Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Help is on its way

Female domestic workers in Egypt are finally demanding their rights, writes Sarah Eissa

Al-Ahram Weekly

She wakes up early, preparing herself to spend around 13 hours on non-stop work and ready to be scolded for any mistakes. She might even be subjected to physical violence or sexual harassment, but her rights have never really been discussed. This is not the story of any one particular woman, but it is that of the many women who go unnoticed but whose disappearance from many households will be immediately remarked upon. Some female domestic workers have now decided it is time to demand their rights.

The Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement (EACPE), a non-governmental organisation, has conducted a project to enhance the laws and rights of domestic workers. The EACPE has drafted a law to protect maids’ rights that will be presented to the next parliament. On 3 September, 2012, it officially registered the first syndicate for female domestic workers with 300 members under the name of the “Monthly Paid Workers Syndicate”, since the Ministry of Manpower refused to name it the “Domestic Workers Syndicate”.

Nine members have been elected to the board of directors of the syndicate, and Hanaa Mustafa, 54, the chair, has herself endured many hardships in her work as a domestic worker. She endures pain in her legs due to working 10 hours a day, and, while she lives in a village in the Assiut governorate (380 kilometres from Cairo), she typically travels to work in the capital for two weeks and then heads back to Assiut for another two weeks. When asked when she takes a vacation, Mustafa said, “what would I do with a vacation?”

Mustafa said that she sometimes finds it difficult even to pray on Fridays because on this day she stays at home with her family, catching up on some of the work she has not had the time to complete during the week. She has been working as a domestic worker for eight years. Her current employers don’t offer her food or drink, she says, and one of the employers doesn’t even let her drink from the tap or use a cup, forcing her to take food and a plastic cup with her to work.

Mustafa’s demands are small, but they are not necessarily easy to meet. She, like other domestic workers, is demanding her rights and the right to be treated with respect by her employers. Domestic workers are almost always honest and don’t steal, she says. “We sometimes don’t even get our full salaries, or only get some of them,” she comments, adding that for many maids it can be almost impossible to meet regular expenses. 

Abdel-Razek Abul-Ela, project director of the Al-Shehab Institution for Comprehensive Development, a non-profit organisation, has been working on a project since 2008 to develop the status of domestic workers. According to Abul-Ela, in 2008 there were no initiatives of this sort, so the project aimed to give legal, psychological and sociological support to domestic workers facing problems in society and at work. They also wanted to provide decision-makers with information that would enable them to frame effective legislation to protect domestic workers. The idea was to set up an organisation for domestic workers that would help to improve their conditions over the long term.

Abul-Ela explains that one of the Al-Shehab Institution’s main interests is in women and that it started its work in 2001 in Ezbet Al-Haggana, one of Cairo’s largest informal housing areas. Through working with women in Ezbet Al-Haggana, the institution found large numbers of women working in non-formal sectors of the economy, with many of them being employed as domestic workers. Al-Shehab monitored some of the problems such women face, including low incomes and abuse, with Egyptian law at that time not giving domestic workers any legal protection or support. The Al-Shehab project ended in March 2012, during which time more than 1,500 domestic workers benefited from their services.

Al-Shehab was the lead organisation working on the project, while the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a non-governmental foundation, was the co-lead organisation. The project was also supported by UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Coordinating together, Al-Shehab worked in Ezbet Al-Haggana, and the ECESR worked in informal settlements in the Helwan governorate.

Abul-Ela adds that the groups had been hoping to establish an independent syndicate at that time, but that this had not been possible due to the then existing legal framework. He said that the new syndicate set up by the EACPE was an important step, and hoped that the various groups would now coordinate their activities. Training a group of workers for two years on how to organise as a group and achieve the workers’ aims had shown some of the problems that could go hand-in-hand with establishing an organisation for domestic workers in Egypt, he said.

