To pay or not to pay your house help Sh11,000?

Edith Murogo
Edith Murogo

As 30-year-old mother of four Anne Waithera sat in her living room one evening last week catching up on the day’s news, one particular news item startled her.

It was information on new regulations setting the minimum salary a domestic worker should earn in every major town. The new law granted domestic workers a 12 per cent increase in their salary. Domestic workers in Nairobi and other major towns will now earn a minimum of Sh10,954, up from Sh9,781.

In addition, they are entitled to two off days a week, and if the employer fails to give them this break, then they are required to compensate the domestic worker with Sh527 for each day. The penalty for employers who break this law is a jail term of three months or a fine of Sh 50,000 or both.

As Anne watched the news item, she became concerned as it touched on her directly. The businesswoman who lives in Ongata Rongai currently pays her house help Sh7,000. As the broadcast went on, she invited the helper to come watch the news item with her.

“I wanted her to be aware of what was going on. I also wanted it to be an opportunity for us to talk about it,” says Anne.

Following the news item, Anne sought her helper’s opinion on the matter.

“My house girl has been with me for the last four years and we relate very well. She knows my business is still small and so I can’t afford to pay her the new amount. I was relieved when she told me not to worry about the new law.”

Anne, who is married, takes home an average of Sh40,000 from her business each month.

As the two women continued discussing the issue, they agreed that should the Ministry of Labour officials come knocking on the door to follow up on the implementation of the law, the house girl would tell them that her employer was indeed paying the recommended salary of Sh10,594.

But Anne is not the only employer who is cynical about the new regulations. Many employers have faulted the government on this new move.

One of them is Caroline Hayanga who works in the hospitality industry. The 37-year-old mother of two is adamant that she will not pay her house help the new wage.

“It is simply not practical because my house girl already costs me much more by living in my house. She lives rent-free, eats my food, enjoys entertainment in my house in the form of radio and television, she doesn’t pay for electricity, water and other miscellaneous items such as soap and tissue. Whenever she falls sick, I take her to the hospital under my cost. If indeed I have to pay Sh10,954, then I will first have to deduct all these costs, which would see me give her a net pay of about Sh5,000,” says Caroline, who is married and lives in Madaraka estate in Nairobi. She currently pays her house girl Sh7,000.

Caroline faults the government on their lack of foresight on the issue.

“Before giving us such a directive, the government should first invest in an effective training programme for these girls. That way, we will be talking about skilled employees and if that is the case, I will be more than happy to pay even more than that Sh10,954. But now, most of the girls we get are straight from the village with no skills whatsoever. Paying them that much money is not reasonable at all,” she says.

However, Caroline says that if the government continues to insist on this ‘absurd’ regulation, then it might signal the mushrooming of neighbourhood daycare centres.

“Many working parents will opt for daycare centres as the more affordable option, where they can drop the children off on their way to work in the morning then pick them up in the evening as they head home. Sadly, many house girls will lose their jobs as the number of daycares rise,” she says.

But the sentiments of Caroline and other employers like her do not surprise many house girls.

“We know these women very well. Even if they serve a jail sentence and come back, they will still underpay us. And it is not that these women cannot afford to pay us the minimum wage; they simply refuse to do so,” says Eunice Mwende.

Eunice currently works on a casual basis in Nairobi West estate, doing house work in different homes when an opportunity arises. She prefers this kind of arrangement, as opposed to being a live-in house girl.

“I once worked for a family that lived in a three-bedroom house in Ngong town. I would wake up at 4am to begin my house chores which included preparing the two children for school, preparing breakfast, washing my employer’s two cars, walking the children to the school bus’s pick up point on the road, then returning to the house to wash clothes, and undertake other household chores which I would perform all day long. I would end up retiring to bed at about 11pm,” says the 36-year-old.

For all her work, Eunice would be paid Sh3,000. She worked in the home for one year before quitting. “I am a single mother of four and I had left my children in the village with my mother. It was impossible for me to feed, clothe, educate my four children, save for their future as well as take care of my elderly mother. I opted for casual work where at least I earn a minimum of Sh400 a day,” she says.

In Eunice’s view, many employers simply do not value house helps.

“Most employers pay house girls about Sh6,000 and even then, they complain that it’s too much. But to be honest, perhaps only a single woman would be content with that pay because for employees with children who need to be taken care of, it is too little. If I can be assured of earning a salary of Sh10,954 as a live-in house girl, I would waste no time in taking up the job. I only hope the government will be serious in implementing this new law because it will benefit many of us,” she says.

But not all house girls will be affected by this new directive. One such is Ruth Ng’ambo, a house girl in Langata estate, who is lucky to earn more than the minimum wage. She earns Sh12,000 each month. Her employer is a single mother with two children.

