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Trapped Behind Closed Doors: The Plight of Domestic Workers in Kenya

31 Jan 2015
Jessica Watts
Students at the  East African Institute for Homecare Management, Nairobi.
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150 years ago today, the US Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. Hidden behind closed doors, the abuse of domestic workers is one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery in Kenya today.

Kenya conjures up images of archetypal Africa – boab trees dotting red plains, wild animals roaming free and the bright red of the Maasai tribes. But beneath the beauty, the issues of modern slavery affecting Kenya are real. Of the population of 43 million, almost 20 million are living in poverty. Driven to seek employment out of desperation, many citizens fall victim to illegal labour recruiters and traffickers. There is a high trend of unskilled girls and women from rural areas migrating to cities and towns for informal economic opportunities. Many seek employment as workers in private residences.

There is a high number of girls and young women from Kenya’s slums seeking domestic work in Nairobi. Uninformed of their rights, these women and girls are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Many women do not seek work through registered labour brokers due to the cost of placement agencies and competing opportunities to seek employment through informal networks. This renders their domestic employment unregulated and unprotected by labour law.

The cultural practice of child fostering (where relatives in cities host children from poorer rural areas to give them a better start in life in return for light housework) can be abused when the intensity of household chores jeopardises their ability to go to school.

On a recent field visit to Kenya, I spoke with Edith Morogo, a pioneer bringing change to the lives of domestic workers in Nairobi.

Edith Morogo sits across the table from me in a small, undecorated boardroom. We are in a building located off an unmarked potholed road in central Nairobi. The window is open and the sound of traffic and construction outside almost mutes her soft voice. Edith is taking me back to 2001, at the humble beginnings of the Centre for Domestic Training and Development (CDTD).

What started as a small personal project in Edith’s home has expanded into a thriving centre that trains young men and women to be empowered as domestic workers in the homes of families in Nairobi. The centre is the only of its kind in Kenya and trains more than 300 beneficiaries per year.

Edith leans back in her chair and smiles, telling me this vision has grown from her belief that when people are skilled, they can bargain for their rights.

The scourge of abuse towards household staff remains prevalent across Kenya yet, hidden behind closed doors in private homes, it is a crime that receives little attention. Young men and women with little education approaching the legal working age of sixteen often seek employment through corrupt agencies sprawled across the city.

Despite the majority agencies being registered by City Councils, authentication of their work practices is weak.  Deceitful and corrupt, these agencies take advantage of youth, placing them in homes of abusive employers where they can be exploited mentally, physically and sexually, be paid little to no wages, and where they are often the denied the freedom to eat, sleep or even leave the house.

Aware of the problem that persists hidden from the public eye, Edith saw a way of breaking this cycle. Inspired by up skilling her own domestic worker, Edith developed a pilot project to train girls from Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. Such a pioneer in this space was Edith that her original training notes from the centre were used to inform the official curriculum materials formulated by the government.

Now called the East African Institute for Homecare Management, the program operates on a loan system, the purpose of which, Edith explains, is to ask the boys and girls to contribute to their own empowerment. Upon completing their course, students are assisted to be placed in the homes of employers who undergo interview screening. The institute facilitates fair contracts between the employer and the employee ensuring paid leave, minimum wage and clear understanding of the employees’ rights.

We’ve been talking for over two hours, and Edith keeps remembering new information to add to the story. The one she has unravelled is unquestionably a feat of vision and tenacity. If Edith is aware that she is the raison d’etre for Kenya’s flagship domestic training programme, she does not show it. Instead, she sips her tea and tells me of stories of her budding students.

Jessica Watts works in research and policy at Walk Free AustraliaThis article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.