‘Sisi Pia ni Watu’ In Kenya, Domestic Workers Resist Exploitation

For many years in Nairobi, domestic work has been synonymous with exploitation. What does the future hold for Kenya’s domestic workers and their allies, who are actively organizing to transform domestic work into dignified work? 

In the 2019 documentary, The Hidden Lives of ‘Housegirls’ in Kenya, BBC reporter, Nancy Kacungira, traces the migratory narratives of young women who leave their hometowns on the Uganda-Kenya border and travel to Nairobi in search of work as domestic laborers. In the documentary’s trailer, the audience is introduced to Esther, a 21-year-old Ugandan woman, who leaves her village in search of better work and wages in Kenya’s capital. For a moment, Nairobi’s imaginary is as hopeful as ever. The film’s focus shifts between western Kenya and Nairobi, predictably juxtaposing images of the capital city’s high-rises and highways with those of an unnamed western Kenyan town’s murram roads and small kiosks. The city morphs into a metropolitan embodiment of opportunity and survival—imagined and reimagined as an urban oasis and positioned in stark contrast to the systemic neglect that lines Kenya’s peripheries.  

Nairobi Central Business District, Kenya. Jeremy Onyango for The Republic.

Yet as the clip unfolds, Nairobi’s existence as a place partly forged together through the extraction of labour, time, and life from its poorest, most vulnerable residents, is laid bare. Slowly, the city’s imaginary becomes undone and the distance between the country’s capital and its borderlands shrinks.  

We learn that upon moving to the city, Esther has been forced to live in a small room, furnished with one mattress and no electricity, shared with three other people who also work as domestic workers. In lieu of the regular, permanent work she migrated in search of—the work that was meant to support her and provide security for her family—she is now a casual labourer working in the private homes of employers, who are hesitant to offer her even a cup of tea as she works under difficult conditions for extremely low pay.  

Esther, like thousands of other domestic workers in the city, does the cleaning, babysitting, cooking, and washing—the labour that reproduces the everyday lives of the city’s upper and middle classes; that make their lives possible. Even so, many domestic workers leave work to go home to rest, raise their children, experience love and community—to make their own lives in simply impossible conditions, where they are unable to pay for their children’s school fees, make rent in homes that are often themselves dilapidated or to even afford two meals a day, let alone three. This is the contradiction that undergirds the transaction of reproductive labour. 

Throughout the 28-minute short film, Esther’s words, which are featured at the beginning of the clip, hover over each scene and haunt the audience: ‘Huku mtu anaweza ku[ku]tumia  kama punda. Nataka pia hawa wajue eti sisi pia ni watu, lakini [tuna]kosa tu pesa.’ (‘Here employers can treat you like a donkey. I want them to know that we are also people, it’s just that we don’t have money’).   

In figuratively comparing the employer/domestic worker relationship to that between a person and a donkey, Esther theorizes the reality of domestic workers as one in which they are rendered unhuman. Esther’s theorization of her own conditions and those experienced by domestic workers, the ‘we’ she is referring to, makes clear what the harm that domestic workers suffer entails: it is the everyday exploitation that yields material benefits for employers and the economy in the form of clean homes, fed children, healthy workers, washed dishes etc. Her cutting metaphorical intervention makes clear that the exploitation that domestic workers experience is reproduced by those with more capital—it is not a faceless violation. 

Ultimately, Esther pushes us to contend with the fact that within a political economy in which capital and its ownership (or proximity to it) determine who is treated as human, to be a domestic worker in Nairobi is typically to be overworked, to be extracted from, to be underpaid and abused; it is to be rendered unhuman or close enough to it, whilst reproducing the everyday realities that inscribe their employers’ own humanness. And this is nothing new. Instead, it is part of an ongoing colonial, capitalist logic that renders domestic workers exploited and surveilled.  

