Employment Is Central To The Survival Of Individuals, Societies, And Nations. Either Directly Or Indirectly, Employment Has Boosted Rwanda’s G.D.P By 7.12% In The First Quarter Of 2015 According To The Ministry Of Labour. But What Happens When A Very Visible Portion Of The Informal Labour Force – Domestic Workers In This Case – Lack The Legal Protection And Rights Of Formal Sector Workers, And What Are The Implications In Terms Of A Country’s Economic Growth?
RANSACKING FOR HOPE
Fezah Marie is a 30-year-old domestic worker. Born in Rwanda’s western district of Cyangugu, she is the last child in a family of seven. A school dropout with basic level education, she learned tailoring as her only window to future employment. When opportunity knocked in the form of a marriage proposal, she headed to Kigali with her new partner.
“We wanted to have a better life in the city and got jobs that paid so little,” Fezah Marie said.
With her husband, uneducated and desperate to find work, they both ventured into a variety of informal sector jobs at factories and construction sites. Her lack of employable skills made it nearly impossible to find a well-paying job. Years later, and with two children, Fezah Marie finally found a job as a live-out domestic worker earning Rwf 15,000 monthly. Seven years later, she is now a single mother working at two households – her husband left her and her three kids after losing his job – and has managed to negotiate her monthly salary up to Rwf 25,000 per household.
While Fezah Marie’s story might seem like the typical blueprint for working conditions of domestic workers in Rwanda, others find themselves trapped in a cycle of exploitation: verbal and sexual abuse, beatings, and little pay, according to Lyhotely Ndagijimana, CEO of ADBEF, an NGO that advocates on behalf of domestic workers. This speaks to a larger societal matter that calls for an alteration in the inhumane working conditions of domestic labourers by pursuing standards of justice that embody basic human dignity.
“I consider myself lucky that my biggest challenge is finding transport to my workplaces. There are many other maids I know who stay with their bosses and are always working. When they break a glass or cup or plate when washing dishes, their salaries are deducted; when they burn a cloth while ironing, their salaries are deducted so much so that by the end of the month, they have no pay or are deeper into debt with their employer,” explained Fezah Marie. And while payment for damages is not exploitation per se, when the cost of a glass equates to a month’s salary, or – as Fezah Marie asserts – when employers use this as a tactic to make them work longer hours, it becomes exploitation.
REDEFINING THE LABOUR LAW
Rwanda has an extremely diverse workforce that covers both the formal and informal sectors. If the formal workforce has been the major contributor to the 7.12% rise in the economy’s GDP of Rwf 4,685 billion, how much would an empowered informal sector economically contribute to national development if they were included within a formalised labour system?
Domestic workers are found in almost every Rwandan household. They comprise a large yet vulnerable fraction of the informal labour workforce. Fleeing from rural hardships, they often find employment in private homes, providing household services such as childcare, cooking, cleaning, guarding houses, gardening, and taking care of the sick and the elderly. Yet, they are not included in the Labour Law that currently does not cater for the informal sector. They remain voiceless and without legal protection as the visible yet invisible workforce of Rwanda.
Since 1962, Rwanda has been a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and has ratified up to 28 conventions, most of which are currently applicable to the formal sector. Some of the ratified conventions include the Forced Labour Convention (1930), Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (1957), Holidays with Pay Convention (revised, 1970), and Employment Policy Convention (1964).
Alexander Twahirwa, the Director in charge of Labour Administration at Rwanda’s Ministry of Public Service and Labour (MIFOTRA) explains the dynamics of the current state of the 2009 Labour Law and the processes leading to its upgrade.
“The Rwanda Labour Law does not currently cater for informal sector workers who include domestic workers. We are revising our Labour Law and intend to capture issues concerning informal sector workers and their contribution to the economy,” Twahirwa said. He added that “We will not be covering the whole section of labour rights of the informal sector workers. It will be difficult to have an adequate number of labour inspectors to go house-to-house and do follow up on domestic workers.”
