One of the frightening sights in Kenya at the beginning of what we now know as the Covid-19 era was medical workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) to shield themselves from body fluids infected by the coronavirus. PPEs have raised concerns about people likely to be exposed to the virus yet they don’t have them.
How would clothes worn in public be protected from contamination? However, not many people gave a thought to washing contaminated clothing.
The pandemic has been quite an experience for 61-year-old Herina Aluoch, a widow and primary school dropout taking care of three grandchildren, two of them orphans, who did not have the luxury to stay indoors during the lockdown. There’s also Margaret Njoki, a 33-year-old single parent of four; Evelyn Mokeira, 40-year-old, mother of two children and Mary Mbaluka, a 37-year-old, living with albinism.
These women offer domestic cleaning services like cleaning bathrooms; dusting; polishing furniture; washing dishes and mopping floors.
The pandemic economic meltdown hit them hard. It was already bad enough to be considered unskilled casual worker, with employers dodging the minimum wage provided by Ministry of Labour. Their pay varies, earning anywhere in the range of half a dollar to two and a half to four and a half dollars per day in local currency.
With no job security or certainty of finding work as their services are procured on ad hoc basis, they accept whatever is offered.
The pay is not determined by the amount of work; a household with visitors will have three extra buckets of washing and still pay the same amount of money as one bucketful.
The casual domestic workers — and they are mainly women — are exploited, overworked and underpaid. As domestic workers they fall under the lowest wage rate.
Laws are often not enforced to protect them from working long hours and underpayment. Working in people’s home places them at a disadvantage, and there have been cases when they have faced not only gender but sexual based violence. Many of those who report find it difficult to provide evidence or witnesses as not many family members of the perpetrator are willing to testify on the side of the victim.
Sometimes the employers convince law enforcers that they will settle the matter out of court only to shut the door in the face of the complainant once set free!
Domestic workers clean contaminated clothes and are constantly in contact with detergents that may affect their skin and respiratory systems.
Many employers do not offer even the most basic PPEs, such as gloves or masks. It is particularly tough for Mary Mbaluka who has albinism with very little melanin on her skin, to protect her not just from the sun, but from other harmful elements that could cause skin cancer.
Sometimes, they work all day, only to be told to come for their pay on another day!
All this takes a toll on their physical and psychological health.
Yet, despite all these fears, the domestic workers are more afraid of starvation for those they take care of than Covid-19, a reality made worse by lack of protective gear.
Domestic workers would wish to be listed as essential workers, or as a vulnerable population to enable them to access government support programmes, just like companies and other salaried workers who have been cushioned through tax breaks.
They pray for government support to protect them from exploitation, harassment, impediments to justice and pay way below the living wage. They expect, in the absence of specific laws to protect them, policies to fill the gap. They expect trade unions support to increase their bargaining power and stop exploitation by employers.
They hope for a focused intervention addressing sexual and gender-based violence.
They want the lack of access to justice and impunity in the criminal justice systems addressed.
They want PPE. Is anyone listening out there?