“It is not easy – being poor, being a woman and being a mother”, lamented Rita*, a 45-year-old live-in nanny from Cross Rivers State with three children. Rita was explaining the challenges of working and looking after her own children simultaneously. Speaking with Rita, who feels all she does is “work, work, work”, reveals how for many low-income mothers, providing adequate care for their children while engaged in paid work is particularly difficult. This situation is not unique to Rita. Many low-paid working mothers face similar challenges in trying to manage paid domestic work with family life. The triple-role of women is a well-known portrait in development circles that acknowledges the concurrent layers of home-making and community building that women tend to play in addition to their earning activities. This gains greater significance in contrast to societal expectations for working men.
Nigeria, as elsewhere, is experiencing a boom in women in employment. In 2007, for example, about a third of the non-agricultural private sector workforce were women, compared to three in ten employed by public sector and only less than two in ten placed in senior positions. By 2014, World Bank surveys had female labour force participation in Nigeria at 48.3 per cent – nearly an even split with men. While more women may be entering the labour market, many are also fully engaged in their ‘traditional’ roles as child carers and home-keepers without increased support from their partners or the government.
Over the course of seven months, I interviewed 63 people of which 35 were women, as part of a study exploring the everyday experiences of domestic workers in Lagos, Nigeria. For clarity’s sake, domestic workers are those paid a wage or ‘in kind’, for example with accommodation and meals, to perform care giving and domestic roles including cleaning, cooking and child care in and around the home. Ranging from housemaids, nannies, drivers, gatemen, laundrymen and cooks, these individuals may be male or female, either live in or out, and may work full or part-time. Recruitment channels are diverse – from informal referrals and informal foster care of distant relatives, to more formal routes through agencies.
Domestic workers often experience long daily and weekly working hours, which can limit their capacity to sustain fuller family and private lives. Whether to get married and start a family, finding time to preserve and build aspects of their personal lives can prove a lofty feat due to the demands of their caring responsibilities and the unpredictability of working hours.
Of the workers I met, 17, including Rita, were also mothers. While low-paid labourers face many challenges in Nigeria and other parts of the world (including long and irregular working hours, little to no pay and few, if any, social protections), gender and motherhood reinforce the dynamic of these struggles. By learning more about their experiences, we stand a chance to gain deeper insight into the lived realities of working women and the ways in which our identities profoundly affect our experiences.
Given the choice, most people would find living with their boss a little too close for comfort, but for many domestic workers, co-habitation is not only a typical arrangement, it is a condition for employment. While savings can be made on the daily commute, living in an employer’s home as a mother often means being separated from children for long periods of time. A recurring trend I met is that live-in mothers experience feelings of loneliness and guilt. Many also mention not having returned home since arriving in Lagos and having problems contacting their families, due to a combination of restricted opportunities, a lack of money and the distance. As extended periods off are not a privilege for most, and wages are typically low, which means frequent travelling back and forth between their hometowns and Lagos is simply not an option. This creates a condition where taking up domestic service could mean forfeiting a family life altogether – with many women expressing fears that they may never see their children again.
As a result of this restriction and isolation, and in order not to ‘abandon’ their children, some mothers opt to become live-out workers and care for their children, despite the burden of rent and transportation fares. Making the shift to live-out or part-time work provides the worker with more personal freedom and, in many cases, the chance to curtail harassment. This alternative is usually only available to those workers who have stronger social networks and have established themselves fully in this occupation.
A Tricky Balancing Act
However, living out is about controlling when work ends and social life begins, not about control over the work itself. After a typical 12-15 hour day, workers are often too tired from their work to do anything else. Efem, a 34-year old nanny from Cross Rivers State, affirms that, “The work is hard, and by the time I am getting home, I am finished.” Other workers mention that their workload makes it difficult to predict when they may or may not be free. 42 year-old Chidinma from Anambra State, who works as a nanny, explains how her work physically wears her out leaving scarcely any time for herself. Living out is even harder for many single mothers and women who are primary or sole providers for their family.
