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Feature: Abused and deceived: The distressing reality of domestic workers in Ethiopia

Studies indicate that an overwhelming majority (85%) of child domestic workers in Ethiopia are subjected to conditions tantamount to the worst forms of child labor (Photo: Population Council)

Addis Abeba – The plight of Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East has gained significant attention domestically, as stories of abuse, mistreatment, and violence against female domestic workers have been widely reported. Nevertheless, amid the focus on the situation abroad, the challenges faced by domestic workers within Ethiopia’s own borders often go unnoticed.

Alemnesh Daniel (name changed for safety concerns) rises before sunrise, faithfully following this routine for the past three years. Her flimsy mattress offers little relief from the hard floor she calls her bed. Slowly, she gets up, her body aching, preparing for yet another grueling day of work. Alemnesh works as a domestic worker for a middle-class family residing in the Akaki Kality district. Her parents, who live 260 kilometers southwest of Addis Abeba in the Hadiya zone, arranged for her to secure this backbreaking job.

Alemnesh describes her arrival at her current job destination in her own words: “My parents informed me about coming to stay with relatives when they sent me here,” she told Addis Standard. “Once I arrived, my relatives expected me to manage all the household responsibilities.”

Despite being just fifteen years old, Alemnesh carries a wide range of household responsibilities that extend beyond ordinary chores. Early in the morning, she dutifully prepares a meal, the first of many tasks that await her. She then focuses on the household’s two children, ensuring they are ready for school. From there, her day becomes an unrelenting pursuit of maintaining the home. Cleaning, doing laundry, and attending to various household needs occupy every moment of her time.

Most concerning of all is the fact that, despite her relentless dedication to the household, Alemnesh herself is not enrolled in school. Her days and nights are consumed by labor, leaving her aspirations for education unfulfilled.

In bustling cities like Addis Abeba, there is a growing population of young girls like Alemnesh who are employed as live-in domestic workers. According to a conservative estimate, there are at least 248,600 women employed as domestic workers in Ethiopian cities. Information from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOLSA) reveals that approximately 1.5% of the country’s female population is currently engaged in domestic work.

Multiple studies have consistently highlighted the distressing work environments and human rights violations faced by these domestic workers. These alarming conditions include the lack of formal contracts, excessive working hours, intrusions into personal privacy, and disturbing incidents of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

A research study published by the Population Council in 2022 has shed light on the alarming conditions faced by child domestic workers. On average, these children are working for an astonishing 55 hours each week, with a quarter of them toiling for over 70 hours. Shockingly, 40% of these young workers don’t even get a single day of rest in a week. To make matters worse, nearly half of these laborers (48%) earn a mere average of 1,117 birr ($24) per month.

This study further reveals that an overwhelming majority (85%) of child domestic workers are subjected to conditions tantamount to the worst forms of child labor, thus violating the UN Convention. Additionally, around 22% of these children reported experiencing physical violence; while a concerning 34% reported enduring emotional abuse at the hands of their employers.

The violence against domestic workers has intensified in recent times due to various disturbing news reports of domestic workers harming or even causing the deaths of children under their care. Understandably, these horrific acts have ignited public outrage, anxiety, and intense debate. On social media platforms, many people have reacted by stereotyping domestic workers, promoting distrust, and even suggesting a complete avoidance of hiring them.

A housewife and mother of two living in Yeka Abado Condominium, who chose to remain anonymous, expresses her lack of trust in domestic workers, especially regarding the safety of her children, influenced by news reports she has witnessed.

In the midst of heightened emotions, experts say it is crucial to approach this issue objectively. They argue that the violence and discrimination against domestic workers are deeply rooted and have existed for years.

Tirsit Sahle, PhD, an assistant professor of anthropology at Addis Ababa University’s Institute of Ethiopian Studies, explains that domestic workers have long been subjected to exploitation, receiving wages below the minimum standard. “They are expected to work long hours, often from early morning until midnight, resulting in an unrelenting 24/7 work schedule with minimal rest.”

Alemnesh can serve as an example in this regard, since she does not receive a salary for her tireless efforts. Instead, her earnings are sent back to her parents in Hadiya, supporting her family from afar. Most of those who do receive a salary are also paid less than what they deserve for their labor.

