The Domestic Worker Dilemma

Oct 10 , 2020
By Kidist Yidnekachew

Recently, I was forced to fire my maid. It was not a decision I took lightly considering the complicated socioeconomic factors that underlie our relationship but one I had to make under the circumstances.

She was hired to do most house chores, including cleaning the house, cooking and doing laundry - things my husband and I are unable to do because of our engagements. Unfortunately, this arrangement oftentimes did not work.

She usually comes only in the morning, when there is usually no water in the apartment, thus the laundry often goes undone. She sweeps and mops the floor every other day, but sometimes she forgets to take the trash out or put it in the garbage. She leaves stuff open everywhere, and she misplaces the kitchen utensils.

While she does wash the dishes, she does not do it thoroughly. She abuses the cooking oil we have in the house. Five litres of it will not last for a month, although we are only a family of three. She uses half a kilogram of groceries just to cook a single meal. On multiple occasions, we talked about the need to be economical. Still, nothing changes.

She comes early, stays for a maximum of two hours and leaves. She makes excuses and does not come sometimes. Other times she does not come without saying a word. Sometimes, she leaves early before the work is finished, because she claims that she will be late for her other job.

"You need to be bossy and strict, otherwise they will take advantage of you," is what peers typically say whenever the topic of housemaids pops up.

What they really probably mean is that employers should put their maids in their places. This is probably not a good idea. Many people with such experiences fail to comprehend the adverse socioeconomic circumstances that many of those in the maid service live under.

They are just like many of us. They work for a salary that may seem too high for some of us that are paying but is at the end of the day an amount hard to get by with in a city like Addis Abeba, where the cost of living rises month after month.

But because of the long-existing social stratification of labour, we tend to see domestic work as menial. We have also come to assume that they are lazy and opportunistic and ready to take advantage of us the second we turn our backs.

We tend to believe that we are too nice to them and that every disagreement we have with them is a sign of disrespect to us. Rarely do we take lightly to having our authority undermined by them. It is not an accident then that we have come to believe that the best domestic workers are those who happen to fear employers and that all of those that show some sense of agency are overstepping their bounds.

Is it true that some domestic workers are lazy?

No doubt about it. There are even those who steal and put children in danger through negligence. But let us consider the relationship the same way we look at employees and their employers at a major corporation.

There are few employees that do their jobs wholeheartedly, with most simply accomplishing the minimum needed to get by. This is in large part because of the low pay of most employment opportunities in Ethiopia and how they are unlikely to offer meaningful social mobility. Part of it also has to do with the poor work culture we have in the country.

But do many companies show more compassion to their employees beyond the labour they are willing to give them?

I have a friend who hates corporations. They are greedy and take advantage of their employees, according to him. The other day, we were talking about how some corporations lost money after the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began, which led to them laying off their employees or not paying their salaries on time.

"These corporations made fortunes over the years with the sweat and blood of their employees,” he said. “Why can't they pay their employees from the money they made them for years?”

This is how the relationship between employee and employer is formed. Each is looking to reap the most out of the arrangement. The same goes for domestic workers and their employers, but this dynamic is only exasperated by the socioeconomic, and in some cases political, factors that inform their decisions. It is incumbent on all of us - but perhaps more so on employers - to take it easy on the other.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 10,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1067]

Kidist Yidnekachew is interested in art, human nature and behaviour. She has studied psychology, journalism and communications and can be reached at (

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