For a long time, female domestic workers have been despised and sometimes regarded as a ‘necessary evil’. They have been given all manner of denigrating names, ranging from the most ‘respectable’ one of house-girl to derogatory ones like saucepan licker.
They have worked under the worst of conditions on no defined terms of service. Rising at 4am, they mop the house, prepare breakfast, wash school-going children, polish shoes for the adults and make sure everyone leaves the house smart and contented.
Then starts the real work of washing clothes, preparing food and of course the most sensitive one of attending to the babies of the home.
When the school children and the working parents return in the evening, they expect to find everything in order, clothes washed and ironed, meals ready, babies clean and happy and the house impeccably clean. For all that, words of appreciation are rare, if ever uttered.
But criticism and abuses are abundant. And when the month ends, the salary never comes on time. In fact, it is a common policy for employers to fall behind in payments for about two months, the reasoning being that if the girl decides to leave, she should be the one being owed, not the other way. And what salary are we talking about? It is what on street is called ‘cartoon money’.
And they are regarded with suspicion by the lady of the home. They must not smile ‘anyhow’ and must not dress smartly, otherwise they are guilty of trying to attract the husband. In fact, they are presumed guilty of harbouring that thought anyway.
But all that is now changing. It is not the ‘madams’ of the homes who have suddenly become soft hearted. Nor have the house girls formed a powerful domestic workers’ trade union. It is the discovery of a domestic workers’ market in the Middle East.
Following the advent of the endless Gulf wars that found Uganda on the right side of the US, our young men got priority in being hired for guard duties in the desert.
With time, more ‘opportunities’ opened up and now the rage is domestic servants. Labour export companies are hunting for the girls like a treasure. Police and human rights organisations have shouted themselves hoarse, warning the girls against being ‘trafficked’ but the warnings are falling on deaf ears.
Everybody wants to go and earn “over a million shillings” a month, which equals to $300 (Sh30,000) that is on offer. That’s at least ten times more that the well paid domestic worker earns in Kampala. You do not have to know about this trend, until the lady of the house gets a job or a baby, and needs to employ a house girl.
Then comes the shocker, as the girl that has been brought from the village slaps you with her bill of half a million shillings (Ugandan). That is about the take-home of her prospective employer.
Even if she settles for less, rest assured she will be busy engaging the labour export agency, awaiting the chance to go treasure hunting in the Middle East. And it starts with the biggest of all dreams, ‘walking in the clouds’, as boarding a plane is locally referred to!