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Convention brings hope to domestic workers

By Rukiya Makuma

Sandwiched between a dilapidated saloon and a kiosk, the domestic workers recruiting agency in Nakulabye is not easy to locate. The pinned posters advertising for maids and a single desk are the only proof that the discolored room is an office. At night the office doubles as a home to 30 girls seeking work. Thin mats are spread across the floor and each one is shared by two girls. The office does not provide meals and those girls who have some little money hold onto it carefully.

Shifra Arinaitwe, 19, was connected to her current employer through this agency. Arinaitwe’s employer resides in Nakulabye and has three children of school going age. Arinaitwe’s day begins at four o’clock when she wakes up to prepare breakfast, bathe and dress the children before they go to school. She is busy throughout the day and only rests at 10:00pm after putting the children to sleep and cleaning the supper dishes.

Arinaitwe explains that this is her second job as a maid. My first boss was so brutal. She always insulted and boxed me on several occasions, she says. When I threatened to report, I was thrown out of the house and was not given all my money.

Arinaitwe is five months into her new job and she earns Shs 30,000 a month. She says the children at her new place are big headed and do not respect her or anything she tells them. To them I am a destitute, she says. Arinaitwe has endured all kinds of insults but she is now used to them and just ignores them.

Though domestic work employs millions of workers, mostly women, around the world, domestic workers are amongst the most under privileged and most despised in Uganda.

Out of the six million domestic workers in Uganda, 50.2 percent are aged between20-21 and 44.3 percent are aged below 20 years and they can not handle most of the house chores assigned to them. Domestic workers include house maids, nannies, gardeners, butlers, and drivers.

Despite its growing social and economic significance, domestic work has been, and remains, one of the most low-paid, insecure and unprotected form of employment.

Domestic workers face a variety of problems including termination without notice, rape, poor pay, overwork and lack a bargaining power. Abuse and exploitation are common and the fact that they often live in the employer’s household, makes them vulnerable to verbal and physical violence.

In order to combat the issue, Platform for Labour Action (PLA) organized a half day workshop on Nov.12 at Serena hotel Kampala to put pressure on the government to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention on decent work for domestic workers.

Jackie Banya, the Ugandan representative of International Labor Organisation (ILO), says the recent conference was designed to offer a support call to the ILO convention that has been at the forefront of advocating for decent work for domestic workers since 1948.

Banya says the current laws protecting employees have not taken into consideration people who work behind doors. Domestic workers are the most unprivileged workers and they do not receive social protection from their employers like NSSF, nor do they receive an annual leave even though the Employment Act provides for such benefits.

Some of the proposed recommendations that might be included in the report once it’s passed include: the right to collective bargaining, protection of wages and protection from all forms of abuse. Employers would also have to provide food, medical testing, accommodation and a clear contract to the workers.

For its part, PLA advocates for fair treatment and the realization of workers rights at their work places, including domestic workers, and conducts outreach sessions in different parts of Kampala like Makindye and Nassana. The organization offers free legal treatment, prosecution, civil suits and mediation in courts to the maids whose rights have been violated.

In the past three years, PLA has been able to withdraw over 600 child employees from employers. 80 are in primary school and the rest attend vocational training institutions.

While addressing the conference, Lillian Mugerwa the Executive Director for PLA, says her organization decided to support the convention because domestic work is an occupation but it is not been recognized as a job by employers.

Most of these domestic workers have suffered at the mercy of dishonest employers because they do not know their rights, but PLA hopes to transform all this, she says.

Mugerwa says one of the reasons domestic workers are mistreated is because their labor is cheap, easily available, and there are no tough laws to protect them.

In many cases, employers recruit their own relatives as domestic workers and try to take advantage of them by not providing remuneration for their work. Mugerwa says there is need to regulate this arrangement.

Betty Namatovu, a domestic worker registered under Difra agency, says most of the maids who are abused are directly hired through the village and have no prior knowledge or sensitization of their rights and responsibilities; they think being beaten is part of the routine since they are domestic workers.

Most of these maids are either orphaned or too young, and have no immediate relatives or elderly people in the community to talk to because society has been brainwashed to believe that maids do not tire from chores no matter how cumbersome they may be.

Dick Francis Tumusiime, the Executive Director of Difra, argues the money domestic workers earn is simply too little and at Difra, any potential employer must commit to a minimum of Shs 50,000 a month in remuneration. No domestic worker from Difra earns below that.

The agency, which has been in place since 1990, supplies over 500 workers a year and before the domestic workers are taken, employers sign an agreement where the employers agree to treat the maids like human beings. Difra also encourages potential employers to check on the immediate next of kin of the worker in order to find out more about him or her and for further reference in the case of any incident.

However, many domestic workers are acquired through unregistered agencies whose only interest is to earn a commission. When an employer recruits a maid from the agency, the employer must pay the agency a minimum of Shs 30,000.

Joan Mirembe, a P4 dropout from Jinja , says the sprouting unregistered recruiting agencies do not help. When employers come looking for maids, the recruiting agent tells us what we should do and how we should treat the bosses, says Mirembe. They do not at anyone moment think that actually the bosses could be the problem.

She says when employers do not pay or take too long to pay the agent does nothing except post the maid to another available home.

Like Arinaitwe, Mirembe says the insults she receives from her bosses are often uncalled for and she is not given a chance to explain her situation.

Despite the harsh treatment, Mirembe, 33, has hopped from one house to another doing home chores for 12 years because she has three children of her own to fend for; her husband has other wives and several other children to look after.

Mirembe hopes to start her own business back in the village in a period of three years but currently she is living in Kansanga and earns Shs 40,000 a month.

Ojja Andira, the assistant commissar from the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development, attended the conference and says the government will support the convention because it aims at alleviating problems of domestic workers.

The ministry has polices to protect their rights, but the policies have not been effective enough because institutional structures to support these laws have been weakened. Local authorities in the districts have not seen the need to employ labor officers even though they could be critical in identifying cases where maids are mistreated.

Emmanuel Otaala the State Minister for Labour, who also participated in the conference, says the government will ratify the convention. He was presented with a petition by the domestic workers asking him on government’s behalf to help them establish laws that will protect them at their work places.

He urged the domestic workers to form a union because it is easier for them to raise one strong voice that is likely to be heard than individual voices which die in the crowd. Maids were previously catered for under the Hotels and Hospitality union but Otaala says they no longer belong to that category.

To date, the ILO has held similar conferences in Thailand, South Africa, Philippines, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania to reach a consensus on decent work for domestic workers. The ILO will hold their next meeting next year in Geneva to ascertain the findings and responses from various member countries. The first discussion was held in June 2010 at Geneva. The outcome will compel the ILO to adopt new specific international labor standards on domestic work.

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