On this Labor Day, as workers around the world march through the streets or gather in large stadiums to celebrate achievements in their respective sectors, what is there for domestic workers in Kenya.
They will take stock of hours of overwork, minimum wages ever collected, incidences of physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse; and the corpses of their peers arriving daily from Middle Eastern countries. On this Labor Day, as the name suggests, they’ll probably be working more because even though it’s a holiday, it’s their “deserving” employers who will be taking the day off.
Amid the cries of children and the sound of pots and pans; they will hear, through their employer’s televisions, great speeches from union leaders about the achievements of workers in other sectors, government leaders’ wage-rise pledges for underpaid workers, and more. But like every other Labor Day, none of the speeches are likely to mention their core industry, domestic work. For the masters/mistresses, domestic workers are not valued actors in the industry, and domestic work is not really one.
While they also deserve time off with family and friends or tending to personal commitments, they will surely be cooped up in kitchens for endless hours delivering the sumptuous meals and drinks that their employers will toast and cheer, with their families and friends; After all, it’s Labor Day! While employers will have automated their “out of office” responses to anyone who dares email them; domestic workers will steal moments from the middle of their busy day to stand on apartment balconies to answer calls or texts from loved ones explaining why they can’t be home on Labor Day.
As their employers splash heavy April paychecks at parks, restaurants and liquor stores, they’ll be busy borrowing from the litany of popular digital money lending platforms to pay for wanted goods on credit. to provide for their families back home, because even though it is May Day, they have not yet received their April salaries.
Driven by poverty and lack of opportunity, unemployed domestic workers, popular with their nickname “Mama Fua” (women who wash clothes), will pass through Nairobi’s leafy, gated suburbs, knocking from door to door seeking casual jobs. For the lucky ones, they will spend six to eight hours scrubbing, scrubbing and cooking for a paltry 500 Sh.
Whether they are sitting along the gates of the estate, standing on the balconies of the mansion, or chaperoning the screaming children in the playgrounds, they will all take stock of their tribulations; payment of wages below the legal minimum, long working hours, lack of formal contracts, absence or restriction of freedom of association by employers, denial of food and other basic needs, servitude by confiscation of identity documents , termination of services when employers are on leave and lack of social security.
On this day, just like days past, the government will be discreet about the application of the legal minimum wage; policy makers will strangely not remember that ILO Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers has not been ratified. Employers will continue to ignore formal contracts when hiring domestic workers.
The writer is a director at Oxfam, Kenya