Mona Saad volunteered to preside over a group called Domestic Female Workers and their Families Rights Organisation, which included 25 members, though the number decreased over time. Saad said that when the organisation started, it was difficult to find the courage to continue, especially when faced with a loss of faith that the government would assist workers in solving their problems. The organisation aims to serve domestic workers facing abuse of one form or another but who are unable to claim their rights, including the right to health insurance and employment contracts. The organisation trained workers to know their rights and how to seek their rights through legal means if necessary.

Saad herself stopped working as a domestic worker two years ago, in order to rest after giving birth. When she returned to work, her employer treated her badly, she said. Today, Saad is adamant that she will not work again if the government does not step in to guarantee the rights of domestic workers. She has stopped working for long periods without a break or without drinking a cup of tea, she says, though she also admits that some of her employers are much better than others.

The Al-Shehab project also produced the first qualitative study of the economic, social, and legal conditions of domestic workers by investigating a sample of 350 workers. The study was used as a means of pressuring the government to take action to legalise domestic workers’ conditions and to improve their living conditions.

One of the project’s most important accomplishments was that after working for one-and-a-half years with the Ministry of Manpower, Al-Shehab published career classification criteria for domestic workers. Eight skill-measurement standards were framed, dividing housework into sub-categories such as elderly care, housekeeper, etc. Each category was given a precise description of the skills the worker should have, as certificated by the Manpower Ministry, with workers eventually being given a certificate indicating the skill level of the employee concerned.

Abul-Ela explained that the plan now was to train maids to pass a certification exam that would give them greater professional status. A training guide will be developed according to the criteria set out by the Manpower Ministry, and help will be sought from ministry experts, specialised trainers, and hotels that could assist in training domestic workers in housekeeping skills.

Saad also believes that domestic workers need more training, and she said that the only organisation currently helping them to attain their needs was Al-Shehab. The Manpower Ministry should train and compensate maids, she said, because workers typically have to leave their jobs and stay for a couple of days in order to complete the training. Al-Shehab used to compensate them with nominal wages during the training period, but budgets for this had been cut, she said. 

In the meantime, lawyer and human rights researcher Ahmed Abul-Magd said that the EACPE was also concerned with human rights and had a programme that aimed to investigate the question among marginalised female workers. The research had shown that domestic workers’ rights were often violated, he said, adding that 98 per cent of domestic workers were women, most of them from urban areas and most of them with children. Some had started working when they were as young as seven years old. “It is very painful to see kids working in a job that might harm them for life,” Abul-Magd said.

The project had been started because Labour Law 12/2003, Article 4 (B), excludes domestic workers from protection. It had started in January 2011 and had lasted two years. During the first year, a study of 300 female domestic workers in Cairo, Alexandria, Kafr Al-Sheikh and Beheira governorates had been carried out, leading to the establishment of a dedicated syndicate.

During the second year, lawyers working for the EACPE had conducted workshops, and for five months they had researched different laws and conventions governing domestic workers’ rights, including the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers set out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in June 2011, which promises domestic workers decent working conditions.

Abul-Magd said that among the study’s findings were the economic and social factors that could drive women to work as maids, including poverty, unemployment and dropping out from school. Such maids can spend more than eight hours a day working, which is against the law. “If the maid sleeps over at her employer, then she can even find herself working without a break, because she is always thought to be available,” Abul-Magd said.

Unfortunately, because currently there is no law setting out the work done by domestic workers, there is also no law to organise their employment, and thus neither employer nor worker have obligations or rights that they must see respected. As a result, the employer can take advantage of the worker, violating her rights. The new draft law aims to correct these problems by setting out the rights and responsibilities of both the employer and the domestic worker, also setting up a mechanism for investigating complaints.

Abul-Ela said that Al-Shehab had also drawn up a protection policy paper for domestic workers, as well as the main outlines of how to improve domestic workers’ conditions, and he said that Al-Shehab and the EACPE might coordinate on the proposed new law. He added that the Centre for Egyptian Woman’s Law, a non-governmental organisation, was also working on a draft law, and there was no reason why all these groups should not work together to benefit domestic workers.