TRACING DOMESTIC WORK’S COLONIAL LOGIC

Unlike farmers or the factory workers whose labour accelerated settler accumulation amongst the small colonial capitalist class in publicly visible and tangible ways, domestic workers’ centrality to colonial life in Kenya was most evident in settlers’ private, everyday routines. Settler memoirs and guidebooks, from Karen Blixen’s infamous 1937 memoir Out of Africa to the Kenya Settler Cookbook and Guidebook, reveal that settlers expected domestic workers to regularly prepare tea and biscuits, haul and boil lukewarm water specifically for settlers’ shaving rituals; to dry settlers’ clothes but to ensure they were not too dry, to recall and prepare settlers’ visitors’ favorite meals. Settlers needed domestic workers to prepare, to remember, to recall, to care, to detect and anticipate—ultimately, to make life possible 

Yet within colonial discourse, domestic workers figured as embodied repositories of ‘native’ laziness and insolence, individuals who materialized the spectre of the Black ‘rapist’ or ‘criminal’ that settlers were constantly mobilizing against. Settlers would regularly beat domestic workers for mistakes as minute as delivering cold water instead of hot water or for not being subservient enough, where subservience meant performing ignorance to reinforce the racist trope of African unintelligence, and answering to the shared label ‘boy’: ‘Boy get my bath ready,‘Boy wash my clothes’.  Domestic workers were underpaid as part of colonial labor order where compensation was aligned with racial hierarchies. As one settler, Elspeth Huxley wrote in her short 1948 analysis, Settlers in Kenya, African laborers including domestic workers were paid low wages because according to settlers, that was how much they were ‘worth’, given what they saw as Africans’ inherent ‘lack of productivity’ and ‘idleness’.  

These modes of control and violence were institutionalized via the Registration of Domestic Servants Ordinance (RDSO) of 1929. Among its provisions, the ordinance mandated that domestic workers carry a passbook, colloquially referred to as the Red Book. The Red Book like the infamous Kipande under the Registration of Natives Ordinance of 1915, would record domestic workers’ biometric and identity details, but it would also record labour evaluations, domestic workers’ wage and employment histories and, at one point, their criminal records, too. According to the state, Red Books were issued as records of employment that would ‘safeguard’ domestic workers and ‘protect’ employers.  

However, as the archives that colonial-era domestic workers preserved make clear, domestic workers became even more precaritized after the Red Book’s creation. Through Hussein II Onyango’s Red Book (cited in Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father), for example, we observe one settler describing Onyango as a ‘personal boy’ who performed his duties with admirable diligence. We encounter another who writes that Onyango was ‘found to be unsuitable and certainly not worth 60 shillings a month.’ In R. Mugo Gatheru’s memoir, Child of Two Worlds, we encounter Gatheru’s, a domestic worker, who loses his job for failing to prepare his employer’s dinner on time after having been imprisoned and consequently delayed by two policemen for failing to produce his Red Book on demand. Via Muchaba’s narrative, we witness the Red Book as a tool that could simultaneously render domestic workers vulnerable to police harassment, jeopardize their job security and limit their ability to earn a decent wage.  

What we learn is that domestic workers’ employment prospects were negotiated, in part, through employers’ impulsive, idiosyncratic evaluations which often permanently branded domestic workers as inept and/or dangerous. We also learn that the Red Book was generated in response to settler fears about their own safety amongst the very same workers they depended upon. Here the ‘bad’ worker that the Red Book was created to protect employers from was a euphemism for more enduring concerns about what it meant for settlers to be intimately dependent on Black, poor workers who they always imagined as potential ‘habitual criminals,’ ‘rapists,’ and carriers of ‘venereal’ disease.  Through this mode of surveillance domestic workers were transformed into ungendered, un-humaned commodities that were regularly inspected and de/valued—fungible yet permanently marked on account of their Blackness, native-ness and class.  

Ultimately, the Red Book was instituted in order to support settlers in filtering through the domestic worker employment pool using racist and classist criteria. It was equally instituted to control domestic workers’ ability to work and live in cities and to determine their job mobility at a time when itinerance and desertion were major forms of resistance against employer abuse and exploitation in a colony that rarely sanctioned settlers for harming Africans. If we consider the Red Book and its consequences for domestic workers within the wider context of land dispossession, subsequent food insecurity and the erosion of communality—the manufactured conditions that had created such a large African labour pool in the first place—then we must think of it as a tool that settlers created to generate an even more exploitable class of domestic workers; a tool that would ensure that domestic workers’ ability to care for themselves and their communities would be arbitrated by settlers and their racist tropes, both in the city and domestic workers’ homelands. The possibilities for respite, for protection, were being effectively narrowed.  

ELUSIVE ACCOUNTABILITY, UNREACHABLE PROTECTION

Within a present that is heavily shaped by colonialism, to sift through these archival debris is not simply to sit with static histories. Instead, what these archives make clear is the durability of the logics of settler and state exploitation, abuse and surveillance that continue to determine the conditions under which domestic workers live and work today.  

