The Housekeeper as a Metaphor for Rising Poverty and Inequality

Silhouette of housekeepers. Credit: Dremastime

By Julius Ogunro
My new house-help is manifestly nervous. She hastily answers ‘yes sir’ or ‘yes ma’ to invariably everything we say to her. It is understandable. It must be difficult to leave one’s family and travel hundreds of miles to live with strangers, people you didn’t know or had an affinity with, but with whom you suddenly have to share a home, and not show some form of anxiety and fear.
Christiana, the home-keeper is petite and from one of the numerous minority ethnic groups from Southern Kaduna, which appears to be the new repository for domestic workers. She was recommended by her older sister Sarah who worked for us for about a year before leaving after she mended a broken relationship with her husband. Both Sarah and Christiana are valuable domestic workers, but occupy the lowest rung of the Nigerian economic ladder and their lives tell of the growing income inequality gap in the country.
A typical house-help earns about N15,000 to N20,000 monthly, excluding the cost of boarding and feeding, way below the national minimum wage of N30,000. Besides, they work very long hours.
In most cases from sunup, when they prepare the kids for school until sundown after the family’s supper. In between, they mind the children, run errands, mend clothes, cook, wash, and do everything to keep the home clean and habitable. For them, there is usually no leave or weekend break and whatever time off they get is at the mercy of their employers.
This kind of work appears to be only a notch or so higher than that of a bondservant, yet there is never a short supply of young girls and women who want to become housekeepers. This, perhaps, is because it provides a chance for three square meals, a place to lay one’s head, and a stipend at the end of the month, all of which might hitherto be luxuries for the home keeper.
The fact that there is no shortage of underpaid and overworked house helps underscores a big Nigerian problem: poverty, limited opportunities, and lack of access to quality education. The average Nigerian domestic worker is poorly educated, or not educated at all, lacks high-demand skills for the formal sector, and is usually from a disadvantaged region where there are limited opportunities for advancement. And almost certainly a female.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 63 percent of people living in Nigeria are multi-dimensionally poor, which translates to about 133 million Nigerians. To put this in context, the number of the poor in Nigeria is more than two times the population of the United Kingdom (66m), more than the entire population of Japan (122m), and more than four times the population of Ghana (31m).
UNICEF estimates the number of out-of-school children in the country as of 2022 to be around 20 million, which is the highest in the world and represents about 22 percent of all Nigerian school-age children. That terrifyingly is about a fifth of Nigerians who ought to be in schools and who are not.
And there is an intersection between poverty, lack of access to education, and low-skilled work outside the formal sector and on the margin of society. And a tendency for this pattern to be repeated with the next generation. And the next.
As with statistics, it is sometimes difficult to visualize the images behind the numbers and to assume that the numbers are just that, mere figures. But there are stories behind the data – grim tales about people you and I know who go to bed hungry, lack access to clean water and power, as well as face the more serious impact of privation such as inaccessibility to education and health services, and eventually death.
Poverty in Nigeria is endemic in rural areas, where there is often the absence of critical government infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, as well as limited opportunities for economic development. According to the World Bank, approximately 70% of Nigeria’s poor population lives in rural areas.
Most of Nigeria’s domestic workers come from rural areas or slums in the cities that bear similarities to the hinterlands. As stated earlier, these workers are poorly remunerated and operate under atrocious working conditions. Some of the reasons for this are that they function outside the formal sector, are not unionized, and are ignorant of labour laws. But it is doubtful that even if they were aware of their labour rights, it would change anything in respect of their material circumstances. Many, if not all, of them, are desperate to earn an income, anything to supplement and support their families back home.
This situation creates room for their mistreatment and underappreciation by society despite their invaluable roles. Many middle-class homes/families would not be able to function effectively without the services of these housekeepers who provide a 24-hour support system that enables the breadwinners to work and earn a livelihood.
Overseas, especially in more developed societies, this work is considered a premium service, and nannies or housekeepers earn at least the minimum hourly wage and have working conditions similar to those in the more formal sector. Many Nigerian families that emigrate overseas learn too late that it is not business as usual, as one of the couple has to stop work to tend to the children because the cost of employing a housekeeper is equal to or higher than the salary he or she would have earned had she been employed.
This fair compensation for housekeepers and other low–skilled workers overseas ensures that the income inequality gap is not so high in such countries. Not so in Nigeria which the UN ranks as one of the most unequaled countries in the world, ranking 11th in West Africa and 100 out of 163 countries globally.
We can change this sad story by investing substantially in formal and vocational education, which in time will create better economic opportunities for people in disadvantaged areas. Already, some states – and this is from an anecdotal perspective only – seem to have made significant advancements in this area.
When I was much younger, nearly all domestic workers appear to come from the Akwa-Cross areas (Akwa Ibom and Cross River States), but that is not the case now as there are hardly any ‘Calabar house helps,’ suggesting the availability of more educational and vocational opportunities for women and girls in these areas. Today, nearly all the housekeepers are from southern Kaduna and Benue States.
If we succeed in providing better educational opportunities for our young girls and women, the domestic worker in the form it is today will cease to exist. We will pay a premium for such services and under more sanitized working conditions.
Perhaps, at that time, I would not be able to afford the services of housekeepers such as Christiana; or if I can, the relationship would be quite different and not approximate that of a master and servant, and she would speak with the self-assurance that education gives, a person conscious of her rights and her options, and so not too eager to please by responding “yes sir” or “yes ma” to everything.