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Analysis: Left in the Shadows: Child domestic labor amidst #COVID19

Ayele Woubshet @ayelewoubshet

Addis Abeba, April 15/2020 – For most of us living in Addis Abeba, it is neither uncommon nor surprising to see children from rural areas working as domestic laborers. We see it in our family gatherings, our friends’ homes or even use such labor in our own households. We are accustomed to hearing the justifications for this practice, the hardship these children face in rural areas and the supposed benefits they obtain when they move to the capital. However, we are also all too familiar with the working conditions of these children and can estimate its impact on their educational and personal development.

This is especially the case in times like these, where efforts to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus is expected to have a detrimental effect on the rights and welfare of domestic workers. With the International Labor Organization, the International Domestic Workers Federation, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International all designating domestic workers as being particularly vulnerable during this crisis, one would be remiss to overlook the level of employment insecurity, exploitation and abuse that domestic workers will be facing in the coming months.

Unfortunately, efforts to assess the economic impact of this pandemic have consistently overlooked this vulnerable section of our society and have instead opted for assessing its detrimental impact on those that are employed in the country’s formal employment sectors[. However, given the effects of this pandemic on the income of employers, the limitation of their movements and the additional cooking and cleaning demands that such social distancing measures will entail, it is expected that domestic workers will be working in what some are calling a dangerous, insecure and stressful work environment. 

This risk of exploitation is further amplified for child domestic workers, as the separation from their parents, the closure of schools and the resulting expectation to do more household work will have a detrimental effect on their social, mental and personal development.

As such, in light of the increased vulnerability of children during this crisis and the continued exclusion of domestic workers from the country’s Covid-19 discourse, this article seeks to reflect upon the entrenched social practice of employing child domestic workers in Addis Abeba. 

The Effects of Child Domestic Labor

Although one would be hard-pressed to find figures that accurately describe the magnitude and working conditions of child domestic labor in Addis Abeba, the negative impacts of this practice have been repeatedly acknowledged by both national and international institutions. For example, in its National Children’s Policy, National Employment Policy & Strategy[ and its National Human Rights Action Plan the Ethiopian government has consistently characterized this practice as being exploitative and severely detrimental to the child’s overall development.

Similarly, international human rights institutions like the International Labor Organization, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child have repeatedly identified the detrimental effects of this practice and have continued to call on the Ethiopian government to effectively prosecute those that perpetuate child domestic labor in the country.

However, very little has been done by the Ethiopian government to combat this entrenched social practice. Whilst some political pundits and government appointees attribute this to the absence of child labor laws in the country’s legal system, it is important to address this assumption by analyzing those national and international legal instruments that already regulate child domestic labor in Ethiopia.

Child Domestic Labor & Ethiopia’s Labor Code

“The lives of Ethiopia’s domestic workers largely depend on their employers’ sense of fairness.” In a recent interview, a former federal prosecutor cited the legal gaps found in Ethiopia’s Labor Code as the main reason why employers feel a sense of impunity when employing and exploiting child domestic workers[.

This commonly held view is not without its merits, as it is based on an assessment of Ethiopia’s legislative track-record over the last 27-years. Whether one looks at the Labor Proclamations of 1993, 2003 or 2019, these important pillars of the Labor Code have repeatedly and unequivocally refrained from regulating what they define to be “contracts of personal service.” (See Labor Proclamation No. 42/1993 Art 3(2)(d); Labor Proclamation No. 377/2003 Art 3(2)(d); Labor Proclamation No. 1156/2019 Art 3(2)(d) ).

It is because of this legal vacuum that pundits and legal commentators have continued to criticize the Ethiopian government for maintaining this informal and de-regulated employment sector. Furthermore, given that these domestic workers cannot rely on those sections of the Labor Code that regulate the working age, working hours and working conditions in the country, it is a commonly held belief that workers in this informal sector, regardless of their age, are unable to enforce their fundamental rights.

However, such an assessment fails to provide a holistic picture of Ethiopia’s legal framework, as it overlooks those national and international human rights instruments that can overcome the shortcomings of Ethiopia’s Labor Code.

The Legality of Child Domestic Labor

For example, in accordance with the supreme law of the country, the Ethiopian government has an immediate obligation to protect those fundamental rights that are enshrined in Article 36 of the Ethiopian Constitution. In fact, given the wide scope of this article, the Constitution goes a long way in safeguarding children from exploitative work that may be detrimental to their best interest, education or overall well-being. Similarly, as international instruments that directly inform Ethiopia’s legal system, both the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC ) [Art 5(2); Art 21(1)] and the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC ) [Art 19(1); Art 27(2); Art 32(1); Art 36] have similar articles that protect children from exploitative employment practices that are detrimental to their normal growth and overall development. But as Dr. Kibri Hailu, Director at the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs admitted “We are not working seriously on child labor (particularly) on domestic workers.”

Another legal avenue that is available for victims of child domestic labor in Ethiopia is a commonly overlooked proclamation called the Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Proclamation. As a law that came into effect in 2015, this important proclamation is relevant to the issue of child domestic labor because it seeks to protect those fundamental rights that have been enshrined in Ethiopia’s Constitution and those international human rights instruments that have been ratified by the country.

In fact, given the regularity in which child domestic workers migrate from the rural areas of the country, this proclamation is instrumental in protecting children from those that wish to capitalize on their economic vulnerability by promising to provide them a decent education or better access to economic opportunities.

To that end, this proclamation has effectively criminalized those acts in which a person uses coercion, deception, promises or the vulnerability of another person in order to recruit, transport or receive a child for the purposes of exploitation. Furthermore, given that this proclamation also bars individuals from either giving or receiving any benefits for the purposes of obtaining a parent’s consent, one could argue that this important piece of legislation directly regulates the type of child domestic labor that we observe in the capital city.

Whether it is the promise of obtaining a better education or the material benefits that are given to the parents of child domestic workers, we are accustomed to hearing how these children migrate to Addis Abeba. We know how the consent of both the children and their parents is obtained. But most of all, we know the reality they face when they arrive in the capital; the long working hours and dire working conditions that directly hinders their fundamental right to personal, educational and social development.

The Human Rights Perspective

It is therefore erroneous to suggest that the continuing exploitation of child domestic workers in Ethiopia is solely the result of those legal gaps that the Ethiopian Labor Code has left unaddressed.  Although the Labor Code should be expeditiously amended in order to regulate the working conditions within this informal sector, the rights of child domestic workers in particular could still be justifiable in Ethiopia’s legal system if one relies on those national and international human rights instruments that the Ethiopian government is obligated to enforce. Whether it is the country’s Constitution, the UNCRC, the ACRWC or the Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Proclamation, each of these legal instruments provide an avenue in which child domestic workers could potentially enforce their fundamental rights.

However, by only framing child domestic work as an immoral labor issue, critics have failed to engage with those human rights instruments that could potentially provide redress to victims of this highly exploitative practice. Given that this narrow conceptualization has also hindered key governmental institutions like the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs and the Office of the Attorney General from properly defining this issue and enforcing the relevant articles of the law, re-framing this entrenched social practice as a human rights violation could be the difference between redress for the victims and impunity for the offenders. AS 

Editor’s Note:

Ayele Woubshet is a graduate of Oxford Brookes University’s School
of Law and is currently working as a junior researcher at the
Institute for Strategic Affairs (ISA)

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