“I’ve been with my employer for 10 years, where I started off with Sh4,000. I am grateful because I know that most house helps earn half my salary or less,” says the 36-year-old mother of one.

Ruth says most house helps in Nairobi are paid between Sh5,000 and Sh7,000, an amount which she considers insufficient for most, especially for those with children.

“Most house girls come to the city to fend for the children they leave back at home. They have to send money home each month for food, clothing and other expenses their children incur. Some house helps are themselves employers of domestic workers back in the village.

“A salary of Sh7,000 is not enough. It is a good thing that the government is giving us the recognition we deserve. With that minimum wage, many house girls will be able to raise the living standards of their families,” she says.

But even as she welcomes the government’s move, Ruth admits that not all employers can afford the new salary.

“Let me give an example of my sister who works in Nairobi and earns a salary of Sh20,000. She lives in Umoja estate with her husband and two children. With the high costs of living, most wives nowadays have to contribute to the family budget. While her husband takes care of the bigger bills such as rent and school fees, she pays the house help and buys the food stuff. She has to pay for her transport to work, make her hair, buy clothes for the children among other expenses. Thus, she can only afford to pay her house girl Sh4,000.”

It is for this reason that Ruth, while happy about the new directive, however asks the government to reconsider its position on the matter, saying that it is unreasonable to expect all employers in Nairobi to pay that minimum wage.

Albert Njeru, the Secretary General of the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied workers has welcomed the government’s directive.

“We are happy that the government is giving guidelines that are aimed at improving the economic standing of its citizens, especially those in the lower cadre of employment,” he says.Njeru however decries the apparent negativity that employers have displayed regarding the new directive, saying that they have psychologically set their minds to rejecting it, choosing to focus on reasons to justify why they should not pay the new amount. “It is unfortunate because many employers do not value the work of the house help, and it reflects in their attitude. The fact is that there are many employers who can afford that minimum wage, but they simply do not want to pay it because they don’t think the girls deserve that much. Yet, 90 per cent of house girls have children back at home, with many of them supporting their peasant parents.

“We need to stop oppressing the people who we think are of a lower status than us. We should be more receptive to initiatives aimed at uplifting someone else’s status and not being the reason why they will always remain condemned to that ‘lower’ status,” he says.

But while acknowledging the fact that there are some employers in Nairobi and other major towns whose salaries may not be able to meet the recommended minimum wage for their house helps, Njeru offers a solution:

“They should walk up to their employers with the gazette notice and tell them that while they still value their jobs, their family life is equally important. That if they are to continue being productive at work, then they need to leave the house confident that their children are in good hands –in the hands of house girls. They should then ask for a salary raise to be able to help them pay their house girls the Sh10,964,” he says.

‘New pay for housekeepers is fair’

Edith Murogo, the executive director of the Centre for Domestic Training and Development has lauded the government’s directive on the minimum salary for domestic workers.

Her organisation trains domestic workers on among other areas housekeeping, cookery and childcare. The trainees are trained under a curriculum developed together with the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, formerly known as the Kenya Institute of Education.

“We are supportive of any initiative that will raise the living standards of domestic workers, who include house helps. For the amount of work they do, house helps have been underpaid for years and it is commendable that the government has taken cognizance of this and is acting on it. House helps need to be better remunerated as their output and value to the family they work for is not reflected in the pay they receive. It is only fair that they are remunerated decently,” she says.

However, Edith says the new directive may be meeting some resistance from employers because of how the issue was approached, specifically the lack of consultation with relevant stakeholders.

“It is a fact that not all employers can afford that Sh10,954. The process leading up to a decision on a minimum salary for domestic workers should have involved representation from the domestic workers themselves, employers, placement agencies, domestic training institutions, NGOs in that sector and Labour officials. I believe it would have yielded a better reception then,” she says.

In addition, Edith says that many employers are likely to find that amount too high for employees who are not professionally trained.

She says that while the government, with its good intentions, may actually end up hurting the very same people it is trying to help.

“The domestic work sector is the biggest employer of women. Many rural and urban poor women depend on these jobs to sustain their families. With regard to the new directive, we have two kinds of employers; those who can afford to pay the minimum wage but are unwilling to pay, and on the other hand are those who genuinely cannot afford to pay. Consequently, this might create a situation where the house girls will end up losing their jobs as families opt to take their children to daycare centres that will be cheaper, more convenient and justifiable — since they will have skilled staff.”

However, if the government remains insistent on the directive, then she advises that it puts in place subsidised day care centres where working women will be able to leave their children for the day as they work.

In addition, Edith says employers and employees will now collude to deceive the government, because both need each other.

“In case the Labour officials go round houses enquiring on the house helps pay, the house help will simply say she is a visiting relative at the home. Some helps will also lie that they are indeed being paid the minimum wage just so that they can keep their job,” she says.