Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

Gender, paid domestic work and social protection. Exploring opportunities and challenges to extending social protection coverage among paid domestic workers in Nigeria

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti
20 Jan 2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed within this Think Piece are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF. This Think Piece has not been edited to official publication standards and UNICEF accepts no responsibility for errors.

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti

Around the world, the social significance and demand for paid domestic work has grown enormously – becoming an important source of employment for an estimated 70.1 million people globally, possibly up to 100 million as domestic work is often hidden and unregistered. Of that, between 4 and 10% of workers in the Global South are engaged in this form of employment, compared with between 1 and 2.5% in the Global North. Furthermore, in Africa it represents 1.4% of total employment and 4.9% of total paid employees. While domestic work is a highly feminised job, with women making up 70.2% of domestic workers, an increasing body of work also explores men in this occupation, including male migrant domestic workers performing domestic tasks traditionally associated with women in the household.

This increase in numbers of domestic workers is also due to changes in labour markets worldwide, resulting in a transition towards a service economy and the creation of an environment in which more casual and insecure work has been an integral part of women’s increased labour force participation. This is coupled with a declining public provisioning of care, women’s struggle to combine their paid work and unpaid domestic responsibilities, and men’s supposed unwillingness to increase their contribution to unpaid reproductive labour. To ease these burdens, middle and upper-class households have adopted the use of ‘commoditised care work’.

Domestic workers make a large contribution economically and socially to society. Yet, they experience uncertain working conditions and little to no social protection as a result of domestic work being considered a low status job. Employment benefits such as health insurance, maternity benefits or social pensions are usually absent from working arrangements. Along with the receipt of little or no pay, domestic workers (especially live-ins) have no clear division between work and private time with long working hours, limited rest and leisure time, and rare opportunities for days off. Additionally, they have heavy workloads, inadequate accommodation and food (for live-in workers), job insecurity, and exposure to violence and abuse in the workplace.

International and National Regulation on Domestic Work

Legal minimum global standards for workers’ rights can contribute towards improving protection and working conditions of domestic workers around the world, including the ILO’s Decent Work for Domestic Workers Agenda, and specifically Convention Number 189 (C189) and Recommendation Number 201, which came into force in September 2013. It recognises the social and economic value of this occupation and calls for the progressive extension of social security protection of domestic workers.

Convention No.189 comprises twenty-seven global standards for workers’ rights. These include: effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence (Article 5); fair terms of employment and decent working conditions that respect their privacy (Article 6); normal hours of work, overtime compensation, periods of daily and weekly rest and pain annual leave (Article 10). The accompanying Recommendation 201 provides practical guidance concerning possible legal and other measures to implement the rights and principles stated in C189, such as paragraph 25, which recognises the need to respect domestic workers’ work and family responsibilities. Since its adoption, the Convention has been ratified in 29 countries - 27 are already in force, with two coming into force between April and June 2020.

In Nigeria, domestic work is undeniably part of everyday life, with some households employing a range of workers to performs services, such as cleaning, cooking, caring for children, washing clothes, driving, gardening and security. Others hire a woman, who can do household chores and care for the children or a man who, in addition to domestic tasks, might also garden, guard and, in a few cases, drive. Some families employ domestic workers on a full-time basis, while others make do with part-time workers. Domestic workers represent a significant share of the labour force of the informal economy in the country. The 2007 National Bureau Statistics of Nigeria estimated domestic workers at 197,900, comprising 98,300 women and 99,600 men – although these numbers are likely underestimated.

Nigerian legislation and policy do give effect to a number of ILO’s C189 standards for regulating domestic work. There are policies that recognise paid domestic work, including the Labour Regulations (1936), the Labour Act (1990), the Anti-trafficking Policy (2003), the Employee Compensation Act (2010) and the Labour Migration Policy (2013). For example, while the use of the term ‘servant’ is extremely problematic – further denoting inferiority between the domestic worker and the domestic employer, Article 91 of the Nigerian Labour Act (1990) provides a definition of a ‘domestic servant’ as:

...any house, table or garden servant employed in or in connection with the domestic services of any private dwelling house, and includes a servant employed as the driver of a privately owned or privately used motor car.

Closer inspection of existing policies reveals several important gaps, exclusions, and loopholes, which can exempt employers and the State from ensuring that domestic work is protected and regulated. For example, ‘implicit exclusion’ of domestic workers can be found with reference to receiving the national minimum wage, which was proposed by the Nigerian Senate to be raised from NGN18,000 (USD$58) to NGN30,000 (USD$97) in March 2019. While Article 9 of the National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Act (2011) defines a ‘worker’ as:

‘…any member of the civil service of the Federation, of a State or Local Government or any individual (other than persons occupying executive, administrative, technical or professional positions in any such civil service) who has entered into or works under a contract with an employer whether the contract is manual labour, clerical work or otherwise, expressed or implied, oral or in writing, and whether it is a contract personally to execute any work or labour’.

Domestic workers appear to be excluded from the entitlement to receive the minimum wage under Article 2(a) of this Act, which states that the requirement to pay the national minimum wage under section 1 of the Act shall not apply to ‘an establishment in which less than fifty workers are employed’ – a situation that applies to almost all domestic workers.

The state of the legal and policy provisions applicable to domestic workers in Nigeria, are compounded within a country context where a cultural and societal attitude of stigmatisation and discrimination of domestic workers exists with no formal mechanisms in place to enforce any existing laws. Employers’ themselves may not even be aware of the existence of such laws or lack the willingness to learn about them. Thus, as significant as international standard setting is for the protection of domestic workers, regulation and protection is also based on a society’s recognition of domestic workers.

