KIGALI, RWANDA – Eric Masengesho, 18, works six days a week washing dishes, cooking and doing laundry as a domestic worker for a family in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.
He says he likes being a domestic worker for the most part. But he adds that household cleaning requires so much energy yet pays a low wage.
Some families here also mistreat their domestic workers, he says, while he cooks and washes dishes in the home of his boss.
“When I see house girls being mistreated, it hurts me a lot, ” Masengesho says.
Masengesho, who grew up in the rural Southern province of Rwanda, dropped out of school when his family could no longer afford to pay his fees. He decided to become a house boy, as they are called here, in order to make a living in Kigali because he lacks the skills to perform other jobs.
But if he found a higher-paying, more rewarding job, he says he would gladly leave household work. His dream is to become a vehicle technician.
Domestic workers say their jobs are difficult, especially when employers overwork, mistreat them or withhold their pay. There are no formal laws specifically dedicated to the protection of house help in Rwanda, but judges are encouraging domestic workers to report abuse under general labor laws. A growing number of associations for domestic workers aim to protect their rights, while other organizations provide skills training so that they can pursue alternative forms of employment.
There are no statistics available on how many domestic workers there are in Kigali, nor on how many may be abused, says Nicolette Nsabimana, a coordinator at Centre Marembo, a training and drop-in center that provides services to vulnerable youth.
She says poverty is the main reason children become domestic workers.
A 17-year-old girl from the Rusizi district in the Western province, whose name is withheld to protect her identity, lives at Centre Marembo. She came here after working in Kigali for three months as a domestic worker.
“I came in town to search for a job of being a house girl because of poverty,” she says. “My parents were not able to pay school fees for me, and I took a decision of coming in Kigali town after being given a permission by my parents.”
She found a job as a domestic worker where her duties involved cleaning the house, cooking for the whole family, washing clothes, looking after children and performing other small chores. But she says her employers began to mistreat her, including underpaying her.
Her salary did not match the amount of work required of her, she says, asserting that her boss should have paid her closer to 20,000 francs ($32) each month. They promised her 7,000 francs ($11) each month, but two and a half months passed before her employer paid her.
She left the job without receiving even half the money she had earned. She reported her underpayment to Centre Marembo but not to local authorities.