Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Treat them decently; they deserve it.

The law is never clear, and anyone who suggests it is is selling you a bridge in London. The National Social Security Fund Act and Legal Notice No. 159 of 2009, read in the context of the Domestic Workers Convention of 2011, make legal provisions for contributions by employers to the retirement funds of domestic workers. Some have struggled to make a distinction between domestic workers and casual labourers, while others argue that the distinction is meaningless in that retirement benefits' contributions by employers for their employees must be made.

Ever since the State set the minimum wage for domestic workers at around sh 10,000 in Nairobi and, because of the Domestic Workers Convention, threatened to enforce the minimum wage, a debate has raged whether it is possible for hard-pressed white-collar workers in Nairobi (as well as many more blue-collar ones) to afford the services of domestic workers at the recommended minimum wage. With the recent announcement by the National Social Security Fund that employers must remit the workers' contributions to the Fund or face prosecution, the debate has only become more agitated. It is only a matter of time that the National Hospital Insurance Fund announces that it too will enforce the requirement for employers to ensure that domestic workers' contributions to that Fund are remitted too by their employers.

Conversations by those that engage the services of domestic workers, especially women, are revealing. Many of them are in white-collar professional positions. Indeed, many of them can afford not just the minimum wage, but the contributions to the NHIF and NSSF. many tend to be married women in the prime of their careers with young children in need of care. The engagement of the services of domestic workers frees these women to concentrate on their careers and other aspects of their professional and personal lives. In other words, those that have domestic workers usually tend to thrive both personally and professionally.

The lot of the domestic worker, unfortunately, is not so rosy. A tiny minority of domestic workers are educated beyond primary school level. Those that have secondary school or tertiary education, tend to have completed their education in the bottom quartiles of the rankings. There are a few who were bright students. many seem to share the same predicaments of poverty and lack of opportunity when it comes to their educational and economic advancement. For the most part, when they offer their services as domestic workers, especially in "middle-class" homes, they do so at a great information disadvantage. They rarely understand the labour environment in which their services are being exploited. frequently, they mistakenly believe that they give up their rights when they become domestic workers. therefore, it is rare for them to report sexual, physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their employers. It is also very rare to find them trained in many of the basics of maintaining a home for someone else or their family; they rarely know first-aid or key information in cases of emergency.

Domestic workers subsidise our very comfortable lives. Whether one is wealthy or not, the services of a domestic worker are invaluable in freeing up time to pursue other income-generating activities. If we were to pay for their services at the true market rate, we would have less disposable income to invest in other income-generating activities, and we would reduce the amount of hours we engaged their services. It has been argued by many that when their domestic employees live full-time in their homes, they are effectively providing room and board, healthcare and security for not cost at all and therefore, there is very little need to not only pay them the prevailing minimum wage but to also make their NSSF and NHIF contributions. This is facetious and immoral.

The hundreds of thousands of shillings we save annually when we engage the services of domestic workers could and should go towards decent pay and working conditions. we may quibble about the interpretation of the law on this matter, but we should not when it comes to the question of treating our fellowman decently. It is immoral and cruel to keep them cooped up in our homes for the whole day, pay them a pittance, work them like donkeys, and pretend that room and board are sufficient compensation for their daily predations. Many employers complain of the thieving by domestic workers, the poor quality of work and the substandard care of their children without linking these issues to how they treat their domestic workers. It is time we woke up to the realisation that without them, our lives would be more expensive and difficult. It is time we started treating them (and training them) like the professionals they are.

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