Domestic workers work in the sphere of our private lives where they perform essential care work, in conditions that are mostly unregulated and hidden from public view. This raises the risks of facing dehumanization and abuse from the people they work for. This kind of abuse is disturbingly normalized and accepted in society. Often the sympathy is with the ‘discomfort’ that wealthy and middle-class people experience in having ‘intruding witnesses’ in their homes.
Having another person share the family home and take up the bulk of the care work is not without complications. In my work, I met someone who had dismissed her domestic worker to “protect” her marriage. She shared that she became suspicious of her dressing in a manner that seemed to seduce her husband. This story is not an isolated one. It is business as usual for many young women employed in homes to be subjected to unfair treatment and dismissal due to suspicion and jealousy while also being highly vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse.
In 2009, a Ugandan national newspaper ran a commentary on “How to stop a house-help from destroying your relationship.” One of the respondents shared: “Since it is commonly house-girls that disorganise men, wives should make sure that they are strict about the way she dresses to avoid seduction. She must not take over the wife’s duties, especially concerning the husband. Also, some maids are denied free-time to go out and socialise. Since the maid has no boyfriend, she takes advantage of the male boss.” In this commentary, there’s no recognition that what is home to the employer is a workplace for the domestic worker.
Employers prescribing their domestic workers how to dress and behave to spare them feelings of insecurity within their own homes is in the long history of oppression. Colonizers made sure the ‘servant’ wore a uniform to separate them from the house they were working in. Today in some middle and upper classed African homes, domestic workers still wear uniforms even where they live in the same place. This obsession with domestic workers’ dressing is an extension of society’s grip on women’s bodies.
Ten years after that commentary, a renowned female artist in Uganda came out on national television in 2019 and admitted that she had abused and assaulted a domestic worker she had employed. In many interviews, she commented: “it was just slaps”. She also claimed that there are other people who have done worse to their domestic workers and accused the media of ‘blowing the slaps out of proportion’ – after all, they were just slaps. Another employer commented on a domestic worker she had seen: “I once saw a maid who was very pregnant, she looked like the madam of the house”. Are domestic workers not allowed to bear children?
Recently colleague’s domestic worker came to work with a cough one day, and a week later, the whole family was down with COVID-19. Concerned friends advised my colleague to let go of her since ‘you can’t trust someone who brought COVID-19 into your home’ and because ‘you don’t know where she has been.’ Listening to this same old violence against poor women working in our homes like my colleague couldn’t have been infected with COVID-19 out there was concerning.
These are some of the few visible cases of abuse against domestic workers. The reality of sexual abuse is rarely engaged; the issue is always framed as seduction. The poor, often underage girl, is made responsible for the criminal actions of adults who are their employers.
Roots of dehumanization
From the degrading language used when speaking to and about domestic workers to how they are treated. It is common for employers to forbid the employee from leaving the house, consuming the same meals as the family consumes, visiting their family, or even speaking to anyone outside the household (including the neighbors). This sordid insistence that domestic workers are not allowed a life beyond the employer’s home, while at the same time treating domestic workers in such dehumanizing ways plays out like a carefully orchestrated strategy aimed at robbing domestic workers of their sense of self and personal autonomy. For many employers, control and abuse are acceptable ways of ‘managing’ the awkward witnessing of the details of their lives by an outsider. For other employers, dehumanizing their domestic workers is justifying the unequal treatment they receive within the home.
There are often tensions and erratic swings between attempts to treat domestic workers as ‘members of the family’ and mistreating them to reinforce the domestic worker’s subordinate position in relation to the employers.
LikeShireen Ally writes: “Employers strategically manipulate intimacy and affective relations, not only to mask the relationship as one of waged work but also to obfuscate the dramatic inequalities in the domestic employment relationship through tropes, especially of kinship, that suggest equality. Discomfort with the inextricability of domestic workers from their intimate personal lives, however, equally results in various attempts to create and maintain social and physical distance, often through dehumanizing practices”
Zuzana Uhde in her paper– categorizes relationships between employers and domestic workers into four major forms: the paternalistic and maternalistic relationship, the instrumental relationship, the relationship of contractual professionalization and the relationship of personalism. The paternalistic relationship is typical of the traditional culture of servitude where the employer treats the domestic worker as a servant. “Paternalism refers to broader social structures which are a residue of the feudal society. It is a protectionist but control relationship of feign benevolentness thereby creating the illusion of mutuality in the relationship and of loyalty. Paternalism, nonetheless, represents a relationship of rigid hierarchy which only seemingly pursues the interests of the subordinate, and this pretence is used to establish the subordinate’s commitment and devotion to the superior.” She further notes: “It is a form of address which puts domestic workers in the role of immature and incompetent beings, a form of control over their behaviour and life, presenting them with valueless things (old clothes, leftovers, etc.), providing superior advice.
Like in other countries, in Uganda, domestic work is traditionally a highly feminized occupation. Gender discrimination and class are thus interwoven with the problems of legal regulation for domestic work. This is exacerbated by the current context of global capitalism, which has created a second-rate employment sector characterized by employing mainly women from vulnerable groups (including poor women, widowed women, young/teenage mothers, and migrant workers). Meanwhile, labor legislation does not even recognize domestic work and often excludes domestic workers from access to rights and protections enjoyed by other categories of workers.
Due to the privacy of the domestic work setting, exposing and removing subordination and exploitation from this institution is extremely difficult. Domestic workers are almost universally employed as individuals (not collectively) in private households (not informal workplaces). They are frequently employed part-time, in many cases “informally” (without regard for legal requirements). Few institutions of labor law are applicable or accessible to them.
Where do we go from here?
The starting point is to recognize and understand the oppressive realities that domestic workers are faced with daily – the problems, deprivations, humiliations, and abuses – as well as their causes and effects. The second step is to look at this as a labor issue, and therefore an employment issue and consequently a development issue – because that is what it is. In recent years, intensive campaigning and research by feminist collectives and women’s rights organisations has seen some ground gained. The realities faced by domestic workers are no longer a secret kept hidden in the privacy of employers’ homes, and their social origins are much more clearly understood. We are now witnessing more domestic workers organising.
More feminist institutions must ramp up efforts of supporting domestic workers, build bargaining power through trade unions and other collectives. Workers who are strongly organized are better placed to resist infringements of their rights and are supported to pressure government and employers to address problems. But lack of organization cannot be understood in isolation from the legal framework. The constitutional right to organize is intended to be promoted by creating practical opportunities to organize for all workers, not only those in standard employment. In practice, however, this is not the case.
If we are to address the dehumanization of domestic workers, we have to urgently penalize the behavior from employers; support domestic workers’ organising; broaden social protection nets for vulnerable workers. We must address the gaps in the legal framework regarding how labour rights are designed and enforced.
Elizabeth Kemigisha is a feminist human rights lawyer from Uganda. She is interested in women economic justice work; Trafficking and better migration management; Cooperate accountability and sexual minorities rights.