Too close for comfort? Uncovering the odious roots of ‘normalised’ dehumanisation of domestic workers


Domestic workers enter the sphere of private lives of others, where they perform essential care work in conditions that are mostly unregulated and hidden from public view. In the process, they tend to face inhumane treatment. The disturbing part is that this abuse is normalised and accepted by a society that sympathises with the ‘discomfort of  wealthy and middle-class people who experience ‘intruding witnesses’ in their homes.  

Domestic worker

Domestic workers enter the sphere of private lives of others, where they perform essential care work in conditions that are mostly unregulated and hidden from public view. In the process, they tend to face inhumane treatment. The disturbing part is that this abuse is normalised and accepted by a society that sympathises with the ‘discomfort of  wealthy and middle-class people who experience ‘intruding witnesses’ in their homes.  

The dynamics of having another person share the family home and take up the bulk of care work is not without complications. In the course of my work as a feminist lawyer and organizer, I met someone who told me that she had dismissed her domestic worker Mary (Not real name) in order to protect her marriage. She shared that she had become suspicious of Mary, allegedly for dressing in a manner aimed to seduce the household husband. Mary’s story is not an isolated one; it is business as usual for many young women employed in homes to face unfair treatment and dismissal due to baseless suspicion and jealousy, while also finding themselves extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. 

In 2009, a local paper ran a commentary  piece entitled “How to stop a house-help from destroying your relationship.” One of the respondents shared: “Since it is commonly house-girls that disorganised men, wives should make sure that they are strict about the way she dresses to avoid seduction. She must not take over the wife’s duties, especially concerning the husband. Also, some maids are denied free-time to go out and socialise. Since the maid has no boyfriend, she takes advantage of the male boss.’’ Society seems to find it entirely acceptable for employers to prescribe their domestic workers on how to dress and behave in order to spare themselves the feelings of insecurity within their own homes.  

A renowned female artist in Uganda publicly admitted on  national television in 2019 that she  had abused and assaulted a domestic worker whom she had employed. In many interviews she commented: “it was just slaps.” She also claimed that there are other people who have done worse to their domestic workers and accused the media of blowing the incident out of proportion – after all, she insisted they were just slaps. Another employer made comments in a local paper about a domestic worker she had seen: “I once saw a maid who was very pregnant, she looked like the madam of the house.” Are domestic workers not allowed to bear children? 

A colleague of mine employs a nanny to look after her baby during working hours. The nanny, who is very dedicated to her job, came to work with a cough one day and a week later, the whole family was down with COVID-19. Concerned friends advised my colleague to let the nanny go, since “you can’t trust someone who brought COVID into your home…you don’t know where she has been.” This was almost as if to imply that it would be impossible for my colleague to get infected with COVID-19 while at office, at the supermarket or while having dinner at a fancy restaurant with these same ‘concerned friends’ of hers!  

What is this dehumanisation rooted in? 

One thing that most contemporary conversations about domestic workers hold in common is this: it is all dehumanising! This is true from the degrading language used when speaking to and about these workers, to how they are actually treated on the job. It is a common occurrence for employers to insist that their employee is not allowed to leave the house; that they don’t consume the same meals as the family consumes; that they are not allowed to visit their own families; that they are not allowed to speak to anyone – not even the neighbours. This sordid insistence that domestic workers are not allowed a life beyond the employer’s home, while also treating domestic workers in such dehumanising ways within the home, plays out like a carefully orchestrated strategy aimed at robbing domestic workers of their sense of self and personal autonomy. For many employers, control and abuse are acceptable ways of ‘managing’ the awkward witnessing of the details of their lives by an outsider. For other employers, dehumanising their domestic workers is a way of justifying the unequal treatment that they receive within the home. One thing is for sure, these actions aim to affirm the domestic workers’ subordinate position. 

There are often tensions and erratic swings between attempts to treat domestic workers as ‘members of the family’ and mistreating them in order to reinforce the subordinate position of the domestic worker in relation to the employers. As the University of Witwatersand’s Shireen Ally writes: “Employers strategically manipulate intimacy and affective relations, not only to mask the relationship as one of waged work but also to obfuscate the dramatic inequalities in the domestic employment relationship through tropes, especially of kinship, that suggest equality. Discomfort with the inextricably of domestic workers from their intimate personal lives, however, equally results in various attempts to create and maintain social and physical distance, often through dehumanising practices.”  

Zuzana Uhde’s paper Social bias within the institution of hired domestic care categorises relationships between employers and domestic workers into four major forms: the paternalistic and maternalistic relationship, the instrumental relationship, the relationship of contractual professionalisation and the relationship of personalism. The paternalistic relationship is typical of the traditional culture of servitude where the employer treats the domestic worker as a servant. “Paternalism refers to broader social structures which are a residue of feudal society. It is a protectionist but controlled relationship of feign benevolentness thereby creating the illusion of mutuality in the relationship and of loyalty. Paternalism, nonetheless, represents a relationship of rigid hierarchy which only seemingly pursues the interests of the subordinate, and this pretence is used to establish the subordinate's commitment and devotion to the superior.” 

