We Need to Calm the Chaos that Domestic Workers Endure

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By Luke Kannemeyer

Life feels like a high-wire act these days. Chances are that you and everyone you know have been dealing with a heightened sense of anxiety. The world is being shaken by a slew of climate disasters, rocketing inflation, energy crises, and supply shortages. Most of us didn’t think we’d be talking about ‘the war’ in the present tense, but here we are.

Nigerians have also endured terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, unemployment, and inadequate power supply. Whether you’re completely strung out or noticing a persistent buzz of worry, these events have taken their toll. Good mental health comes partly from having a fundamental support structure to rely on, but sometimes we don’t even know if the lights will be on for supper.

If you’re lucky, you have access to safety nets: loved ones to support you, savings in the bank, a religious community to connect with. The world might be imploding, but at least you know what the next few days and weeks in your life are going to look like.

Domestic workers often don’t.

One of the most jarring things that come across in our latest Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Workers Across Africa is how this profession is characterised by uncertainty and instability. Domestic workers do essential work in society and yet they are often among the first to lose their jobs in a tough economy. We’re all struggling, but for them, the situation is even more precarious.

In a ‘regular’ job, you’re protected by a contract and labour laws. You and your employer have certain obligations towards each other, and our social and legal structures keep you both in check. And while there are laws that are supposed to protect domestic workers too, domestic work happens in a private space, and so is difficult to regulate.

Earnings are a particular pain point. People are often unsure what to pay domestic workers and typically ask friends and family what they’re paying without necessarily considering any differences in the size of their home or the number of people and pets living there. The result is a flat rate regardless of the hours worked.

In addition, domestic work is notoriously undervalued, whether it’s done by a professional or by family members. Allowing individuals to decide what it’s worth based on their personal impressions means that wages are wildly subjective.

What domestic workers earn is barely enough to survive. At SweepSouth we found that, in terms of average pay, only those currently on our platform are earning above the minimum wage. We want domestic workers to earn a living wage, not just the minimum wage. Do you know what the minimum wage is? It’s ₦30,000 a month. That’s all. Most workers are earning less than that, and on average, they’re stretching those incomes to support three or four dependants.

Nor is this income steady. Domestic workers are engaged in a constant hustle to get work from multiple clients. Additionally, simply travelling to work is a challenge. Public transport systems are often crime-ridden, unreliable and particularly unsafe for women, who face the prospect of sexual harassment, assault, or robbery on a daily basis. The multiple dangers of the daily commute mean domestic workers are travelling in a state of hypervigilance, causing them distress before their workday even begins.

While there are too many problems here for any one person or company to solve, we can all provide something. SweepSouth offers a modicum of structure for professional domestic work, with our app giving access to regular employment opportunities.

The screening processes and rating system offer assurance to employers and enable workers to build a professional reputation in an industry where references might be hard to come by.

SweepStars aren’t obliged to only work via the app, but it’s become a go-to platform that they can fall back on when they lose jobs.

The pricing structure also helps regulate payments while educating workers and customers on what constitutes a fair wage. This is of particular importance as it means payment is not purely at the whim of homeowners, who, in turn, are able to think beyond the flat rates quoted by friends and family.

Be mindful of the uncertainty domestic workers are dealing with and try to mitigate that with whatever form of dependability you can provide: timely communication with workers, a nutritious meal, or access to safe and reliable transport.

Having one less thing to worry about can go a long way in improving quality of life. Not knowing what the next day will bring might sound exciting when you want an adventure, but it’s frightening when what you need is a job. The people who support us in our daily lives deserve the same sense of security that we need to thrive.

Luke Kannemeyer is the Interim Managing Director of SweepSouth

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