American Judge William Joseph Brennan Jr once said, “There are no menial jobs, only menial attitudes.” He was criticizing people who dismiss certain jobs as undignified. Unfortunately, that is a widespread attitude towards domestic work, and those who do it are often exploited.

According to a study of domestic workers done by the International Labor Organisation, those working in the sector are often subjected to long hours, low wages, no guaranteed day of rest and are vulnerable to physical, mental and sexual abuse.

In Kenya, as in other countries around the world, this exploitation of domestic workers often takes place in the employers’ homes, away from public scrutiny.

Although there are laws designed to protect these workers, without people or a body to ensure their adherence it’s easy for employers to get away with abusive practices. What people often fail to realize is that, by taking advantage of domestic workers, we automatically devalue what they do.

Fortunately, there are a few organizations that are professionalizing domestic work. They ensure that the girls under their care are in a supportive environment and thus are able to work well. This gives domestic work the dignity it deserves.

Professionalising domestic work

Leah Imaita started Jazza Center six years ago after the birth of her first child. Like any mother in Nairobi she had a hard time ensuring that the child was well taken care of when she went to work.

“I had a three-month old baby and despite several warnings, the help would leave her unsupervised to go outside to talk to friends. The last straw was when she came to work drunk. I could not imagine leaving my child with someone in that state, so I let her go.”

Leah’s problems are not unique; new mothers are often at wits’ end having to handle untrained domestic workers. Some of the most common complaints are: coming to work late, using flimsy excuses to demand time off, and being unable to do basic housework. Leah’s experience with the second house girl became the incentive to start Jazza Center.

“The girl could not clean, cook, or iron but was amazing with the baby, so I still kept her. Then one day without notice, she left. I was overwhelmed, I had to juggle, looking for another house help while taking care of the home, an infant and a fulltime job. I imagined other people going through the same experience, so my husband and I started this business.”

Mother Goose may not have had an inspiring beginning, but its mission is still altruistic. James Mwangi, team leader, explains:

“The girls only get into domestic work when they cannot find work anywhere else, and because their employer knows they are desperate, he takes them for granted. So by giving them skills they are able to work as professionals which improves working conditions and pay.”

Most domestic workers are women who come from very difficult circumstances. They may be sole breadwinners, not just in their nuclear families but also in the extended one; they may be in abusive relationships, or existing in abject poverty– all of which can affect behavior at work. For instance, if the help is preoccupied sorting out her family problems she may burn a meal or forget to do a chore.

Without any kind of tertiary education, these women turn to domestic work, which does not require any prior training and is practically all that is available to them. Without anyone instructing them how to work and behave, many make a lot of mistakes before they learn.

Both the Jazza Center and Mother Goose teach girls who would like to be employed as domestic workers a range of skills: housekeeping, doing laundry, food production and nutrition, early child development, child care, first aid and home safety training.

The course does not just deal with the practical aspect of the job but also their temperament: “They come with a lot of baggage because of their background, and we take them through self awareness classes so that it does not affect their work,” Leah says.

Learning life skills

Although basic, the training can be invaluable to girls who, in the past, have been dismissed for making simple mistakes.

Phanice Adisa, who worked for years as a house help before a friend told her about Mother Goose, says, “I learnt to take care of details like making sure to tuck in the sheets, when making beds and use newspapers to clean windows instead of a cloth.” She also learnt not to let personal issues affect the job: “Sometimes your employer may be reprimanding you about something on a day you are angry, so we are taught not to take it personally, but to continue working as usual.”

She took a particular liking to the life skills training, taking the lessons learnt beyond the job: One of the most important lessons I learnt was to be humble when dealing with the boss. I have taken this lesson to other areas of my life – like when I go home and a neighbor becomes confrontational, I walk away, instead of it escalating to a feud. So it has been of great benefit.”

The girls normally cannot afford the course, so fees are drastically subsidized or, sometimes, taught for free, and the money is recovered from the clients who hire the girls.

Training employers

The employer enters an agreement with the training organization James explains: “Before there was no agreement, girls would just begin working only to be sent away in the middle of the night if they have a capricious employer. We fight for their rights and can go as far as calling the police if it’s a criminal matter.”

The contract makes employers accountable, Leah explains: “It’s an employment contract like any other, stipulating salary (which is above the minimum wage stipulated by the law) annual leave, sick  leave, salary appraisal, statutory deductions. It is a totally new concept. Once an employer signs the contract, there are some things they will not do because they are bound by it.”

Even though employers are guaranteed that the worker will behave professionally and work well, some are reluctant to take on trained girls, James says. “There are those who would prefer an unskilled girl because they can pay as little as possible. It is not that they lack the money, they just want an easy way out.”  

“The market is very informal, so most do not want to get into any contract where they are controlled,” Leah says. Convincing employers who are conditioned to one way of working can be difficult, but that is not the only hurdle.

Training domestic workers, most of whom come from traumatic environments, means she has to go over and above her duty to make sure they are emotionally ready to handle employment. “They are used to speaking and doing things in a specific way. Sometimes it’s purely unconscious because of their context. So it becomes my responsibility to help them.”

Creating more employment

Current statistics show Kenya has about one million domestic workers in a population of nearly 50 million. However, if the industry is supported with proper regulation it can create many more jobs – “This industry can create employment; in fact, if supported it can create six million jobs,” James asserts.

“Putting structure is important – signing contracts, treating them well, allowing them to go to hospital, giving them leave and paying them well,” says Leah. “Only then are they able to organize their life, for instance building homes for their mothers, and educating children. But some domestic workers are treated so badly that they never want to work in the industry again; and yet those people could have stayed.”  

Jazza center and Mother Goose are making domestic work professional by equipping workers with skills to do their job better and protecting their rights. At the same time, they reveal the dignity of these home care tasks and give them the same importance as any other profession.

Marie Mulli

Marie Mulli is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker living in Nairobi, Kenya.