Zuzana Uhde references Judith Rollins and other authors who have described a number of practices which reproduce a maternalistic relationship in everyday interaction. She notes: “It is a form of address which puts domestic workers in the role of immature and incompetent beings, a form of control over their behavior and life, presenting them with valueless things (old clothes, leftovers, etc.), providing superior advice.” 

Situation in Uganda  

In Uganda, just like in other countries, domestic work is traditionally a highly feminised occupation. Questions of gender and discrimination are thus interwoven with the legal regulation issues. Considering the current context of global capitalism, which has created a sector of second-rate employment characterised by mostly employing women from vulnerable groups (including poor women, widowed women, young/teenage mothers and migrant workers), it is more urgent than ever to ensure effective legal protection of such workers at the domestic and international level. However, labour legislation in several countries, including Uganda, does not even recognize domestic work and often excludes domestic workers from access to rights and protections that are enjoyed by other categories of workers. Domestic workers often lack access to rights, justice, and protection both as women and as workers, contributing to an environment that often leads to grave human rights abuses.   

Given the privacy of the setting in which domestic work typically takes place, exposing and removing subordination and exploitation from this institution is extremely difficult. Identification of these violations is rarely possible until they are extreme. Moreover, it is necessary to recognise domestic workers in national labour legislation, in order to allow domestic workers an avenue to demand enforcement of their rights, and to ensure children are not being exploited for domestic work. Domestic workers are one category of non-standard workers. They are for the most part employees but are a classic example of non-standard employees. They are almost universally employed as individuals (not collectively) in private households (not in formal workplaces). They are frequently employed on a part-time basis, in many cases “informally” (without regard for legal requirements). Few institutions of labour laws are applicable or accessible to them. 

Considering the large number of workers involved in these occupations; the effective protection of their rights is an important objective in its own right. But, over and above this, domestic workers offer important case studies for the regulation of non-standard work under extremely challenging conditions. However, the constitutional rights to equality and fair labour practices cannot be deemed satisfied if those who are compelled to work under such conditions enjoy less protection than other workers. The legal system must accommodate the basic rights of workers, not vice versa. 

Some might say the measure of a society is the way by which it treats its most vulnerable members. But conversely, in a society divided by class interests, the protection of workers’ rights – and even their existence – depends on the empowerment of workers to articulate and, if need be, act to ensure the implementation of those rights. The impunity around addressing issues like “Just slapping the domestic help” will therefore encourage and lead to other violations.  

Where do we go from here? 

The starting point is to recognise and understand the oppressive realities that domestic workers face on a daily basis – the problems, deprivations, humiliations, and abuses – as well as their causes and effects. The second step is to look at this as a labour issue, and therefore an employment issue and a development issue - because that is what it is. Thanks to intensive campaigning and research in recent years, the realities faced by domestic workers are no longer a secret kept hidden in the privacy of employers’ homes, and their social origins are much more clearly understood. Perhaps the most obvious problem is low wages. But this is only one aspect of an interrelated set of deep-rooted social conditions. 

The low wages alone can be explained by a mass pool of workers competing for few opportunities while lacking formally recognised skills. The result is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle: vulnerable persons are locked into low-paid, insecure jobs; domestic workers, and often their children, have little opportunity to acquire skills or escape from their poverty trap. The consequences, however, are far-reaching. Low wages and dependency translate into massive inequality between worker and employer, extreme disempowerment of workers and extensive power in the hands of employers, leaving the workers exposed to exploitation and abuse. Live-in domestic workers experience this most acutely, sometimes being housed under inhumane conditions and suffering physical or sexual assault. 

The inappropriateness of the prevailing collective bargaining system to domestic workers also explains a great deal of their disadvantaged position; domestic workers don’t often collectively organise. However, the labour law system in Uganda (as in other countries) recognizes the need for workers’ safety net in unorganised sectors in the form of minimum wages and employment conditions determined by the State. Moreover, the State takes the existing status of domestic workers at the bottom of the job market as a given, perpetuating this dynamic. Lack of organisation is another widespread reality of life for domestic workers. Workers who are strongly organised are better placed to resist infringements on their rights and are empowered to pressure the government and employers to address problems. But lack of organisation, too, cannot be understood in isolation from the legal framework. The constitutional right to organise is intended to be promoted by creating practical opportunities to organise for all workers, not only those in standard employment. However, in practice, this is not the case.  

If we are to address the dehumanisation of domestic workers in Uganda, we have to start with the gaps in the legal framework in terms of how labour rights are designed and enforced. Without a protective legal framework, the cycles of abuse and subordination of domestic workers cannot be broken.

Author bio

Elizabeth Kemigisha is a feminist lawyer and organiser with interest and expertise in human rights law, feminist theory and project management.  Her work focuses on addressing barriers to women’s involvement in economic activities; using feminist tools of analysis to examine and understand systemic injustices and their manifestations; and interrogating the intersection of economic exploitation and gender oppression. She’s worked on issues pertaining to trafficking and economic justice, including business, human rights and access to justice for women, children, and sexual minorities.