“The reviewed law will integrate social security benefits, incorporate a minimum wage, trade union organisations will also be allowed to mobilise employees and it will have a tough stance against people who employ children even as domestic workers,” said Twahirwa.
“We at the Ministry of Public Service and Labour agree that all work people do has an impact on the economy, whether it is informal or formal. Therefore, we can agree that through streamlining the working conditions of the domestic worker in one way or another will contribute to the economy.”
The theoretical right to favourable working conditions is mentioned in the country’s constitution, which stipulates that everyone has “the right to work, free choice of employment, favourable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, social welfare and social justice, right to protection, protection against discrimination, [and] protection against vulnerability.”
However, this statement is inept when it comes to the judicial coverage of domestic work. Databanks and research findings that mention the specific contribution of the informal sector to the Rwandan economy are absent.
“Specific surveys or impact assessments that show the contribution of domestic workers to the economy are non-existent,” Twahirwa said.
Like formal sector workers, domestic workers could become an empowered class of Rwanda’s workforce that contributes substantially to the country’s economic development, both through direct contribution as part of the labour market and indirectly through paying taxes. This comes with the establishment of a legal labour market framework that includes a reasonable minimum wage, acceptable working hours, rest days, and social security provisions that are coherent with the formal sector labour provisions.
A Counterintuitive Minimum Wage
Gaspard Mpakanyi is the Research and Education Officer at Centrale des Syndicats des Travailleurs au Rwanda (CESTRAR), one of three trade union federations that exist in Rwanda. The two other federations are the Congress of Labour and Fraternity in Rwanda (COTRAF) and the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Rwanda (COSYLI).
Mpakanyi welcomed the possibility of MIFOTRA’s upcoming decision that plans to include a minimum wage in the revised Labour Law.
“We all basically know that the rights of domestic workers are not clear because the Rwanda Labour Law does not view them as real workers, simply because they are in the informal sector,” Mpakanyi said.
It is against this backdrop that CESTRA carried out a survey that covered 15 districts, where they discovered two groups of domestic workers: the underage workers who are below 16 years of age and the underpaid workers earning a monthly average of Rwf 5,000 within Kigali and as low as Rwf 2,500 in poorer households.
The ILO estimates that more girls under the age of 16 are domestic workers as compared to any other group of child labourers. Additionally, women and girls make up the vast majority of domestic workers globally, however, in certain countries, there exists a considerable number of men and boys employed as domestic workers.
“Child labourers need to be in school, but poverty, family violence, [and] negative peer pressure cause them to become domestic workers. They are lured into forging a dependent relationship with their employers that does not consider their basic rights, simply to get food, shelter, and a place to take a shower,” said Mpakanyi.
He further cites a big challenge to the implementation of this law: the societal mindset toward domestic workers.
“It does not matter how much the outdated law is changed. The reality is that the mindset of many Rwandans is predominantly inconsiderate of maids and does not view their work as a serious job. To change this, people need to change the way they think. A worker is not only someone in an office, a driver, or a businessperson. Domestic workers are also doing a job and should be treated as workers who can contribute to private sector growth.”
“Known jobs are the ones that are formally registered and contribute to the economy through paying taxes. Domestic work is not taxable because there is no system that accounts for this informal work,” Mpakanyi said.
Domestic workers and other informal sector workers will benefit from the reviewed Labour Law as it will ensure that they are included in all the same principal workforce benefits as the formal sector, especially when it comes down to negotiating a minimum wage.
According to MIFOTRA, a draft document is in its advanced stages of completion. It states two categories of domestic workers: the live-in domestic workers and out-of-home workers. The least proposed amount for starting negotiations is an average monthly salary of Rwf 8,500 for out-of-home domestic workers. The negotiation of this fee is dependent on the income of the family and the starting bargaining power of the domestic worker.
In comparison to the formal sector’s monthly minimum wage of Rwf 30,000, a minimum wage of Rwf 8,500 for domestic workers will likely not be a sufficient way to contribute to poverty reduction.
