Maids and the Challenges of Life

In South Africa, being a maid is a career option. During the apartheid era, black maids worked in white households, looking after white children. In today’s South Africa, rich people, middle class families and up-and-coming families are able to afford the services of maids.

There is no connotation to slavery so people move from the slums into the cities and take whatever work they find for themselves. Many uneducated people find it easy to work as maid in order to make a living than to find any other job. Live-in nannies are not slaves, neither are they regarded as forced labour.

Tundun Adeyemo

Tundun Adeyemo

In the United Kingdom, UK, slavery through domestic servitude has been in the news. Many people particularly from the southern part of Nigeria are known to deal in the importation of slaves, otherwise known as house helps. These girls are taken to the UK with the clear intent of working as housemaids. They know travelling overseas is an extension of their lives in Nigeria. Some of them have no reasonable expectation that they would be educated, allowed to learn a trade, or allowed to live normal lives. The mistake made is that these families assume they are still in Nigeria where they are able to act in the UK as carelessly as they act in Nigeria.

It was interesting observing house helps on a recent trip to Nigeria. Maids in Nigeria are often always paid a salary in recognition for their labour. It is another question about whether these wages are commensurate with the work done. It is also another minefield, if the money is given to the house help in question.

Most people would agree with me that house work is tedious, hard and demanding, yet up and down Nigeria many young girls and boys earn their livelihoods doing mundane tasks such as washing clothes manually, cooking, sweeping, ironing, cleaning and so on all day.

In Nigeria, maids are procured through different channels. Sometimes, there is an ‘uncle’ or ‘brother’ who comes to collect wages every month, he checks the maid to make sure they are okay and then he disappears for another month. Many times, families are made to pay months in advance and many times, to these ‘brothers’ or ‘uncles’.

In Nigeria, being a maid, or house help is plain hard living as the work is monotonous and unexciting. It is a rather austere lifestyle. It is a thankless job that exposes young boys and girls into uncomfortable/dark situations and risks. Many maids have been raped as a consequence of simply being vulnerable. This is tragic.

Some maids are good (behave well/or work well) and are rewarded by their masters and mistresses with food and a reasonably fair income. Tinuke is 18 years old and she looks after an elderly widow. This wealthy widow has taken her to Dubai, South Africa on holiday and they are trying to get her to the United Kingdom.

There are also maids that ‘organise’ for their masters. By ‘organising’ I mean, they set their bosses up with armed robbers. A well-known case was a retired university don who lived alone with his driver and maid, who stole his car and killed him.

Seeing house-helps in various households here in Nigeria, one wonders how much of it is forced labour/servitude? It is a job after all, should we call it forced labour? Southern Nigeria and house helps go centuries back. It is a phenomenon that may never die out. Are they able to work normal working hours? What time do they get off work?

It is unfortunate that educated Yoruba families thrive in employing maids to work for them. Their own side of the story is they pay for hired help. The help is not free and they are not taking advantage of vulnerable people. Domestic labour may involve working in a restaurant/cafeteria or buka, working in a retail store during the day and doing domestic duties at night, looking after the elderly and little children. The list is endless.

Regardless of how noble the intentions of families are, most of these house helps, on closer look, seem deeply angry and unsettled. A conversation with a maid revealed that she was not happy and that she found the house work too much for her.

The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, NAPTIP, has made a total of 217 convictions for offences under this law. Some of these convictions were for the recruitment of children for forced labour, procurement of girls for prostitution, deceitfully inducing girls with a motive of exploitation and confinement of a person against their will.

In the UK, human trafficking is the fastest growing societal menace authorities there are dealing with. They equate forced labour to slavery. People who come to Britain for the purposes of getting education, but who are then diverted to forced servitude are classified under slavery.

According to The Guardian UK, there are up to 13,000 people in Britain who are victims of slavery. The figure marks the first time the government has made an official estimate of the scale of modern slavery in the UK. Last month, the National Crime Agency, NCA published its annual report on human trafficking. The statistics were plain: 2,744 people were identified by the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, UKHTC, as having been potential victims of trafficking for exploitation, with more than 600 of those children — a rise of 22 per cent on 2012. They came from the UK, Eastern European countries such as Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Albania and Lithuania, as well as from Nigeria and South-East Asia.

Last year, 90 of the 1,746 reported victims of modern slavery were Britons. Frank Field, the Labour MP, estimates that there are 10,000 slaves in the UK, while the Human Trafficking Foundation charity believes there are 20,000. The real figure may lie somewhere between the two, but it is growing quickly. The number of reported trafficking cases in 2013 was 47 per cent higher than in 2012.

At least, there is data is available in the UK, what we are lacking here in Nigeria is the exact number of children: girls and boys forced into domestic servitude. Can legislation better their lot? NAPTIP has done well in fighting human trafficking but we need to do more. There are still young children working in households up and down the country.

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