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Why local domestic labour market has lost its shine

Many Kenyans are increasingly shunning domestic work, leaving it to foreigners from around the region as they seek greener pastures in Middle East countries. [iStockphoto]

There was a time when landing a house help job was akin to winning a Green Card lottery for many rural folks.

Not anymore. Many Kenyans are increasingly shunning domestic work, leaving it to foreigners from around the region as they seek greener pastures in the Middle East countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman.

During the Labour Day celebrations last year, retired President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a 12 per cent increase in the minimum wage, which should have come as a relief to house helps.

But this is far from the reality on the ground.

“Here in Kenya, if you decide to go by what the government sets, you will go for 50 years without business. You will close your bureau eventually. A majority of the clients looking for house helps are hustlers,” says Evans Muremi, who runs Ebbeva Care House Helps, an agency that recruits domestic workers.

According to the 2022 Economic Survey report by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), a house help (house servant) working in Nairobi, Kisumu or Mombasa is entitled to a minimum wage of Sh13,572 monthly.

If working in the former municipalities and town councils of Mavoko, Ruiru, and Limuru, the government-recommended wage is Sh12,522. The wage in other towns is Sh7,240.

This means if the 12 per cent minimum wage were to be effected, the least paid house help would make Sh8,108, with the highest paid taking home as much as Sh15,200 in the cities. But according to Mr Muremi, every potential customer has their own budget.

“They tell you I want a house help I can pay anything between Sh6,000 and Sh8,000. But in posh areas like Kileleshwa and Lavington, you can get someone offering Sh10,000 and above,” he says. 

Compared to salaries offered in The Gulf countries, which average Sh20,000, an offer of less than Sh10,000 in Kenya is definitely small.

“I have not taken anyone to those countries. I only refer those who want to go. Like now, there are two who have requested to be facilitated to travel,” said Mr Muremi, citing recent reports of high numbers of Kenyans being mistreated by their employers, some to the point of death. 

“They are not afraid. Even when they hear someone has been brought back this morning (in a casket), in the evening, they are ready to go,” he said.

Nursing rooms

Besides the poor pay, which has seen even graduates seek domestic work in the Middle East, a changing work environment could also be to blame.

For example, most companies now give new mothers three-month maternity leave, while others offer nursing rooms, meaning mothers can take their children to work with them and pick them up in the evening.

Some like Safaricom have gone even further to provide an onsite nursery for their employees’ babies.

“Similarly, Safaricom benefited from a decrease in absenteeism, tardiness, and management time taken to rearrange schedules at its Call Centre after a crèche was introduced,” reads a 2017 report titled Tackling Childcare: The Business Case for Employer-Supported Childcare published by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) that named 10 companies, among them Safaricom, for offering childcare benefit to their employees.

The report documents that childcare in Kenya, as elsewhere, is still seen as predominantly a woman’s responsibility. “Focus group discussions with Safaricom employees revealed that it is primarily women who pay for nannies from their earnings and make decisions about childcare,” the report reads.

“As a result, the company felt female employees would especially appreciate benefits from the crèche and other family-friendly policies.”

If your employer does not have such benefits, then the other option is daycares, which have been on the rise both in terms of numbers and enrolment in the recent 10 years.

For example, in 2001, there were 27,573 pre-primary schools (where daycares fall) compared to 39,500 in 2011, according to KNBS data. In the 2022 Economic Survey, KNBS reported 46,671 registered pre-primary schools as of last year.

However, there are countless unregistered daycare facilities in city estates that take as young as three-month-old babies.

Fredrick Ojiro, a rapid response officer with Haki Africa, an organisation that has been involved in the rescue of Kenyan workers stranded in The Gulf, reckons the discrepancy in pay between the local market and the Middle East is to blame for the influx of Kenyans to the latter.

“They (domestic workers) are duped and influenced because of their economic status. Even if you are a Class Eight dropout or a Form Four leaver and you get an offer for Sh60,000 a month, won’t you will be tempted to go?”