Among the recommendations made under the draft EACPE law is one that says there should be a written contract between the domestic worker and her employer and that there should be a syndicate to protect the rights of domestic workers. Abul-Magd added that efforts to prohibit child labour and to fight against children dropping out of school should also be emphasised, since these factors could lead to poor employment prospects later in life. The EACPE study had recommended that Child Law no 12/1996 be fully implemented, along with Law 126/2008, and that these be reinforced by the implementation of the international conventions on the rights of the child.

Making children work in houses was a form of human trafficking, he said, and the children might well be harmed physically and psychologically as a result. However, he added that the EACPE had faced a dilemma in this regard, since the families concerned were often poor and needed to make their children work as a result. In order to find a compromise, it was agreed that child labour should be prohibited for children under the age of 16. Above that age, children should only be allowed to work in certain areas and for a certain number of hours, and the Manpower Ministry should set out rules governing working conditions, he said.

Working hours should be limited to six hours, including a one-hour break. The employment offices set up under the new law should supervise the employer and make sure he provides facilities to allow the child concerned to continue his or her studies.

Abul-Ela explained that the Al-Shehab project had also tried to eliminate child labour in houses, since this could open up their vulnerability to abuse. However, the project had only been able to reach 50 children in the two-and-a-half years of its existence, something that Abul-Ela explained by employers hiding their employment of children, the child’s family refusing to cooperate with the survey, and the fact that children who work in houses often live there and do not return to their own homes, making it harder to reach them.

Abul-Magd told Al-Ahram Weekly that those trained under the project often had no idea what their rights were. In the training given, the idea has been to educate domestic workers on their rights and labour law, also aiming to raise their awareness about the country’s new constitution and what rights it could give them, including the right to form a syndicate and the advantages of this. The training has also aimed to inform domestic workers about the meaning of terms such as constitution, and it has encouraged them to find out more about the views of those standing for parliament and in other elections. A further training workshop has helped develop skills in home economics and regarding cooking, cleaning, and health, besides other matters.

Abul-Magd said that some workers loathed their jobs. One of the syndicate members, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Weekly that she had been working in the field for 12 years and had been subjected to a great deal of abuse during that time, but had always kept silent since she needed the employment. She preferred not to speak about the details of the abuse, but said that she had sometimes had to work for up to 12 hours without a break, only to find that her employer had refused to give her her salary.

If she was injured at work, she would stay at home, she said, but this could lead to a severe shortage of money, meaning that she could not afford to buy the necessary medication. She hoped that the new syndicate would provide health and social insurance and that it would act to protect workers’ rights.

Foreign domestic workers will not be allowed to join the new syndicate, since foreigners are often protected by their embassies, which hold copies of their employment contracts. They also have specific working hours and salaries, unlike Egyptian workers. According to Abul-Magd, one of the Egyptian workers interviewed worked with a domestic worker from the Philippines, who had had an employment contract with her embassy, only did certain tasks and only worked eight hours a day. The Egyptian worker, by contrast, had had to work all day long and had had to take on a variety of different tasks, her employer even teaching her to drive so that she could double up as a driver and a domestic worker.

In order to join the new syndicate, workers should not be members of any other syndicate, must have a national ID, and must pay LE5 monthly membership. Despite this small amount of money, syndicate chair Mustafa said that she for one would have difficulty affording it. In the alternative scheme set up by the Domestic Female Workers and their Families Rights Organisation, Saad said that members should believe in the organisation’s aims and should pay a LE10 monthly membership, which would then be used to help solve workers’ problems, including health problems, and to help start projects like a nursery for children or literacy classes.

“We can’t wait for the government to solve our problems,” Saad said. “I believe the association will succeed and domestic workers will get their rights throughout the Arab world, but we need to take things step by step. People must believe in the association and join it in order for it to expand.”


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