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Domestic work in Africa: Essential but precarious

[By Sharmi Surianarain & Julia Taylor]

“I was working three days a week as a house cleaner. When the first person was infected with COVID-19 in Kenya, my boss told me not to report to work anymore. I have tried calling and they don’t answer my calls. l stay in the slums of Kawangware and they think l will infect them. Now getting a place to work is not easy.”

Nelly, 29, Nairobi (All names have been changed to protect identities).

Nelly’s story is all too familiar in almost every country on the African continent. 

Domestic work is a significant source of employment in Africa, accounting for around 2.2 % of its labour force, which may still be an underestimate, as in Africa, the popular saying is that “even domestic workers have domestic workers” (ILO, 2016). It is also critical to everyday life across most of Africa’s cities. An analysis of the South African labour market in 2003 found that a quarter of all employed African women were working as domestic workers.

Housekeepers, cleaners, cooks, and child-care workers enable millions of professionals to do their jobs, but are often underpaid, under-valued, and vulnerable—living and working in a highly unregulated environment. This precariousness has been further compounded by COVID-19, resulting in unprecedented setbacks for domestic workers that will continue for years to come.

Due to swift lockdown restrictions in many African countries, many household workers have been forced to stay home, often without pay, and sometimes losing their jobs. For example, Esther was working as a nanny for a wealthy family in Nairobi. Just before the first COVID-19 case in Kenya, she happened to be visiting relatives in her home village, away from Nairobi. When Kenya responded with a curfew and travel ban between its counties, Esther could not return to work.  Within a week, her boss had already replaced her with someone else, and now she has no income to live on and to support her family.

Domestic worker in Kenya. Image credit: Solidarity Center

Domestic workers, like gig workers of many kinds, face the challenge of poor and irregular pay, unstructured or missing contracts, and inconsistent income. Without social or economic safety nets, domestic workers—mostly women, many of them single mothers—are forced to dig into savings, if any, to support their families. Given how little the sector is regulated, and how rarely domestic workers have access to any form of savings and insurance, this often means that they have to rely on the charity of relatives, friends, and employers, or go hungry. Early in Kenya’s lockdown, the country was moved to action by the story of a widow forced to cook stones for her children to lull them into sleep while they waited for the meal. She used to wash laundry pre COVID-19 and her loss of income meant she could not feed her children.

The pandemic has laid bare the structural inequities and systemic barriers to inclusion across the world, underscoring the need to design more inclusive futures. How can we specifically design solutions for informal sector workers in general, and domestic workers in particular?

Let’s look at insurance. While traditional insurance will cater to domestic workers, we may need to turn to more innovative solutions such as micro-insurance for the informal sector, or alternative forms of social protection. Creating access to a marketplace for linkages to contract work may smooth demand shocks, but it will be critical to ensure that these platforms do not extract more value than they provide. Some platform organizations, such as Sweep South in South Africa—a platform that connects users to domestic workers—instituted a COVID-19 relief fund for workers on their platform to meet living expenses. They raised in excess of $500,000 towards the fund—something that could provide a stopgap version of unemployment insurance for gig workers in a precarious sector.

In an era where labour is becoming less formal, the role of trade unions in protecting workers rights becomes more complex. Some labour unions fail to adapt to the changing circumstances of work and must be supported to transform and adapt so that informal and gig workers understand their rights and are part of a community. We could use creative advocacy and digital storytelling to include the case for gig domestic workers within existing formal labour networks to campaign for decent working standards, as evidenced by the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union. Finally, by documenting and sharing the stories of these workers in ways that leverage new digital tools, we could collectively shape innovative solutions.

The economist Mariana Mazzucato argues that the decades-old economic assumptions of conflating price with value should be contested—and that we need to redefine what constitutes value in the economy (WEF, 2018). Caring—for children, for our homes, for the elderly—and cleaning has always been seen as less valuable, particularly in a highly monetized economy. And yet the COVID-19 crisis is showing us that this is one of the most essential forms of “work” we have. It is time we take care of the people that care for us.


Julia Taylor is part of the Impact and Storytelling team at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa.  Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Julia is committed to addressing inequality and creating a more just and sustainable world. Julia’s work at Harambee has involved implementing new opportunities for youth employment and ensuring impact and strategic alignment for new initiatives. She holds a B.Com from the University of Cape Town, a PGD in Sustainable Development from Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute, and a Masters in Environment and Development from Edinburgh University.

Sharmi Surianarain serves as the Chief Impact Officer, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa.  Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Sharmi is an activist for opportunity creation for young people, particularly women. She is an Aspen African Leadership Initiative Fellow, Class of 2020 and sits on the Boards of Emerging Public Leaders, Ongoza, Metis, Instill Education and is on the Advisory Council for the NextGen Ecosystem Builders Africa 2020. Sharmi holds a B.A. from Harvard University, a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.