshness and abuses towards me. This dynamic made the children believe that whatever they were doing was right and eroded their respect for me.

Their parents misunderstood the children’s behaviour as a response to gross harassments or mishandling on my part, which then led them to direct harshness and abuses towards me.

After breakfast, I would take the children to school and, after ensuring that they got into the school compound safely, I would rush back to the house to catch up with my housework schedule. I would start with the whole family’s daily laundry – which was to be done separate from my clothing – after which I would clean the utensils, the furniture, and the whole house, including the washroom, scrubbing the walls, and cleaning the compound. I would then proceed to the maintenance of the garden by watering the flowers.

These tasks would take up the better part of the morning and would be followed by feeding the chickens, which was accompanied by collecting eggs and even cleaning the whole poultry section. At times, this would also be done with the guidance of a veterinary officer who would come on a fortnightly basis.

Then, I would arrange the clean clothing and bedding and go pick up the children from school. I would clean them, give them some food, and eventually make preparations for the family supper. The parents would be home by 7 p.m. with supper ready for everyone. After supper, I would clear everything from the dining area and prepare the children for bed, while also ensuring that everything was in place before the end of the day, meaning that would only go to bed after 11 p.m. However, I would sometimes be indefinitely delayed if one or more members of the household returned late or when there were guests visiting.

From worker to union leader

This became a routine and reached a point where it got so monotonous, that misunderstanding between my employer and me increased. Specifically, my employer felt offended when I reminded her of my desire to develop career-wise. There were also tensions due to my indecent working conditions, which I mostly became aware of thanks to the officers of the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA - Workers), who were carrying out door-to-door domestic workers’ rights awareness and recruitment campaigns. They invited me to join them in a meeting for domestic workers and I became interested after attending a few sessions. A lot more was brought to my attention when I joined the union as a member in 2013 and began to actively participate in its activities.

KUDHEIHA made me realise that a lot of labour malpractices were directly taking place in my work environment.

KUDHEIHA made me realise that a lot of labour malpractices were directly taking place in my work environment. I also noticed that my employer took advantage of my ignorance on matters pertaining to labour laws, labour relations, the Employment Act of the Kenyan Constitution, and International Labour Organisation standards. Through the union’s monthly meetings for domestic workers, I learned about the then upcoming elections for the formation of a National Domestic Workers Council (2015), which would be comprised of representatives of domestic workers from various regions of the country. I took the opportunity to represent my region in the national elections and was elected the National Chairperson of Domestic Workers Council. The council is made up of nine elected members who are domestic workers and is part and parcel of the KUDHEIHA union; it is not an independent body. It was created to address and coordinate the domestic workers agenda from grassroots all the way up to the national level.

When I became a union leader for the council, I resigned from my position as a domestic worker to represent domestic workers’ interests in the Department of Domestic Workers at the KUDHEIHA offices.

As the national chairperson of the council, I am actively involved in the continuous mobilisation, recruitment, organisation, and retention of domestic workers. I intervene regularly to solve various disputes between the employers and domestic workers, participate in advocacy meetings that serve domestic workers’ interests as well as media campaigns for public awareness. I facilitate various workshops and trainings for domestic workers to raise their awareness on matters pertaining to the decent work agenda, and campaign for the ratification of the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention (C189).

In Kenya, there are up to two million domestic workers, the majority of which work in major cities and municipalities. KUDHEIHA has organised up to 16,000 domestic workers. The Domestic Workers Convention is very specific to and covers the needs of domestic workers, and once it becomes ratified the government will be committed to addressing the needs of domestic workers. There are currently many gaps in existing laws, which are already poorly enforced. Ratifying the convention in Kenya will have a direct impact on the lives of domestic workers.

Defending and championing domestic workers rights has been a key objective in my duties and responsibilities as a union leader, which have been driven by my personal experience as a domestic worker. As a former domestic worker myself, I am able to understand what domestic workers go through in their day-to-day duties. It is worth noting, appreciating, and even recognising the noble work and contributions of domestic workers to society. Domestic workers should be regarded with high levels of dignity and respect, as they are also human beings and employees who should be treated with fairness.

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