Despite being only fifteen years old, Alemnesh Daniel has been carrying out a diverse range of household duties for
the past three years (Photo: Addis Standard)

Just like Alemnesh, the majority of domestic workers come from rural areas. Born into impoverished families with a cultural expectation that women are solely responsible for domestic duties, Tirsit explains that domestic work often becomes the only option for unmarried or uneducated women in rural Ethiopia.

Many rural young women are also deceived into joining the domestic workforce. The anthropologist points out that many are brought by relatives under false pretenses of being educated, only to face exploitation, abuse, malnutrition, and denial of schooling upon arrival in the city.

Lombebo Tagesse, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Addis Ababa University’s School of Social Sciences, is currently researching the vulnerability of female domestic workers related to brokers and parents. Lombebo’s research reveals that parents and guardians play a role in facilitating their daughters’ employment, sometimes without their consent. They engage with brokers and employers, and in some cases, parents even collect a portion of their daughters’ earnings, subjecting them to challenging living conditions. This perpetuates a cycle of uncertainty and vulnerability, as parents may advise their daughters to seek employment in alternative households offering higher wages.

However, the central figures in facilitating domestic worker employment are brokers. Lombebo identifies two distinct categories of brokers. The first group consists of registered brokers who operate within government regulations and have official recognition. The second category comprises informal brokers. Surprisingly, Lombebo’s findings suggest that registered brokers often commit more abuse than their informal counterparts.

According to the sociologist, registered brokers bring large numbers of workers and house them in offices before their employment, often charging fees for their stay. Tragically, these workers face sexual harassment and abuse while under the broker’s roof. Even more concerning, Lombebo’s research uncovers instances where some brokers entice workers into sex work if they spend too long under their care.

The mistreatment and violence experienced by domestic workers, however, go beyond the participation of brokers and parents. According to Tirsit, the main offenders are frequently the employers themselves, who subject domestic workers to abuse in the less apparent setting of their own homes, which serves as their workplace.

However, there are contrasting perspectives on the issue from employers, as shared with Addis Standard. A teacher residing in Akaki Kality district stands firm in her defense, stating, “As someone who earns a modest salary, I ensure that I pay my domestic worker to the best of my ability and treat them well.”

Beside the goodwill of employers, there is no comprehensive legal framework in Ethiopia that safeguards the interests of domestic workers and protects them against violence. Domestic workers are excluded from the labor proclamation approved by the parliament in 2004. Although the proclamation was legislated to govern worker-employer relations, it is not yet applicable to the contracts of domestic workers.

Experts emphasize that this is because of a lack of regulation to govern the relationship between domestic employees and employers. Although the labor proclamation has indicated that a special regulation for domestic workers will be issued by the Council of Ministries, such a regulation has yet to be implemented. Lombebo and Tirsit strongly advocate for the establishment of clear laws and policies to effectively regulate this sector.

While registering recruitment brokers can be seen as a move towards oversight, Lombebo highlights that these intermediaries have unfortunately become some of the worst offenders. He suggests the regular assessment of brokers and their operations. Furthermore, Lombebo recommends the implementation of short training courses for domestic workers, who often lack the necessary knowledge and skills to protect themselves from exploitation by employers and brokers alike.

Tirsit sees domestic work as a form of slavery. “Therefore, the long-term goal should be its abolition,” she stated. However, Tirsit recognizes that current social conditions do not allow for such action, thus suggesting short-term solutions such as raising awareness among workers and employers about their rights. Most importantly, Tirsit advocates for the education of domestic workers, as many are presently denied their rights due to a lack of awareness.

Unfortunately, it appears that domestic workers like Alemnesh will not find any respite or opportunity to pursue formal education in the near future. Their days and nights are completely consumed by arduous labor, which leaves their hopes for education tragically unattainable.

Yet, this does not deter Alemnesh from expressing her desire for a different life: “I yearn for the opportunity to lead a life where I can enjoy the simple pleasures of childhood, play freely like other children, and attend school every morning.” AS

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