In order to better understand domestic workers’ conditions in contemporary Kenya and how they continue to be shaped by colonial logic, I spoke with Ruth Khakame, the chairperson of the National Domestic Workers Council, an arm of the Kenya Union Of Domestic Hotels Educational Institutions Hospitals & Allied Workers or KUDHEIHA 

Chairperson of the National Domestic Workers Council, Ruth Khakame, Nairobi, Kenya, October 2022. Jeremy Onyango for The Republic.

Formerly a domestic worker herself, Ruth attends to domestic workers’ grievances against employers and requests for support, and she also works to increase the union’s membership.  I call Ruth in October 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She begins our conversation by telling me she has just completed a set of mutual aid deliveries to some members of her union. Most of the food packages she has been preparing over the last few months are for workers who have been laid off in the wake of the pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout. Those packages are picked up by workers at KUDHEIHA’s offices on Moi Avenue in Nairobi’s central business district. The others are for employed domestic workers, including live-in workers, whose wages have been cut so drastically that it is impossible for them to access consistent meals. Those packages are delivered discreetly at pre-agreed meeting points—the quiet corner in an estate, the empty sidewalk in a suburb.  

KUDHEIHA building in Nairobi CBD, Kenya. Jeremy Onyango for The Republic.

This intensification of an already exploitative logic has been made possible by the continued widespread uncertainty and unemployment that has upended many people’s lives amid the pandemic and the ever-worsening living conditions in Kenya. It is also the product of employers who use the pandemic and the attendant economic havoc it has caused as alibis to further underpay and render workers redundant and to limit domestic workers’ access to necessary resources despite many such employers being able to afford providing domestic workers with these resources. Here bad economy becomes an insidious grammar of contempt and a strategy used to co-opt the genuine crisis many are living through and to justify the continuous gratuitous exploitation of domestic workers. As Ruth asks, ‘some employers have changed their employee’s salary from Ksh. 15,000 to 9,000, but has their own salary changed?’ 

Despite the craven expediency that the pandemic has triggered, Ruth makes it clear that domestic workers have always been underpaid and devalued. ‘The payment of minimum wage is a big issue,’ she says. ‘Annual leave and maternity protection are not even considerations.’ According to an Oxfam study led by Philip Mbugua, a Kenyan sociologist, as of 2015, less than six per cent of domestic workers in Nairobi were paid at or above the-then city-specific monthly minimum wage of KES10, 954 or US $101. Moreover, 49 per cent of domestic workers in Nairobi were paid as low as Ksh4,000 or US$36 per month even though they worked an average of over 14 hours a day (or six hours above the recommended eight hours per day) with no full weekly days off and typically with 0-4 days of annual leave.  

Ruth says that this wage theft is justified by employers who exchange in-kind payments such as ‘accommodation, food, school fees and clothing’ for workers’ labour. Here, in-kind payments are re-signified as favours and generosity that justify underpayment and see domestic workers’ hard labour jettisoned from the designation of ‘work’. In fact, as Owidhi Otieno, a labour economist I interviewed, reminds us, in the face of a legal notice issued in 2015 mandating that employers pay domestic workers the then-minimum wage of Ksh10,954, ‘many employers argued that they would pay that, but only if they deduct food, rent and so on.’ Domestic workers hardly get to negotiate this exchange. Ultimately, what the employer can afford determines how and to what extent domestic workers are compensated regardless of the amount of work actually being done. 

These arrangements are widely justified by middle class employers who are themselves grossly underpaid and, therefore, unable to meet the current city-specific monthly minimum wage of Ksh15, 201 (US$126.7). A fact that is regularly appropriated by expedient wealthy employers who might only pay a fraction more than middle-class employers, despite being able to pay workers much more than even the minimum wage. And where this claim is used to suggest that the minimum wage is unrealistic, with absolute clarity Ruth reminds us: ‘if you cannot pay don’t hire, you cannot afford the service. For example, if you have 7,000 shillings you can pay your worker for a month, that 7,000 is not enough for work both day and night.’ Employers who cannot afford minimum wage can technically adjust workers’ working hours to meet the daily minimum wage of Ksh731.50 (about US$6). However, many continue to force domestic workers to work long hours with no intention of adequately compensating them or relieving them early enough in the day so that they can spend their time working elsewhere to meet their living expenses or tend to themselves and their families.  

