Monday, April 19, 2010

On Life: Domestic Staff

I've been thinking about the way the vast majority of middle and upper class Nigerians treat their domestic staff - people like housemaids, gatemen,/security men, drivers, gardeners and so on. The other day, I was discussing the issue with some friends and we all agreed that, in general, they were treated in an appalling way.

From what I've observed, they are treated like second-class citizens in the homes where they work. They often don't share the same living quarters with the rest of the family. Or they are given the worst spaces possible. They use a different set of utensils to eat, for some reason. They are given cast-offs of the children's clothes to wear.

Then they are spoken to in awful ways. Sometimes I would visit a friend and she would be speaking with me nicely and politely, and then turn around to use a harsh and intimidating tone on her housemaid, and call her abusive names. I don't understand it. Sure you can use a firm tone when you are giving instructions to an employee but is there a need for the constant stream of abuse? Would any of us take that kind of attitude from our managers at the office?

Which brings me to my next point. Domestic staff have little or no employment rights. They don't have regular working hours, due to the nature of their work. They also don't have any benefits. They don't have holidays, they don't get days off, they don't have anything called a social life. They don't get sick days off or sick pay. Sometimes they don't go to school and can't learn any skill while they are working for their masters. I'm sure none of us professional ladies would ever imagine working for a company that didn't give us any time off or holidays, or allow us any social life. We would protest, but we give the same treatment to our own employees. I have even heard women complaining bitterly when it's Christmas time, and their maid wants to take a couple of weeks off to go and visit her family. It's almost like, she's not human and she doesn't need time off to go and see her family. Never mind that madam has time off from her own job so that she can enjoy her Christmas holiday.

Furthermore, the physical violence towards them is just horrible. Women who won't raise a hand to strike their own children seem to see no qualms in beating their maids to a pulp at the slightest offence. For some reason, the maid always deserves a beating whenever she makes a mistakes, whereas their children do worse things, but they don't get beaten. Why? What makes it different? Would any of us tolerate physical abuse at work? Why do we think it is okay to hit our domestic staff?

The funny thing is that these mistreatments are not limited to any type of woman. I have witnessed women from all spheres of life mistreating their domestic staff. Even women who should know better, like pastor's wives, lawyers or human right's activists. We can speak out against so many injustices in the world, but for some reason, we turn a blind eye to the ones we do right under our nose.

We can argue that we can't trust them, they are rogues, thieves and what not. But for the amount of money they are paid, and the useful service they provide to us, most of our domestic staff don't get treated well. So of course, they don't have much of an incentive to behave properly. Domestic staff do a very difficult job around the house. They allow many professional women the ability to have a career and a social life. Yet we don't appreciate what they do and the assistance they provide.

Has anyone tried to put themselves in their maid's shoes? Think about it for a moment. You are a young girl who should be in school. But you're taken away from your family and sent to the city to work for a strange family. You could be scared, lonely and homesick, but you have to put all those emotions aside and get on with it. You have to endure working from sunrise to sunset every single day of the week. You must be at the beck and call of your employer at all times. If you are really lucky you will end up working for a nice family that will treat you well. But the majority are treated harshly by everyone in the family - from the madam, to the oga, to the children. And you dare not complain. In fact, who will you complain to? Who will believe you, if you say your madam is mistreating you, or your oga is making sexual advances towards you? The best you can do is to run away. But where does that leave you? Out of a job, broke and lost in a big city. Or worse.

I hope we can all start making some small changes to the way we treat our maids. It may just be a small change we make everyday, but it would make a whole world of difference to someone. I would like to imagine a world where housemaids can point to the time they spent with their madams and say that those years were one of the best times of their lives.

Food for thought.


  1. Hmmm, very well written. I grew up in a home that was househelp free. Anything that needed doing, my parents and we kids did it. I have never witnessed scenarios like you have described, but I can well imagine them. Sad thing is, the few that get treated decently, are often the ones who turn out to blatantly abuse the trust reposed in them. This however is no justification for such maltreatment of fellow human beings. Here's hoping for a change.

  2. wow, a new perspective..i never saw it this way before.

  3. right on....
    hope for a change.

  4. Nice write up...

    Wish all Nigerians can read this

  5. I think many of the people you described think of their house helps as slaves as opposed to employees. In their minds this justifies the almost non-existent wages, physical abuse and shabby living conditions. If confronted they'll probably deny it, but actions speak louder...

  6. Very nicely said.

    Most people don't think of the househelps as human at all.

    On the other hand, some househelps are just terrible! Perhaps as a result of abuse that they have suffered in the past?

    It may be a vicious cycle.

  7. A very nice post Tolu.

    You said:

    "Even women who should know better, like pastor's wives, lawyers or human right's activists. We can speak out against so many injustices in the world, but for some reason, we seem to turn a blind eye to the ones we do right under our nose."

    It is not just the way house-helps are maltreated;

    it is is the way leaders in church mistreat those members that are considered not much to be reckoned with,

    it is the way clicks of "spiro brethren" in church mistreat those who they think are not "spiritual" enough,

    it is the way believers mistreat non-believers.

    The older I get, the more I realize that it is the seemingly simple statements in the Bible that may have the most profound implications. Statements like:

    "Whatsoever you do to the least of thy brethren that you do unto me"


    "When the Son of Man returns, shall he find faith on earth?"

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  9. my dear, my mantra is 'madam, abeg no maltreat ur househelp; househelp, abeg no maltreat madam'!!!

  10. Couldn't agree more, FG! Thanks for sharing!

  11. ...they maltreat their househelps and still leave their children in the care of these same helps, without fear or worry that your children might get the same way or the other. some children havhe been left with scars simply becos the help was trying to "get back" at madam or oga.

    Nicely written FG. I'm feeling this.

  12. Very well said, FG! I thank God that I was fortunate enough to enjoy my parents' love and care. Although the character in my novel, Egg-Larva-Pupa-Woman, was farmed away to relatives during hard times, it's hard to fully imagine what 'child helps' go through in developing countries.

  13. Anonymous11:33 pm

    You should send this to Bella Naija.They need to publish this somewhere...Pls do it!


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