A private sector-employment agency in Togo that trains, places and advocates for domestic workers said it is trying to improve notoriously abusive work conditions for domestic workers. In October 2007, the Togolese government classified domestic work as one of the worst forms of labour, making it illegal for anyone younger than 18 to be employed as domestic workers.
Employment agency founder, Sylvestre Assiah, told IRIN as more and more families seek domestic workers in the capital Lome, there is an increasing need to regulate what has been an informal family referral system. “More women are joining their husbands to work outside the home and need house help and child care. There is an endless supply of village girls looking for work in the city. But there was no safe way to match employer and employee, which is what has made domestic work so dangerous. No one looked after the workers.”
A decade ago, Assiah set up an office that fit a desk, fan and three chairs and hung out his sign, “Welcome Agency,” an employment placement agency for domestic workers.
Known locally as “confiage” – from the French word for “entrust” – many rural parents send their children to live with city-dwelling relatives who would help them attend school and find work. In exchange, the children do household chores – unpaid.
But the head of the NGO CARE International in Togo, Phillipe Kodko Yodo, told IRIN this longstanding tradition has at times turned abusive: “We have uncovered cases of slave-like work conditions, beatings, rape and deprivation among children separated from their families who are working as unpaid domestic help.”
CARE estimates that 60,000 families have domestic help in and around Lome. From studies conducted in 2005 CARE estimates that up to 400,000 mostly young girls are abused as domestic workers every year in Togo.
Human Rights Watch has named recruitment agents as among the guilty parties in exploiting and trafficking young girls. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more girls under 16 work in domestic service worldwide than in any other category of child labour.
But recruiting agent Assiah told IRIN his domestic worker employment agency wants to help. “There is no accountability if a worker comes through family. ... Our agency conducts monthly visits to make sure everything is going well and to intervene if there are problems.”
To be placed, Welcome Agency’s mostly female clients sign a one-year contract and receive three days of employment training that includes a short literacy course for the mostly non-formally-schooled workers, a talk on the rights and duties of domestic workers and a presentation on savings. In return, the clients are guaranteed a minimum salary, two days off a month, and a follow-up visit from the agency to their work place once a month.
When asked why families would pay a commission of US$10 per domestic worker plus $24 per year in fees, and at least $20 per month to the worker when they could get the same service for free from family contacts in the villages, agent Assiah said: “There is no accountability if a worker comes through family, and families would have to wait until [a worker] arrives from the village – arrivals are sporadic.”
With CARE’s support, the agency improved its registration process to better track workers. It now offers a three-day training. The agency formed a domestic workers’ union in June 2007, which elected worker Clarisse Bilai, 29, to be its first secretary general.
Membership is free and automatic for people placed by the agency.
Bilai told IRIN she and other union members tell the agency if they hear about abuse, even in families not working with the agency. Agency director Assiah said that in 2008, seven of its workers reported abuse, including rape, from their employers. The workers were placed with new employers.
In addition, through an agency abuse hotline and community and union referrals, the agency said it helped more than 70 workers not affiliated with the agency to get out of abusive households.
|...I still hear about my sisters [fellow domestic workers] who sleep only a few hours a night, who do not get paid or fed regularly, and who are abused sexually...|
But union officer Bilai said there is still much more to be done: “ I still hear about my sisters [fellow domestic workers] who sleep only a few hours a night, who do not get paid or fed regularly, and who are abused sexually. People lie to us and say they will pay us at the end of our contract and then refuse.”
Agency director Assiah told IRIN he receives more than twice as many requests from households looking for domestic workers than he has available staff. In 2008, the agency reported placing 680 workers in 500 homes.
Households wait an average of three months to get a worker.
“Because of widely-reported domestic worker abuses that unfortunately still continue,” said Assiah, “it is hard to convince recruits that this can be a viable, dignified and noble path out of poverty.”