This exploitation lays bare a (dis)logic wherein domestic labour is regimented by unending tasks that ultimately suspend time. Domestic workers’ access to rest or their lack thereof is determined by the 8 p.m. meal that still needs to be cooked or the next load of clothes waiting to be hand-washed. And at the same time this very work is devalued even though ‘the kind of value addition of the domestic workers to a homestead or to the employer, far exceeds than the kind of payments domestic workers are accorded’ Otieno argues. Here, the buffers of rest or limited working hours that protect many of us from the unrelenting humdrum of capitalist extraction, are always already eroded by employers’ insatiable desires.  

Domestic workers’ exploitation is further compounded by the scarcity of contractual agreements, the terms of which Ruth says are ‘always blurry’. Only 10 per cent of domestic workers in Nairobi have written job contracts and even then, employers regularly renege on mutually agreed terms, according to the Oxfam study. Most domestic workers are employed via spoken agreements that are even more difficult to negotiate and almost impossible to hold employers accountable to. ‘Those with written contracts are typically employed through domestic worker agencies which themselves often take a portion of what the domestic workers are paid monthly’, as Otieno says. As such, most domestic workers are unable to negotiate their wages, duties, regular pay increases or reasonable working hours.  

One domestic worker and KUDHEIHA union member I spoke with, Pam, described an incident in which a live-in domestic worker in her estate was fired from her job for arriving a few minutes late to work on an off-day: ‘Sasa nikampata kwa gate. Nikamuuliza “heh, na hii usiku unaenda wapi? Ama umesahau kitu?” akaniambia “I’ve been chased away by my boss. Haki nilikua nimetoka saa tano, sasa vile nimekuja 5pm akaniambia it’s late – I better take my things and go.’ (I found this [woman] at the gate. I asked her “At this time of the night, where are you going? Or did you forget something?”, then she told me “I’ve been chased away by my boss. I left at 11pm, and when I returned at 5pm [my employer] told me it’s late and I better take my things and go). Without any care for where this woman might sleep given that she had migrated to the city from her rural home, her employer dismissed her in the middle of the night without notice or severance pay.   

Domestic workers lack the means to keep their employers accountable for emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse, unpaid overtime, wage exploitation and unfair work dismissals. In fact, as Edith Murogo, CEO at the Center for Domestic Training and Development, tells me when we speak, employers often blame this unfair treatment on domestic workers ‘incompetency, not wanting to work, not being motivated about their work, not being excited about their work, not being positive about their work and not being prepared for the work.’  

To think at the intersection of Murogo’s observations and Pam’s colleague’s narrative we can see that much of this precarity is undergirded by a quotidian colonial surveillance logic. Employers rigorously scrutinize the quality of domestic workers’ work, but also their emotional performance within the workplace, against standards that they themselves would never be able to meet. Just like under the era of the colonial Red Book, in Nairobi today, the space for human error or even desire for pleasure and recreation is many times non-existent within domestic worker and employer relations. Also, the abundance of unemployed domestic workers and, therefore, the high possibility of being replaced serves to magnify minor failures or rejections of poor working conditions into possible causes for dismissal and abuse.   

The colonial state enabled this exploitation by innovating and buttressing modes of surveillance to both facilitate colonial employers’ exploitation and reduce the possibilities for domestic workers’ recourse. Today, the postcolonial Kenyan state enables this extractive logic through its institutional neglect of domestic workers. The state has announced two domestic worker minimum wage increases in the last five years and issued guidelines for employers to register workers for national health insurance; however, the government has failed to ensure that employers implement these changes or even make domestic workers aware of their own rights. Ruth also mentioned that the state has failed to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 189, the cornerstone of KUDHEIHA’s policy work, which ultimately sets global workplace standards for domestic workers. ‘For the government, a lack of political goodwill and a refusal to adapt regulations to specifically support domestic workers – who work in private homes – is preventing ratification. Is the government willing to listen to a group of hustlers – domestic workers who are being exploited?’,   Ruth asked. The government refuses to ratify the convention despite it recognizing domestic worker rights to collective bargaining, freedom from abuse and harassment, clear and understandable contracts and importantly, their right to a minimum wage.  

The state’s refusal to ratify this convention seems confusing, given the fact that these provisions simply mirror those that other Kenyan workers are guaranteed under Articles 36 and 41 of the Constitution of Kenya. It is equally confusing considering that within constitutional laws are existing worker protections which the state should work to adapt and enforce to guarantee domestic workers rights.  

