We Are Family? An All-Too-Familiar Tale of Domestic Workers in Tanzania

by Claire Burrus

Tucked away on the eastern coast of Africa, the United Republic of Tanzania provides a beautiful setting for a warm and hospitable people. Walking and use of public buses are common means of transportation, and it is impossible to get around without striking up conversation with several strangers along the way. A long string of greetings, genuine inquiries, and good wishes in the national language of Swahili are customary in every conversation, whether it be with an old friend or a new acquaintance.

A culture of friendliness and generosity in the nation has led to the establishment of an economy based on relationships and networking. Most everyone makes business with their friends and family and creates loyal customer bases by showing an interest in the lives of each and every person they meet. The nation is home to a wide variety of industries, making sales off of various goods and services, both locally and internationally. Tanzania is a hub for ecological and cultural tourism, contains huge fishing and coffee industries, and is the site of the cultural and economic capital of East Africa, Dar Es Salaam. The country is also rich with natural resources, like oil and precious minerals.

Despite the resources available to locals, potential profits are largely kept from their reach. As a whole, the country is extremely poor and the average standard of living is quite low. Around 28% of the national population live under the poverty line, an alarmingly high figure, nearly twice that of the United States. This phenomenon can be attributed to the high prevalence of foreign businesses that suck money out of the local economy, to historically corrupt government systems, and to unsustainable population growth, among other potential reasons. The nation is rampant with income inequality, and the wage gap between the upper and lower classes is impossible to ignore.

In a city like Dar Es Salaam, one can find slums filled with tiny shacks made from sheet metal and rife with flies just down the road from enormous beachfront estates.

Many victims of this economic nightmare are desperate for work. It is difficult to penetrate profitable industries without a degree or even a basic education, but education rates are low, with nearly 14% of eligible young people not enrolled in primary school. Some parents need their children to stay at home to help with their own businesses or with housework. Some students only attend school part time for this reason. Public schools are frequently poorly managed and understaffed, and the education received in these schools is often second-rate at best. Private schools are preferred by locals who are able to send their children to school, but these expenses are often too high to fit the budgets of average households. The education system is failing to support the nation’s children, and these children are growing into impoverished adults as a result.

Tanzanians in urgent search of work look to the domestic sector as a last resort as a way to fill their bellies and ensure a place to sleep at night.

Domestic workers are extremely common in Tanzanian households, and not only among rich families. Virtually every middle class household has one or more workers. This is made possible by the meager wages paid to the domestic workers, averaging around 30,000 TSH/month (equivalent of about $14 US). The average household income in Tanzania is around 1,200,000 TSH/month (equivalent of about $545 US), meaning that a middle class family only has to allocate about 2-3% of their income to their domestic worker. This is a manageable price for many, thus the practice is widespread.

There is no shame in this exploitation of labor, because it is not seen as such. A household with a domestic worker would typically provide shelter, resources, and food for the worker. The domestic worker would therefore be able to pocket all of their wages, rather than using them to pay for their own room and board. This is used as a justification for employers paying their workers a bare minimum, while getting near 24-hour service from them.

When considering the hourly wages received by the worker, the income is negligible. If an individual worked twelve hours a day, morning to night, 7 days a week, they would be making around 83 TSH/hour, or US $0.38/hour on an average domestic worker salary. A worker would have to save their wages for an incredibly long amount of time before they would be able to afford to move out of their employers’ home and live on their own. This is, of course, provided that the worker is even able to save their wages, and doesn’t have dependents living off of their income. It is also assuming that the worker would be able to find work elsewhere after leaving their domestic job. Although these positions are advertised as temporary – a way for a struggling individual to get back on their feet – this is often not the case.

So, here we find a system of dependency, exploitation of labor, classism, and questionable moral justification. Sound familiar?

This is not the first time this system has been equated to slavery. It is undoubtedly exploitive, and the comparisons are easy to draw. It is cyclical, creates a class-specific power dynamic and can easily lead to abuse. However, the common local view toward domestic labor is quite the opposite. Keeping domestic workers and paying them poorly has been completely normalized in Tanzania. In fact, hiring these workers is sometimes even seen as charitable. Employers often take in younger, poorer family members or familiar community members as domestic workers. The term “domestic worker” is never used in Tanzanian households; rather, workers are referred to as “sister”, “brother”, “aunty”, or simply “girl” or “boy.” These employees are viewed as members of the extended family, albeit subservient members.

It is difficult to make a clear-cut moral argument in this situation. On one hand, domestic workers are able to improve their standard of living by moving into their employers’ homes. Additionally, the alternative employment opportunities for the impoverished communities from which domestic workers come are often violent, criminal, and otherwise unfavorable. Finding employment as a domestic worker is often truly the best option for members of these communities in desperate need of work. On the other hand, domestic workers have less personal freedom and less opportunity for upward mobility on the socioeconomic ladder than their otherwise employed counterparts.

Domestic workers are taken advantage of in their desperation, and it is unfair to argue for this unjust treatment.

It is undeniable that this system is flawed, and that the position of domestic workers could be dramatically improved with a little effort from the employers’ side. The career of domestic labor could truly play its intended role as a temporary position if the workers were permitted to work for fewer hours, leaving them time to find part-time employment elsewhere in addition to their domestic role. They could also be facilitated in their efforts to save up money if their wages were increased.

These improvements, of course, are idealistic. The fact of the matter is that these positions cannot be regulated and minimum wages cannot be implemented because all of these exchanges occur in cash, under the wire. Even if the government were acutely aware of the mistreatment of these workers, there would be little that could be done to help. If a worker demanded livable wages or better working conditions, the employer would likely either simply deny them or find a different taker for the position.

In current conditions, the only solution to the matter would be a widespread movement among all domestic workers to command this change, despite the opposition, and to hold their employers to higher standards.

The demand for domestic labor is high, and workers can use this demand to their advantage to increase their standards for employment. In the words of Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much!”

Mapinduzi! Revolution!

Claire Burrus is a junior at Trinity University majoring in Environmental Studies. She is studying abroad this semester in Tanzania.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.

The image above is in the public domain.

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