Cover story

Housemaids appear to be a thorn in every working mother’s side. The litany of complaints against them is endless. They do not clean well, they pinch the babies, are bad cooks, and you are lucky if they only burn your food and spare you poison.

And watch out, they could also snatch your husband if you let them look beautiful! So, don’t let them wear make-up.

Thus for many working mothers, a housemaid is a “necessary evil.”
But are all housemaids as bad as they have been painted? Isn’t the housemaid getting the short end of the stick?

Thirteen-year-old Sharon Nakanjako was, among other punishments, made to eat burnt food so that she could “learn not to burn it next time.” But what she remembers most during her one-month ordeal as a housemaid in Kampala is that fiery slap she got for a crime she doesn’t remember. The slap was so hard that she failed to stand up straight for some time.

She does not even know the exact location of the home where she worked!
Hers is the plight shared by thousands of especially young women who work as housemaids [or house girls] for the more well-to-do.

As a result of her nasty experience, Sharon Nakanjako (not real name) has strong views about working as housemaid in Uganda.

“No child should ever work as a housemaid. When you are a housemaid, you suffer. People don’t think you are a human being. They disrespect you and treat you like rubbish.”
Sharon is currently staying at Oasis Uganda, an organisation based in Kyebando that helps children at risk of abuse.

According to Ketty Nandi, the O/C Child and Family Protection Unit at Kampala’s Central Police Station (CPS), Sharon’s ordeal is rather common.

People are ferrying housemaids from the villages, especially children, in the thick of the night and practically imprisoning them in their houses as hard labourers for little or no pay. Some pay as little as Shs 10,000 but majority pays approximately Shs 30,000 per month.

The vicious types, when they want to sack their housemaids, simply drive them to the taxi park, hand them Shs 10,000, or nothing at all.

Since most housemaids are not allowed to move around while they work, many cannot find their way around Kampala and these usually end up at Police stations.

In Sharon’s case, her own father gave her away. When his friend came to pick her up, he lied to her that she was going to visit an aunt in Kawempe. The little girl bathed real quick, packed her belongings and was off to “aunt’s” place. This was in July 2009.

When she got to Kampala, she was instead taken to a place she did not know and started working as a housemaid. She woke up at 6a.m., cleaned the house, washed the dishes, cooked, fetched water, baby-sat two children, and went to bed at 10p.m. with the rest of the family.

However, hardly a month on the job, her night was turned really dark when she was sacked.
“It was about 9p.m.,” she narrates. “I was boiling milk and some of it spilled. My boss told me to buy the milk or else I leave. I had no money. She had not been paying me. I told her that she should lend me money which she would deduct from my pay for the next month. She refused and threw me out of the house.”

Sharon did not know where to go. Besides, she was afraid of the dark. Her accommodation, which had been the family’s sitting room, seemed like paradise at that moment.

“I walked around and then found an incomplete house where I slept. In the morning, I walked around until a gentleman noticed me and asked me if I was lost,” she narrates.

This good Samaritan led Sharon to the LC-1 chairperson, who took her to Wandegeya Police Station.
She was eventually transferred to Oasis Uganda from where she tells this tale.


In the perfect world, Sharon would be at school, her talents being nurtured. But she is not, although she would have loved to go. Indeed when asked, “What would you tell President Museveni if you met him?” she answers:

“I would tell him to imprison all those parents who do not take children to school.”
Children like Sharon do not go to school despite the introduction of free primary education.
Francis Uma Agula, an assistant commissioner in the Ministry of Education, says they cannot force parents to send their children to school.

He, however, advises that the issue can be settled by local authorities putting in place by-laws that make school compulsory for all school age children.

Also, parents need to be sensitised on the value of education. This, Agula says, is already being done through PTA meetings, but it is not enough as 2009 figures from the Ministry of Education and Sports show that 1,870,597 (26.4%) boys and 1,577,771 (25.2%) girls are not enrolled in school.


Besides not going to school, Sharon’s case highlights the persistence of child labour in this country, even when it is illegal.

The exploitative character of most employers of housemaids, and the abuse of rights and freedoms of the children they employ, cannot be overemphasised. In many homes, housemaids are denied food, dignity and freedoms of association and movement.

Platform for Labour Action (PLA), an NGO that promotes the human rights of the vulnerable and marginalised workers in Uganda, published a book, Adult Domestic Workers in Uganda in 2007, which shows that even adult domestic workers face problems like Sharon’s.

With employers benefiting from almost free labour and their victims too powerless to protest, housemaids’ interests are left in the hands of God. But it doesn’t have to be that way, as the government has a responsibility towards its vulnerable citizens such as these.

Housemaids need to be educated about their rights and a minimum wage set for them like it is done in countries such as South Africa. But the ministry responsible, that of Gender, Labour and Social Development, is not considering such action.

A senior technocrat in the ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, said they need special data, which they do not have now, to plan for housemaids. On pointing out that PLA has such data, he said he was unaware of it.

On setting a better minimum wage rather than the Shs 6,000 set in 1984, the technocrat said that efforts would be made to change it.

In December 1995, the Minimum Wage Advisory Body advised that the minimum wage be adjusted to Shs 75,000, but this was never implemented. Kenya’s minimum wage stands at KShs 3,043 (UShs 79,118) for agricultural workers, and between KShs 3,270 and 6,130 (Ushs 85,020-159,380) for other workers. Tanzania’s is TShs 65,000 (UShs 65,000) for the lowest paid worker, and TShs 350,000 (UShs. 350,000) for the highest paid.

Dick Francis Tumusiime, Director of Difra Uganda, an agency that recruits, trains and deals in housemaids, has this advice to give: “Employers should remember that housemaids are human. Treat them as you would want to be treated. Be a good manager, strike a balance. Be compassionate yet firm.”

Titbits from the Employment Act 2006

The Act stipulates the following about housemaids:
* A written contract must be signed between employer and employee
* An employee works for eight hours per day
* Overtime is meant to be paid for at 11/2 times as the normal rate.
* An employee is given one day off in a week, annual leave, holidays on public holidays.
* Must be notified before being fired and compensated for any damages accrued while at work.
* Wages have to be paid promptly.

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0 #1 Sam Bakubye 2010-06-04 15:42
The plight of house maids is indeed real. Even a 5 year old child in a home can dispense loads of contempt on a housemaid. Yet many working mothers owe part of their succes to these young girls.

Unfortunately the employment act quoted in the article does not apply to the category of workers described as domestic workers. This is because,homes are regarded as private premises and cannot therefore be inspected by labour officers to enforce the act. If the labour officers attempted to this, it would be interpreted as an invasion of privacy.

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