But this institutional inattentiveness is not clumsy. As Murogo, Khakame and Otieno all made clear, the government refuses to take seriously domestic workers’ vulnerability and the particularity of their workplaces, which are completely unregulated and inscrutable. In their view the government’s role in protecting domestic workers ends at the point of legislation and the announcement of laws indicating general protections for all workers (not at the implementation of these policies which is left up to domestic workers’ employers).  

This neglect emerges within a public sphere organized around the interests of wealthy ethnocentric men, what literary scholar Grace Musila has called phallocratic politics’, where a plastic public/private divide renders poor and working class women’s issues, non-issues. The erasure and precariousness that domestic workers experience as working-class women is heightened by their existence at the limits of a global imaginary in which domestic work is imagined as ‘unskilled’, natural and instinctively ‘women’s work’; in a labour market in which domestic workers are seemingly abundant and therefore disposable; by the reality that their workplaces are disappeared and reinscribed as ‘homes’. 

But the coloniality of contemporary domestic work in Kenya is most visible in what feminist political economist, Dr. Lyn Ossome, argues is the third world capitalist state’s refusal to adequately enable and sustain the reproduction (the feeding, education, care, socialization) of the labour force. This refusal, Ossome argues, fuels the state’s dependency on and extraction of poor women’s labour to sustain and care for these workers on whom the capitalist economy depends for continued accumulation. The possibility of the state taking on the burden of providing childcare, food—reproductive care—is never even considered in mainstream public discourse. If domestic workers are part of this class of women who Ossome names as the ‘last colony’, then reproductive labour is extracted from them twice over: once to sustain their own families, and then to sustain their employers.  

As Ruth pointed out to me, ‘Everyone in parliament has a domestic worker.’ Those in government who are charged with utilizing their institutional power to safeguard domestic workers’ wellbeing and who instead regularly default on this responsibility, live lives and follow routines that are in part generated by domestic workers. As such, not only does the state’s non-action produce a reality in which employers exploit domestic workers without consequence. Its refusals to enforce the conditions that might safeguard domestic workers’ lives are a policy failure that benefits the everyday lives of many of its officers. 

TENSE, FRAUGHT RESISTANCES

Today, Kenya’s labour movement amalgamated under the umbrella organization, the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU), continues to be co-opted and depoliticized given its institutionalized commitment to primarily serving the government as opposed to workers. At the same time ethnonationalism and patriarchal electoral politics are regularly weaponized to fracture Kenya’s working classes. However, domestic worker organizers such as Ruth and Pam emerge with a vision for a more organized and unionized domestic worker movement that has both a sober understanding of the realities of domestic workers and fights to affirm and protect domestic worker agency. Ruth says her dream is an industry in which ‘formal contracts set the pace. If [specific duties] aren’t in the [initial] agreement then they don’t get done.’  

The domestic worker movement is also working towards a reality in which domestic workers are paid well, where workers always have the opportunity to negotiate their wage increments and receive contracts that give them more job security.  Domestic worker organizers are fighting to ensure that exploitative and abusive employers and domestic worker recruitment bureaus are sanctioned for harming domestic workers; to make certain that employers allot labour tasks based on the minimum wages that they can afford, not their own unending demands. Otieno and Khakame argue that these demands and organizing efforts can only materialize into gains for domestic workers if the government and specifically the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection ensure that domestic worker-employer relations are supervised by labour inspection officers. ‘Never have we had any labour officer going to a given home just to ensure the working conditions in that domestic environment is implemented’, Otieno told me. 

Contemporary domestic workers’ organising work emerges within a history of organized domestic worker resistance. That of domestic workers in the 1950s, who amidst the period marked by militant anti-colonial resistance and the increasing state co-optation of the labour movement, struggled against a settler class that sought to reinstitute the Red Book. Only this time it was to protect the settler community from the spectre or reality of the militant, anti-colonial domestic worker who was prepared to leverage their access to and intimate knowledge of the settler home to arm the anti-colonial movement or even murder settlers. The domestic worker who was prepared to risk their own sustenance and ability to find work in order to strike.  

