The Struggle Begins at Home: Domestic Worker Rights in Ethiopia

Recently I worked on a project on domestic workers in Addis Ababa, a short film project trying to highlight the stories of women in this field of work so their perspective and hardship is documented in a manner that triggers the necessary conversation. I worked on this project with Hiwot Emishaw, an author who wrote a short story about the same issue. In one of our many chats she said

“I think one of the biggest problems in solving the issue of domestic workers is that we, activists for gender equality, often don’t imagine the domestic worker as one of the women we are fighting for.”

This really resonated with me because so many of us fight for so many causes but often fail to start from the basics. We forget to reflect on how social constructs have affected our homes. We take some things for granted and often forget to honestly reflect. It is ironic that middle class women that work for the rights of women everywhere often do not extend the benefits to the women living in their own households. How many of us are currently doing that?

Before we go further, I want to ask all our readers to keep an open mind to the ideas and subjects raised in this article. This is an attempt to reflect on an already existing power structure, it is not meant to be judgmental. It does not disregard the heavy responsibility put on women in our home. But it should always be a priority to question the very basics of our daily lives. The pressures one faces to support homes and family are real and so are these experiences.

Most households have domestic workers carrying a larger burden of the home chores in Addis Ababa. Unfortunately, the rights and duties of the domestic workers are a largely unregulated and undocumented phenomenon.

Where there is a vacuum of order and structure, a system of uncertainty has prevailed. Domestic work as it is now is so peculiar because it takes away certain freedoms that we know as fundamental.

The way domestic workers are treated in Ethiopia is largely inherited from how feudal families use to threaten their slaves during the time of the monarchy era. They were traditionally called ‘Gereds”, expected to be available 24 hours, no days off and no opportunities for personal or even craft development. And this has not changed much today. Domestic workers live in house, there are no limitations to working hours, they allowed to leave the house (to meet family and friends) once a month. Domestic workers that don’t go to school or should not have any dreams of personal development outside this industry are preferred.

So essentially, domestic workers in Ethiopia are expected to be available to give services at any hour, with no specific set of responsibilities and duties and no vacation which largely decreases their social interaction. Domestic workers are unlikely to develop friendship and romantic relationships and there is no responsibility on the side of the employees to provide opportunities for learning or professional development. Also important to mention that the pay of a domestic worker varies quite widely and has no standard or clear expectations. This is in large due to the fact that their relationship with their employers stands unregulated through any contractual or legal document.

Their lack of protection is a product of a large legal and moral vacuum that the Ethiopian society has yet to be addressed. The legal vacuum was a purposeful act by the legislature on the basis that there would be difficulties of implementation of any legal obligation upon the employer. Additionally, the place of work being the same as the place of abode for domestic workers caters for a large segment of an uneducated population- majority women who have very little alternative options, which makes active efforts to address rights in this work almost futile.

Many domestic workers are most vulnerable to gender based violence. Because the majority number of domestic workers are women, they are likely to be raped or beaten by their employers.

The already existing economic and social power imbalance makes it impossible for them to share their stories because they often remain in the same environment as their abusers.

Lack of education limits their chances at seeking legal redress from their more powerful employers. It is important that this conversation is had among women because the relationship of domestic workers and their employers is often one between two women. But also while it must look to addressing greater concerns about home care work. This means conversations on how much home care work men are/should be taking on, to redistribute this labour and make the environment better for all.

For women committed to bringing more rights to women, the value of solidarity doesn’t hold only among peers but also for those who work under us. While a lot needs to be done to formalise domestic work and get the right legislative protections of workers, the nature of imbalance of who carries the most load in the world of homework must be addressed.

Mehret Berehe
Mehret Berehe

Mehret Berehe is a 2017 Mandel Washington Fellow and member of the Yellow Movement. She is currently working on her Master at Mekelle University.

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