In recent weeks, I’ve been coming across some articles and blog posts that discuss the topic of housemaids, usually in negative situations. Those articles got me thinking about the way the vast majority of middle and upper class Nigerians treat their domestic staff – people like housemaids, gate-men, security men, drivers, gardeners and so on. I discussed the issue with some friends last week and we all agreed that, in general, domestic staff in Nigeria are 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 even if they share the property, they are given the worst spaces possible. They use a different set of utensils to eat, for some reason as if they are not worthy to use the same as the family they live with. They are often given cast-offs of the children’s clothes or the employer’s old and ragged clothes to wear.
They are spoken to in awful and demeaning ways. This is something I’ve observed over and over again. 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 stern 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? Why do we think that they don’t have feelings, and they cannot be hurt by the terrible words we hurl at them? Is it fair? Doesn’t the bible say something about the way we use our tongues to praise God and curse our fellow human beings?
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Which brings me to my next point. Domestic staff in Nigeria have little or no employment rights. They don’t have regular working hours, due to the nature of their work. But they also don’t get any benefits. They don’t have days off – they work all day, everyday. They don’t have holidays. They don’t have anything called a social life. They don’t get sick days off or sick pay. The best they get from oga or madam is some panadol. Often 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 those working conditions, 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 like, she’s not human right? Why does she need time off to go and see her family? Never mind that madam has taken time off from her own job so that she can enjoy her own Christmas holiday. She just cannot cope for two weeks while her maid is away. Why are we so reliant on our maids that we cannot function without them?
Furthermore, the physical violence towards them is just… I don’t know. 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 offense. For some reason, the maid always deserves a beating whenever she makes a mistake, whereas their children do worse things, but they don’t get beaten. Why do we give a harsher treatment to our maids? 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 mistreatment 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 seem to 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. The irony is that, we maltreat our maids, and then leave our children and house in their care when we are not around. Shouldn’t we be worried that the treatment we mete out to them could be taken out on the children? I’m sure there are many innocent children who bear the brunt of the maid’s frustration because of the attitude she gets from her employers.
Then there are the really sad cases of rape and sexual abuse, when the man of the house decides that the maid’s body is his to do whatever he wants with. Usually the poor girl is caught between a rock and a hard place – forced to sleep with her boss and having no way of escape. I have read of cases where the oga impregnates the housemaid and when the madam heard about it, she was thrown out of the house and left at the mercy of fate. Who speaks for the rights of such victims?
Has anyone tried to put themselves in their maid’s shoes? Try to imagine it for a minute. You are a young girl of fourteen, forced to leave education because your family cannot afford it anymore. You are taken away from your family and sent to the city to work for a strange family. You could be scared, lonely, sad and homesick, but you have to put all those emotions aside and get on with it – this is now your fate. You have to endure working from sunrise to sunset every single day of the week for meager wages. If you are really lucky you will end up working for a nice family that will treat you well. But if not, you 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. If you can even return home, your family will likely beat you for losing a source of income.
Food for thought.
I hope we can take a step back and re-evaluate the way we treat our housemaids and other domestic staff. They are people like us too, only trapped by the circumstances. That doesn’t justify anybody treating them with no respect or dignity. Let’s not forget that the way we treat others reflects back on us, and we will always reap what we sow. If we sow wickedness… well, it may very well come back to haunt us.
Instead, let’s try to sow a different seed – one of kindness. It may just be a few small changes we make everyday, but it would make a whole world of difference to the people we employ as our domestic staff. If you know your maid has been working flat out for weeks, give her a break from time to time. If you can see she needs new clothes, be kind enough to give her something new that you can afford. Do what you can to make her life better; not worse.
I would like to imagine a world where housemaids can point to the time they spent with their employers and say that those years were one of the best times of their lives. Some may try to take advantage of our kindness, but it shouldn’t matter. We should not be weary of doing good, just because someone once tried to take advantage of it.
Writer – Tolulope Popoola is a reader, writer and lover of books and literature. She is the author of the novel Nothing Comes Close. She is also a publisher and consultant with her own company Accomplish Press, where she publishes stuff and help other writers to publish their own work too. She blogs at onwritingandlife.com
Image credit: Seattle Globalist
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