Here is the dramatic case of an 18-year old domestic worker of Ntungamo District (Uganda), who died due to violence by her employer.  “Due to non – payment by her employer Amanda[1] quit her job. On February 20th 2014, while she was at her brother’s home (her parents died when she was 5), her employer Ms. P. N. invited her to pick her salary for the last three months worked (150.000 USH or 45.56 USD). When she got to her employer’s home, hoping to be paid, Amanda was tied up with ropes, beaten up, paraffin poured all over her body and set on fire[2].  Police succeeded in freeing Amanda and get her into  hospital where she deceased after 17 days of horrible sufferings. Almost two years later, justice has still not brought the employer to justice.

The case is not unique: in Burundi, Pierre Y’s  employer poured boiling water over him when he came to get his money.

Fortunately, all domestic workers from Sub-Saharan Africa are not subject to the same ultimate treatment. Domestic work is in fact an accepted tradition for many youngsters in the area. Nevertheless, a large majority of them are treated as «sub-humans » as explains Marcel Z., a domestic worker in Rwanda.

The status of quasi-slavery of domestic workers in Sub-Saharan Africa was recently revealed by surveys conducted by IDAY, a network of African civil society coalitions, as part of an ongoing 3-year project co-financed by the European Union. The surveys covered 22.072 respondents – 13.296 domestic workers and 8.776 employers – in 5 countries : Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.

They demonstrate that the degrading treatment of domestic workers is not limited to Arabian and Asian countries often covered by media reports but are also widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Their number, for instance, proves to be much larger than earlier reports suggested: more than 8 million in the 5 project countries and hence, on the basis of extrapolated estimates, at least double that figure for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.

On average, 1/3 of domestic workers in the area are below 18 years old but this rate increases to 43% in DRC. In that country, 95% of the domestic workers claim to have been victim of moral or physical abuse. Working conditions are horrid: 10 to 11 working hours per day, no official day free, low or no salary, limited access to education or training.

On average, 11% of the interviewed domestic workers, never went to school and only 44% finished their primaries but nowhere does one find a reference to the special needs of domestic workers in official Education For All (EFA) campaigns. Nevertheless, surveys reveal that 2/3 of them want to pursue schooling. “I am a domestic in my own family” complains a young girl in Kivu who had to quit school because of poor results due to late arrival each day because she first had to complete domestic work imposed by her mother. Tracey, a young domestic worker in Kinshasa, has trouble retaining her tears when she recounts the time when her employer accused her – wrongly as it turned out – of theft and threatened not to pay the training centre fees where she was given literacy and foreign language courses with training in sowing. It shows how important education is for these youngsters who know that it is the only way to escape their quasi-slavery conditions.

What are the solutions ? Most prominently, obtain that governments ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on domestic workers signed by all its members in June 2011. Only 2 African countries have ratified it so far: South Africa and Mauritius.

Ratification is of capital importance, first because C189, as it is called, seeks to guarantee decent working conditions by the adaptation of national legislation in terms of working rights, in particular in terms of length of work, weekly rest, limited payments in kind, clear employment terms and conditions and respect of the fundamental principles of working conditions, including the right to join unions and collective bargaining negotiations.

Secondly, domestic work should not deprive youngsters below 18 to go to school or receive appropriate training. For those above that age, training channels must be adapted to their working conditions with at the end a certificate recognized by the government. In Africa, the job market for domestics is expanding with the growth of the middle class. Experience in IDAY-sponsored schools, shows that once properly trained and with an official certificate in their hands, domestic workers are granted better working conditions with higher salaries (up to 10 times the original level in Burundi) and are respected by their employers.  The IDAY program seeks to create training centers at hours adapted to the local working schedule of domestic workers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The role of the media to put the sufferings of the Sub-Saharan African domestic workers to an end, is of critical importance to help local civil society get their governments to support their initiatives. We ask that the media denounce the quasi-slavery working conditions of the Sub-Saharan African domestic workers, just as they do for those in other regions. One must at all cost avoid the repetition of the drama suffered by Amanda, Pierre and many others.

Detailed documentation on the situation in each of the participating countries is available at http://invisibleworkers.eu

[1] All names changed to protect their privacy.

[2] Extract of the report ordonned by IDAY and executed by the Ugandan branch of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse & Neglect (ANPPCAN).