Extending Nigeria’s Social Protection Agenda to Include Domestic Workers

Nigeria’s Social Protection Agenda is expanding. This includes rolling out a comprehensive National Social Safety Net Programme (NASSP) as part of its National Social Investment Programme (N-SIP), approval of a National Social Protection Policy and the creation of the National Social Safety Net Coordination Office (NASSCO) to coordinate all existing social assistance programmes in the country.

Current social protection programmes include a Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Programme focused on providing NGN5,000 (USD$16) a month to one million extremely poor Nigerians and a National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP) providing one meal a day to 5.5 million public primary school children. There are also labour market programmes, such as the N-Power Programme - a job creation and skills empowerment programme for young Nigerians between the ages of 18 and 35, and the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP). These programmes, for the most part, do not include informal workers, including domestic workers. Given the important role of the paid domestic work sector to the Nigerian economy, it is vital to ensure that social protection is extended to them – and broader informal workers.

Challenges to Extension of Social Protection Coverage

Extending social protection coverage to domestic workers is not without its challenges, particularly in the Nigerian context where the current social protection strategy already faces policy inconsistency, a lack of reliable data, funding and accountability, low coverage and targeting issues.

With respect to paid domestic work, coverage of social security, worker’s rights and minimum wage guarantees are usually limited to workers in the formal economy. Domestic workers in the country do not tend to fall under this category of employment and are often excluded from such considerations. Being invisible and isolated, with a lack of time off, freedom of movement, and few social networks, makes the opportunity for domestic workers to bargain collectively to improve their living and working conditions difficult. Collective organising of domestic workers is also at early stages in Nigeria. In July 2011, for example, the Federation of Informal Workers’ Organisation of Nigeria (FIWON), an umbrella organisation for self-employed Nigerians in the informal economy, attempted to organise domestic workers into a union. FIWON organised a one-day workshop, ‘Building a Union to Fight for Domestic Workers’ Rights and Respect at Work: Challenges and Opportunities’, in which twenty domestic workers came together to call for job security and improved working conditions to enable them to live decent lives and contribute to national development. Yet, awareness of rights may not lead to action as high turnover, and the inability to speak up for fear of losing their job, makes it even harder for domestic workers to demand for their rights, such as having written contracts to enable negotiations of their conditions of work.

Domestic workers low and irregular salary is another barrier to being able to pay in to contributory social security benefits. In Nigeria, domestic workers’ salary ranges from nothing or being paid in-kind to as little as NGN1500 (USD$5) a month, with average salaries being around NGN13,000 (USD$38). As such, certain social insurance schemes may only be affordable to workers if it is free or subsidised. Moreover, procedures to register and contribute to social protection schemes were traditionally designed for formal companies or public institutions, leading to employers’ having limited knowledge or lack of willingness to solicit information on legal requirements and procedures to register domestic workers to social security benefits.

Opportunities for Extension of Social Protection Coverage

Despite these sector specific challenges, along with the broader social protection ones, there are ways to expand social protection to include domestic workers. There is scope within a number of policies in the country for further inclusion of domestic workers. Article 54 of the Labour Act could be reviewed and revised to ensure that domestic workers’ rights to maternity leave are not denied. Similarly, Article 88(1)(d) of the Labour Act and the National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Act could be revised to ensure that domestic workers are included and are paid at least the national minimum wage, in accordance with Article 11 of C189. It is also recommended that Nigeria ratifies C189.

Extending social insurance to informal workers is complicated, but not impossible’. Recognising the specificity of domestic work, social assistance programmes that are non-contributory or have a reduced contribution can be considered. Non-contributory rates are particularly important for those workers with limited or no contributory capacity, such as social assistance in the form of universal child grants and maternity benefits. A child grant can support women workers with young children with child care costs, while maternity benefit can provide them with some income during periods when they are unable to work.

For those domestic workers with some contributory capacity, extending social insurance schemes can be done at a reduced rate. Countries, including Argentina, Cabo Verde, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Philippines, Spain and Uruguay apply a lower contribution rate for domestic workers than that applied to other salaried workers. As such, the State should explore contributory schemes that do not only rely on contributions from workers themselves, but also from other actors such as employers. For example, domestic workers in South Africa are covered by the Unemployment Insurance Fund into which their employers must contribute.

Awareness can also be raised more broadly on domestic workers’ rights and social protection, as well as the role of unions to improve domestic workers’ working conditions, through lobbying and collective action. This will involve a range of actors working together with the State including Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and trade union organisations such as FIWON to conduct awareness raising campaigns on the need for social protection targeting the domestic workers. The recognition, promotion and protection of domestic workers’ rights will also require willingness to learn from employers.

Lessons can also be learned from African countries, such as Zambia which is working towards extending social protection provision to domestic workers. One way this is being done is through existing partnerships. In Zambia, public institutions in charge of the provision of social protection benefits, Ministries involved in social protection, and employers and workers organisations are working together to identify common policy options and raise awareness of social protection for domestic workers. There is also strong interest in social protection benefits, including pension, work injury protection and Social Health Insurance (SHI) benefits from both employers and employees, with employers stating their willingness to register their workers if contributions remain affordable and payments are made easy. Employers and employees are also willing to learn about social protection legal requirements and procedures.

There is increasing global attention on decent work for domestic workers with the adoption of ILO C189 and Recommendation 201. Although C189 is yet to be ratified in Nigeria, with the expansion of social protection in the country, there are opportunities to expand social protection to domestic workers and work towards addressing existing discrimination of their rights and social protection.

Download the bibliography

This think-piece draws from the author’s own research on paid domestic work in Nigeria.