The ILO states that, “minimum wages are a potentially important labour market policy instrument for reducing poverty.” Additionally, the general equilibrium analysis model by the researchers Alan Carruth, Andrew Oswald, and Edward Leamer indicates that, “in small open economies… a rise in union or minimum wages in the formal sector cannot be passed along in higher prices. Therefore profits fall, leading to a migration of capital, rather than labour, out of the formal sector. Capital moves to the informal sector, driving up wages and employment in that sector.”
On the contrary, a ‘World Development Report’ on labour markets debates its impact: “minimum wage may help to protect the most poverty-stricken workers in industrial countries, but they clearly do not in developing nations.” Citing reasons such as “difficulty to enforce minimum wage legislation, workers who benefit from a minimum wage will not necessarily be the poorest of the poor, the large number of the poor who work in the self-employed sector and high inflation rates.” So in developing economies, there is no link, necessarily, between minimum wage and poverty reduction.
THE SLAVERY BLACKHOLE
Downtown in the crowded shanty homes in Kimisagara sector in Nyarugenge district of Kigali, is home to the Association for the Defence of Human Rights, Sustainable Development and well being of Families (ADBEF), a non-profit non-government organisation responsible for advocating for over 500 domestic workers.
Lyhotely Ndagijimana is the founder and president of the NGO, whose mission is “to mobilise and encourage the community to effectively promote and improve social justice and socio-economic development of households.”
He attests to the fact that many domestic workers willingly or unwillingly work without any sort of legal contract, leaving them vulnerable to labour that surmounts to ‘forced labour’ and ‘bonded labour’ – all forms of modern-day slavery. A lack of awareness among employees (as well as employers) of where one starts and ends perpetuates the problem.
Ndagijimana explained that, “The law permits people to freely seek out employment of their choice and this includes the domestic worker. This is not necessarily a ‘bad job’ as many refer to it. Domestic work is a type of paid work like any other. But when workers find themselves in a situation where they are not getting paid, are abused, have no freedom to leave, and have settled for compensation in the form of food and shelter for their services, then they are enslaved workers.”
“Domestic work is a type of paid work like any other. But when workers find themselves in a situation where they are not getting paid, are abused, have no freedom to leave and have settled for compensation in the form of food and shelter for their services, then they are enslaved workers.”
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) there are 52.6 million men and women and 7.4 million children who are domestic workers around the globe. The United Nations further estimates a higher number of about 27 million to 30 million individuals trapped in modern day slavery, with 78% specifically involved in labour slavery. This multi-billion dollar industry generates up to US $35 billion annually – a loss of a workforce that would boost the labour market potential immensely, and especially in developing economies.
The global abolition of slavery in the 19th century did not actually end slavery – it has evolved over the centuries. For Ndajijimana, achieving progress toward curbing these challenges of a workforce that is legally unaccounted for required that they partner with concerned authorities in both the public and private sector to promote the rights of domestic workers, “… as both human beings and normal workers who contribute to national development.”
During her 15 years as a career mother and parent of three, Gertrude Majyambere has employed several domestic workers. She is a strong supporter of the concept that domestic workers contribute to Rwanda’s economy.
“We are all busy. Whether we like it or not, we must acknowledge that domestic workers directly or indirectly contribute to the economy,” said Majyambere, also a consultant with the Rwanda Tourism Board and the Managing Director of Travel Rwanda.
“When we go to work as parents, you leave behind a maid in your home, most likely with your children. This small difference, knowing that you can trust someone else with your babies, is what allows you to perform well at your job,” she said.
Rwanda’s population is steadily rising at 2.6% annually, and is estimated at 12 million people with a median age of 19 years. The potential economic benefit of a more mobile class of informal sector workers is unclear. What is clear is that with an increase in the country’s population will be an increase in the number of domestic workers. With this in mind, there will be a need for a legal framework that is inclusive of domestic workers’ positioning as contributors to Rwanda’s private sector.