By Meron Tekleberhan
Addis Ababa, June 18, 2012 (Ezega.com) - Domestic help is something that has traditionally been taken for granted by Ethiopian urbanites. In the past the large numbers of young people from the countryside seeking to make their way in the cities and towns due to the limited opportunities available to them had meant a steady source of domestic servants. The abundance in supply had also guaranteed that salaries remained low enough to make domestic servants affordable to all but the poorest of families.
“When I first got married seventeen years ago, my mother found me my first helper for 45 birr. She was with me for ten years and the highest I paid her was 175 birr,” remembers W/zo Rahel an accountant with a Non-Governmental Organization and a mother of three, who admits in hindsight that a salary as low as the one she had paid her first domestic worker was probably unfair.
“Most people increased salaries to more reasonable rates, considering that keep is not calculated, with the average salary for a good domestic worker until the last year or two being no more than 350 birr and that was considered very expensive and was paid for experienced nannies or very good cooks,” she said.
This state of events, however, has changed drastically confounding many working women who had depended on domestic help to juggle careers and family in the past. In just this Ethiopian year, salaries for female domestic workers is rising beyond the 1000 birr mark with the average starting wage being 500 birr plus keep according to Agenghu, a licensed employment agent.
“Domestic workers are asking for much more because there is an obvious shortage on the market and because of the increased cost of living,” he said. The shortage on the market according to Agenghu is due to the large number of women travelling to the Middle East as domestic workers.
“Most girls arriving from the countryside want to work in the city for only the time it takes them to process an employment opportunity to the Middle East. They are impatient with the comparatively low sum they can earn here and leave as soon as possible,” he explained.
While it is undeniable that there are a considerable number of young women travelling to the Middle East, the numbers, however, still don’t justify the perception that this is the primary cause for the shortage of domestic workers in the country according to Ato Daniel, who works in labor and related affairs with a government office he wished to remain anonymous.
This is not an issue that occurred overnight but is the cumulative effect of years of change within the social structure of the nation he argues.
“Several development efforts undertaken by the government and other stakeholders have culminated in a state of affairs that is directly linked to this phenomenon. For example the increased access to primary health care and family planning in all regions of the country has meant that rural people are able to decide how many children that they want to have and to raise these children to adulthood. Moreover increased educational coverage in all regions of the country has enhanced the opportunities available to young people. These two initiatives alone mean that families can afford and are able to send their children to school resulting in less migration to the cities by young people” claimed Daniel.
The legitimacy of this argument to explain the current state of events is questioned by Teklu,* a social scientist, who thinks that such a theory would be hard pressed to explain the thousands of young people migrating to various countries for domestic employment.
“There are several economic and social factors that can be seen as contributing to the current state, but it is hard to be definitive without carrying out some sort of study. On superficial evidence it seems to be a logical outcome of the increased variety of employment within the country and out of the country that is occasioned by increasing levels of industrialization and urbanization,” said Teklu.
The construction sector in of itself is a big opportunity for young people preferring the liberty and self sufficiency usually lacking in domestic employment he explained. “The alternative employment opportunities make domestic work less attractive unless accompanied by a substantial monetary advantage which to some degree explains the increasing salaries,” noted Teklu.
This phenomenon is not unique to Ethiopia and has occurred in other countries undergoing the process of industrialization, he added.
The explanations however logical are small consolation to working women like W/zo Rahel who depend exclusively on domestic help to maintain a two income household. “It is very hard to contemplate life without domestic help in our situation because we cannot afford modern conveniences like washing machines, electric stoves and microwaves. Preparing a meal for a family of five can take the better part of a day and it is very difficult to manage alongside a full time job,” said Rahel.
The problem is particularly a female one because it is unthinkable for most Ethiopian men especially of the older generation to consider giving a hand in house work. “A working wife will have to do both her job in the work place and take on the whole load of domestic chores unless she has help,” explained Rahel shuddering at the idea of a life without domestic helpers.
For some who can afford to keep up with the steadily increasing salaries things may not be too grim but most working women in Ethiopia are forcing themselves to contemplate the reality of a day in the near future when domestic life will have to go on without ‘the help.’
Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.