By Aisha Pandor, CEO, SweepSouth
Many of us rely on domestic workers to keep our houses, gardens, and sometimes even our lives in order. But even when an employer has what they feel is a good relationship with their domestic worker, chances are there’s a lot they don’t know about their employee’s life or the challenges they face on a daily basis.
And there are challenges — some of which are incredibly serious. That much was evident in the results of the 2021 SweepSouth Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Workers across Africa. The report, which included more than 7 000 respondents, shows that domestic workers face numerous mental, financial, and logistical hurdles on a daily basis.
For the first time this year, the annual Report polled domestic workers in Kenya and the results were enlightening. By understanding the challenges that domestic workers face, employers will be better placed to empathise with them and may even be in a position to help.
It may not come as a surprise that the survey showed that finances are a major challenge for domestic workers in Kenya. But what is shocking is that most earn less than they need to get through the month. On average, domestic workers are earning KSH 8,522, while their monthly living costs are KSH 10,731, meaning they’re forced to take on debt or reduce spending costs on vital items to make ends meet every month. In fact, 64% of Kenyan domestic workers are in debt.
A look at a breakdown of where the money is spent is revealing: 42% of it is spent on rent, 40% on food, and 22% on transport. Employers can help ease these expenses by occasionally providing a food pack or driving their domestic workers to transport hubs to help cut down on transport costs.
Caring for family
Across Africa, many domestic workers are the breadwinners in their families. According to the survey, in Kenya there are an average of 4.5 children in every worker’s household, with an average of 3.4 dependants. Additionally, 73% of the domestic workers polled were the main breadwinners in the household and 74% were single parents. In an economically fraught environment, that means a lot is riding on the money you pay your domestic worker. As an employer, you can ease some of that pressure by helping with things like stationery and school supplies for your domestic worker’s children.
Long commute times
If you think your commute to work is long and stressful (unless you’ve retained work-from-home habits post-pandemic), you should consider what your domestic worker has to go through every day.
According to the SweepSouth Survey, 78% of Kenyan domestic workers spend more than an hour every day getting to work and the same amount of time getting home. With Nairobi being one of the most congested cities on the planet, that’s hardly surprising. Those hours spent getting to and from work represent time that could be spent with their families or helping their children do their homework.
Employers can help alleviate this anxiety by allowing domestic workers to come into work and leave at non-peak times or picking them up and dropping them off at the nearest transport hub at the beginning and end of the day.
Stress and anxiety
With mounting debt, multiple mouths to feed, and long, stressful commutes it should hardly be surprising that domestic workers are stressed out according to the Report. The events of the past 18 months have, undoubtedly, only compounded that stress. Between fears of unemployment and being isolated from “normal” sources of comfort, like church attendance and spending time with their religious communities, their mental health has taken a double knock.
Employers would do well to remember this and to be open to talking about these issues. Sometimes an open ear or a kind word can go a long way. It is also a good idea to ask your domestic worker what would make their working experience more pleasant — after all, they spend a huge portion of their time at work. This may be as simple as being allowed to listen to music while working or having access to certain cleaning products. It’s crucial to let your domestic worker know that they can talk to you openly about what they’re feeling, without fear or reservation.
The importance of empathy
Ultimately, the most important thing the employers of domestic workers can do is to demonstrate empathy. Even if you’re not in a position to help your domestic worker with all of the challenges they face, you can acknowledge them and talk about their impact. It won’t fix everything, but a lot of people showing a little more compassion can go a long way.