Ex-child domestic worker Angela Benedicto calls on the Tanzanian government to shore up protections to “break the cycle of poverty”

Ex-child domestic worker Angela Benedicto calls on the Tanzanian government to shore up protections to “break the cycle of poverty”

Angela Benedicto began working as a domestic worker at the age of 16. Now at 32, she advocates for an end to the exploitation of child and adult domestic workers through her organisation WoteSawa.

(Anti-Slavery International)

Angela Benedicto, 32, is the founder and director of the WoteSawa Young Domestic Workers’ Organisation, which works to influence the protection and welfare of child and adult domestic workers in Mwanza, Tanzania. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that of the 152 million victims of child labour worldwide, one in five can be found in Africa. Meanwhile, a UNICEF study describes child domestic workers as an ‘invisible workforce’ of almost 90 per cent, most of whom are aged between 12 and 17 years old, with some working as much as 15 hours per day, often under extremely exploitative conditions.

A former child domestic worker herself, Benedicto started working at the age of 16 after her mother died and her father tried to marry her off. As a domestic worker, she faced terrible abuse before fleeing her employer at 21. With the help of a local NGO, she was later able to establish WoteSawa with five other former child domestic workers, which literally means ‘all are equal.’ Since its launch in 2011, WoteSawa has received hundreds of cases of abuse and exploitation of child domestic workers, of which 10 have resulted in successful prosecutions. Over 300 girls have been reunited with their families and 150 victims have been re-enrolled in primary school.

On the sidelines of the 2019 Women Deliver conference held in Vancouver, Canada between 3-6 June, Benedicto talked to Equal Times about the challenges child domestic workers face in Africa, while outlining the crucial work her organisation does mobilising hundreds of girls to have a collective voice and to redress challenges they face as child domestic workers.

Generally speaking, what kind of conditions and problems do domestic workers face in your country?

There are many different types of challenges. Prominent amongst the ordeals is domestic violence: sexual abuse and physical torture. Also, many encounter payment problems after working. The payment is often irregular and at times, they are not paid at all. And even when domestic workers are paid, the amount is very low. In Tanzania for instance, the law stipulates that the minimum monthly wage for a live-in domestic worker is 14,000 Tanzanian shillings (approximately US$6.00) and 18,000 Tanzanian shillings (approximately US$7.80) for those living elsewhere. But this is hardly respected as employers take advantage of the vulnerability of the domestic workers and pay arbitrarily. Few people are paid according to the law. The situation becomes more ridiculous when employers decide to pay their domestic workers in kind, giving them foodstuffs and household items in lieu of monetary payment.

What about child domestic workers?

We have the Employment and Labour Relations Act which allows children above the age of 14 to work in certain jobs. But the law does not clearly and sufficiently define the right jobs for children. Most of the domestic workers in Tanzania are below the age of 18 but above 14, but we also have some child domestic workers who are younger than that. This is a big challenge as there is a great disparity between what the law previews and the reality. The younger children face much abuse and exploitation. In general, children domestic workers face segregation in the homes where they work. For instance, they are not allowed to eat a common meal with the family in the homes where they work, even though the food is prepared by them. They are not permitted to eat even on the same table. The mistreatment is really severe. If you visit a home in Tanzania, you can easily decipher who is a family member and who is a domestic worker. The domestic workers often look worried, they lack self-confidence and dressed in tattered clothes. They are psychologically tortured and suffer from the mistreatment from their employers. They are also exposed to sexual abuse perpetrated by host family members and visitors to the family home. Child domestic workers are particularly vulnerable. They are compelled to work hard for very long hours, with little or no rest. They also do not have time to go and worship or visit their family members or go to school. Getting leave or holidays is impossible. Another worrying issue is that some employers offer items like mobile phones, clothes and shoes to their domestic workers as ‘gifts’ or buy medicines when they are sick, but end up deducting these things from their salary.

How do households end up employing child domestic workers?

These children usually come from poor rural areas. Some parents send their children to urban areas with the expectation of benefiting from the arrangement. In other cases, intermediaries move to rural areas in search of these child domestic workers. In most cases, the children do not have communication with their parents once they get to the urban centres. It’s really trafficking. With regards to schooling, most of these children have never been to school and others drop out along the way. In such cases, the next thing to look for work, which is often domestic work.

What was your life like as a child domestic worker?

Many unfavourable factors pushed me into becoming a child domestic worker but the main reason is that I was poor. I faced most of the challenges that I just described to you. I lived it and it was an awful experience. But I thank God that despite the challenges, I knew my rights and I was able to fight for them. I used to sit down with other domestic workers in my area and we would share our experiences and discuss ways of surmounting them.

You have been working towards protecting the rights of child domestic workers in Tanzania. How do you reconcile with the fact that these children whose rights you are protecting are not even supposed to be working in the first place?

I am quite aware these children who are under 18 are supposed to be in school and not in homes doing domestic work. But gender-based violence in school and at home, harmful traditional practices – all aggravated by poverty – are the factors pushing children into domestic work. The law is not helping matters, either. If we had good and strict laws which prohibit children from working, we will not be where we are now. Such laws need to be in place with accompanying enforcement measures and defaulters should be severely sanctioned.

A big part of WoteSawa’s work has been lobbying for the implementation of the Child Act of 2009 and along with trade unions such as TUCTA and CHODAWU, you have been pushing for the ratification of ILO Convention 189 (C189), which provides domestic workers with the same protection in international law as other workers. Why do you think African countries like Tanzania are reluctant to provide adequate legal coverage to domestic workers and protect the rights of children?

I think it is a lack of political will. Child domestic workers, for example, and are not of voting age, so the politicians are less interested in this set of people because they know they won’t get any votes in return. In addition, most of the children involved in domestic work are the offspring of poor people, so no one cares.

An increasing number of young women from African countries, and girl children, are being trafficked to work as domestic workers in faraway locations, particularly in the Gulf region. What do you think fuels the trafficking of women and children into domestic work?

Again, its poverty. These young people get carried away by the quest for a good life and they are being horribly exploited. When they are told that one of their friends or peers working in Oman or Kuwait is making a lot of money and is helping their family, they want to be like them. But they don’t know the real situation on the ground. When they get to these countries, they find themselves in extremely difficult conditions and they are left on their own. They don’t get the assistance and protection of their embassies. It is considered a private affair between the employer and the employee. Poverty makes them to believe in illusions and fake promises. Some of them even find themselves into sex work. We really lack awareness, education and communication. Some of them don’t even know when they are being trafficked, even when they are being dispossessed of their passports. The situation is terrible, and it is getting worse.

Having had the experience as a domestic worker, what needs to be done to protect child domestic workers?

We must make domestic work decent. Domestic workers should be able to send their children to school and take care of their families in order to break the cycle of poverty. Legal instruments to protect children from domestic work as well as domestic workers should be put in place and strictly implemented. Wages must be a living, decent wage, and the amounts should be well-known and regularly paid.

Domestic workers should be registered with special government institutions and followed up by the said institutions. This will scare employers from maltreating them. Governments should also remove all obstacles which have been preventing children from going to school and take them away from homes where they are working as domestic workers to classrooms.