NAIROBI - Beatrice Atieno started working as house help in 1993. Now in her late 50s with more than two decades on the job, the Nairobi-based single mother of three says this is her life.
She and fellow domestic workers don't get the respect they deserve in Kenya, she says, so her employer's negative reaction to parliament's recent minimum wage hike comes as no surprise.
In addition to Kenyan Labor Secretary Raychelle Omamo's announcement regarding increased pay for domestic laborers, the new regulation also entitles house help to weekly days off and overtime compensation.
The announcement caused an uproar on social media, where employers argued against the increase, calling the 12 percent increase, which will raise salaries from about $97 a month to nearly $110, too high.
Virtually no protection
But before the law passed, few protections existed for domestic workers such as Atieno, who see it as a slim ray of hope — for workers and employers alike. Some maids and nannies in Kenya earn as little as about $15 a month, she says, adding that many aren't educated or able to advocate for their own rights.
“It’s not good if human beings ... live together yet despise each other," she said. "It doesn’t make sense if someone works for you and you despise her. How do you expect her to do for you a good job? Yet this is the person you leave in your house and looks after your children. You are supposed to respect that person so that she works well for you.”
And it's not restricted to matters of mutual respect, she adds, but also issues of labor exploitation, regulatory oversight, and, in some cases, physical abuse.
“There are times you work for someone then you are denied your right of pay," she said. "It’s bad. For some, when you go ask for your pay, they beat you up and so you go to the police, you go to court, yet they know very well that it is your right.”
For younger workers such as Josephine Nimile, and 18-year-old who dropped out of school due to overly high tuition, a guaranteed minimum salary means she might have future after all.
“The way the government has increased the salary is a good thing because this is just a job like any other and it should be respected," she said. "If your boss treats you well, of course you will take care of her house and children with all your heart.”
Protection for employers
Nancy Navalia, also a Nairobi-based domestic worker, says the legislation also helps to protect employers against disgruntled laborers who inevitably find ways to avenge lousy working conditions.
“If you pay you house help very little salary, if she finds your child’s clothes, she will pick it and take it to her child. If she picks a spoon, she will keep it. Theft is as a result of very little salary," she said. "If someone pays you well, you will be able to budget and organize yourself very well, buy your own sugar oil. What contributes to theft is poverty."
The law that set minimum pay for domestic workers in Kenya was first enacted in 2011 to align the country with the International Labour Organization guidelines aimed at improving work conditions for those employed in the informal economy.
Kenya has been struggling to fully implement this law in each and every household.
Any employer found in breach of the new rules risks serving a jail term of three months or a fine equivalent to $500.