Unable to afford to pay for childcare, and with few options at their disposal, one way live-out workers address their care responsibilities is by getting unemployed relatives or neighbours to provide informal childcare. Chidinma explains that she leaves her young children with an unemployed neighbour while at work, occasionally giving her a stipend when she can afford it. Similarly, 35-year-old nanny, Regina’s three children are informally cared for by her younger sister, who is in Lagos and trying to find work. Mothers valued familial care as it is a low-cost option, with payment usually ‘in kind’. Regina’s sister, for instance, lives with her. From Regina’s perspective, this is also ‘good care’ as her children are left with someone she trusts.
Those for whom these options are not available often make use of their slightly older children, especially daughters, as caregivers for the younger ones. Mothers who use this method, because they feel they have no choice, sometimes worry about the pressure these responsibilities place on their children. Efem cites the guilt she feels having to rely on her teenage daughter to provide care for her younger son while she is at work. However, leaving children alone or in the care of older siblings can not only have an effect on the quality of care of young children, but can also impact long-term educational and employment opportunities for older siblings who provide the care.
In rare cases where mothers face challenges in balancing work and care, and have no other choice, they take risks by leaving their children home alone, sometimes locked in a room. This indicates how constraining a worker’s condition can be – with demanding employers and inadequate state support.
Easing the Woman’s World
Only a few policies in Nigeria make provision for women’s unpaid care and domestic work. Namely the Universal Basic Education Act of 2004, which provides free day care centres and crèches for 3-5 year-olds and the National Integrated Early Childhood Development (IECD) Policy of 2007, focused on children under 6 years in all public primary schools. Despite their laudable intentions, not all public primary schools have these facilities and IECD centres are mainly concentrated in urban areas, providing services to only about a quarter of children who should benefit from them. Those able to access these centres typically meet poor facilities, poor financing and staff members without the necessary qualifications for effective child development.
This, of course has ramifications, for the increasing number of women in employment in Nigeria. In cities like Lagos, it is a bit of a Catch-22 situation, with a wider deficit in childcare solutions that leaves most with little or no choice but to employ in-house alternatives that can be personally supervised. There is an irony and unfairness in this because, by employing domestic workers to ensure a work-life balance employers may deny their workers the ability to have lives of their own. This is particularly problematic in light of recommendations from the ILO’s Decent Work for Domestic Workers Agenda, which emphasises the need to respect domestic workers’ family responsibilities.
Any effort to advance decent work for women – and by extension, to
foster a more gender-friendly labour market – will require ensuring effective protection of domestic workers and their right to a family life. Subsidised or state-sponsored childcare facilities are a step in the right direction, however clearly defined start and end times for workers is also needed. A number of policies recognise paid domestic work, including the Labour Regulations (1936), the Labour Act (1990), the Anti-trafficking policy (2003), the Employee Compensation Act (2010) and the Labour Migration Policy (2013). However no national legislation or policy mandates a specific weekly rest period or working hours for domestic workers. Weekends are generally taken for granted as universal rest days, so it perhaps seems ridiculous to need hefty legal instruments and policy to negotiate this.
Policies help structure public life, but it is really culture that tempers our attitudes and fuels behaviour. NGOs and community-based organisations that work to promote the rights of domestic workers can help to raise awareness on work-family balance through campaigns. This reorientation can also be channelled through human resource managers, religious institutions or even hair salons, where others closer to employers can help them learn appropriate behaviours towards those who all too often do not have the capacity or power to negotiate for themselves.
*Not real name. Pseudonyms have been used throughout.
About the Contributor
Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is a technical specialist on Women’s Economic Empowerment at Social Development Direct. A human geographer, with research interests on work and employment in cities in the Global South, this article draws on Zahrah’s PhD research on male and female domestic workers in Lagos, Nigeria.