In 1955, at the height of an anti-colonial resistance in part pushed forward by labour militancy settlers demanded direct access to domestic workers’ criminal records and employer evaluations as conditions of employment. Paranoid about the possibility that their workers might be aiding the Kenya Land and Freedom Army’s insurgency (Mau Mau), settlers argued that fingerprints would not be sufficient for identifying the domestic workers they employed. They claimed that, instead, they would require photographs and the reinstitution of the Registration of Domestic Servants Ordinance which had been abolished in 1948. While simultaneously resisting the state’s co-optation of the Domestic and Hotel Workers’ Union, their main organizing body, domestic worker trade unionists such as Lawrence Macharia argued that these settler demands breached domestic workers’ privacy. Domestic worker trade unionists made it clear that settlers were simply using the KLFA as an alibi for their encroachment, while seeking to deputize themselves with even more power to surveil and control domestic workers and disrupt their job mobility. Or indeed domestic workers’ ability to desert, resist exploitation and participate in the labour organizing that was sweeping through the country.  

As Eliud Mathu, an African representative on the Legislative Council (LegCo) argued, the Red Book and the system it emerged from transformed domestic workers into suspicious subjects who would be endemically vulnerable to police violence and settler surveillance. At the time, the LegCo was exploring factors affecting the relationships between domestic workers and European employers. LegCo would eventually recommend that the state put in place a mandatory system that enabled settlers to monitor domestic workers through photographs as opposed to fingerprints. However, domestic workers continued to organize against a system that marked domestic workers as deserving of unabated extraction in order to produce the conditions that ensured settler comfort and routine. Domestic workers participated in strike actions and in some cases supported the KLFA’s insurgency by supplying weapons and intelligence.  

To position Ruth, Pam and other domestic worker organizers within this genealogy of resistance (from the period of anti-colonial struggle and other undocumented everyday demonstrations of resistance to our current neoliberal reality) is to trace a struggle that has been driven by a strategy to slow the everyday encroachment on their rights by employers and the state, including even their right to organize. During our interview, Pam recalled one incident in which employers in the estate she used to work in, called a meeting and questioned her about her union membership when a domestic worker she had worked with demanded a better salary from her employer. When Pam’s employer confronted her about her union activity, Pam replied, ‘inafaa tupate haki yetu. Kuna wengine wananyanyaswa na tukona rights zetu.’ (We must get our rights. There are [domestic workers] being abused, yet we have rights.) On another occasion, when domestic worker organizers were circulating KUDHEIHA awareness-raising materials about sexual and physical violence in the workplace, employers in her estate became suspicious and began to search for the domestic worker organizers who were responsible for radicalizing the domestic workers in their estate.  

As Pam’s experiences make clear, the right to unionize is guaranteed under Kenya’s constitution, but employer hostility and surveillance force domestic workers to organize creatively in order to actualize their rights and recruit other domestic workers into their union that represents 17,000 domestic workers in a labour force constituted by over two million workers. From Pam, we learn that domestic worker organizing often looks like plastering consciousness-raising materials on estate walls in the middle of the night or early morning hours in order to protect domestic workers’ identities and jobs. It looks like covertly gathering outside estates or employer homes to exchange information and advice on how to deal with workplace abuse and exploitation. It looks like confronting employers on a comrade’s behalf for workplace abuses and telling them, ‘You should know, there are rights protecting domestic workers. Domestic workers are just like any worker,’ and then filing a report that leads to her employer compensating her, as Pam tells me she did for her colleague who was dismissed in the middle of the night.  

This is the organizing that is pushing domestic workers into the future that Ruth envisions where domestic work is dignified work. Ruth’s vision of dignified domestic work begins with a clear analysis of domestic work (as it currently exists) as exploitative, feminized labour that is carelessly positioned as a source of income for those who have been systemically dispossessed and deprived of economic and educational opportunities. ‘We need other options for school dropouts, courses for housekeeping for those who want to do this work, the opportunity to go back to school for others who don’t.’  

As such for Ruth, dignified domestic work necessarily looks like a choice that neither exists as an option borne out of poverty nor as a choice that leads to endemic poverty. Here, those who choose to be domestic workers have the opportunity and time to sharpen their skills and secure their economic futures instead of being constantly occupied by the present (im)possibility of making ends meet. In this future, domestic workers’ self-determination, and material wellbeing are priorities—things to be cared about, too. In this future, domestic workers put their lives at the centre and demand that the government, employers, domestic worker employment agencies and Kenyan society meet them there.  

There, where domestic workers make clear their humanness, their rights, and assert that they are undebatable

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