Riddle, riddle, when my mum was going, she left me something. They are with us in our homes and could be male or female. Their roles in homes are not too well defined but they generally do the washing, sweeping, dusting, mopping, ironing, washing of dishes and cooking utensils, taking care of the children and any other duties they are assigned.
I am talking about the indispensable but often vilified, maltreated and disrespected addition to our homes, the house help.
Mode of recruitment
The harsh economic realities have forced most mothers, who were hitherto solely housewives, to get out and secure jobs to support their families. Coupled with this is the decline in support from the extended family. These and other factors have necessitated the recruitment of additional hands to run our homes.
In the past, these aids were recruited from within the extended family, acquaintances and close community members. The common practice these days is to recruit from agencies who provide a number of them for the client to choose from.
Those from agencies are a little more expensive since they come with agency fees, as well as higher monthly salaries. They are supposed to be trained and professional in their field of work, with their backgrounds checked but in reality, this mostly tends to be a farce.
Initially, they may go through some cultural shocks, depending on where they are coming from and require some time to adapt. For some of them, this adaptation may take
Though the trend seems to be changing for the better, their plight is generally not a pleasant one; from how they are called, to what they eat, to where they sleep. In some homes, they are not allowed to even eat some of what they cook for the household and have to settle for leftover food. Even the children may be encouraged to abuse them.
Despite the fact that they are often the last to go to bed, they are the first to wake up and start performing duties. Often times, they enjoy no break or leave to catch some rest.
In spite of the invaluable services they provide, their importance is often not recognised until they are not there. Notice of quitting throws the whole house into disarray. With little or no notice, they can wake up one fine morning and say they are leaving; the polite ones make up stories of how they have just been informed about the illness of their parents and do not even mind using an announcement of death as an escape plan.
Somehow, some of them never see their duties as a job being rendered for money but as a favour. For some, they have to be reminded of their duties on a daily basis. Stories are told of how some connive with robbers and how they maltreat and molest children left in their care.
Some pilfer things from the home. This is mostly done by those who enjoy off days. They take anything and everything - from pegs to children’s clothes to wigs, rice, soap etc. -, forgetting that they are paid for their work.
How to improve their plight
In order to improve their plight and ensure that the client gets satisfactory services, I think that their services must be regulated. For instance, there should be a mandatory period of training for them. Additionally, they should be paid a decent monthly wage irrespective of whether they are relatives or not. They should also be entitled to a daily rest period and most importantly an annual leave.
They must be reoriented to know that they are not doing a favour but working for money. Moving forward, they must be made to contribute to the national kitty as other workers do by way of taxes. There should be a solid background check on them to forestall some of the unfortunate and criminal stories we hear sometimes. A story is told of how one, a male, disguised himself as a female and got employed in a family with five young girls. The poor family has still not recovered from the devastation he left behind.
The house-help industry is a critical one which has come to stay. There is the need for the government to regularise it to ensure win-win outcomes for the house help and the employer as is the case elsewhere.