The ongoing struggle to protect Guinea’s domestic workers

A young woman looks out onto the street from the entrance of a house in Conakry, in December 2017. In Guinea, thousands of poor families place their children, especially girls, in domestic service. (Drew Makepeace)

On reaching the home where she was hired as a domestic worker, on 30 May 2020, in the Sangoya district in the upper suburbs of the Guinean capital, Conakry, 20-year-old Aïssatou Diallo would never have imagined she was going to live through the worst moments of her life there. Her boss accused her of stealing 800,000 Guinean francs (around US$85) and a mobile phone. When Aïssatou denied any responsibility for the theft, her boss called in a young man from the neighbourhood to “make her confess”. The domestic worker, mother of a young child, was tied up and then tortured with a hot iron. She was locked into a room where she was interrogated for two days and was left with six wounds on her feet, calves and thighs.

In spite of the torture, the young woman would not confess to the theft. Her employer finally sent her to the police where she was thrown in a cell. Her incarceration did not last long as the guards soon saw the wounds on her body and asked her employer to take her to hospital. Her boss, however, took her back home and paid for a nurse to come and dress the wounds.

This case was brought to light thanks to the involvement of Asmaou Bah Doukouré, the general secretary (for almost ten years) of SYNEM-Guinea, the national domestic workers’ union, which seeks to defend the material and moral interests of domestic workers. The trade unionist immediately went to the employer’s home along with Aïssatou’s mother. The young woman was then quickly taken to hospital for treatment and her boss was subsequently arrested on the orders of the judge in charge of the case. The torturer, who is on the run, is still being actively sought by the police.

The outcome of this trial, the date of which has not yet been set, is eagerly awaited, because if successful, it will represent a key victory for the domestic workers’ union. “So far, because of the social pressures, all the abuses committed against domestic workers by their employers have either been swept under the carpet or settled out of court,” Bah Doukouré tells Equal Times.

The last rung on the ladder

In a bid to tackle the situation, SYNEM’s general secretary, who is also president of the Africa Domestic Workers’ Network and an executive member of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), regularly organises workshops to inform these workers and raise their awareness about their rights, so that they are better placed to defend themselves.

Domestic workers’ pay is another focus of SYNEM-Guinea’s work. According to the statements collected from these workers living in the shadows, few of them are paid the minimum wage of 440,000 Guinean francs a month (around US$47). “Only a few expatriate employers agree to pay more,” says Bah Doukouré.

Thirty-year-old Marie Sylla has just left her employer, a senior official in the public administration. She was being paid 400,000 Guinean francs (around US$42) a month for working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. She sends half of her earnings to the daughter she had to leave behind in the village. She is appalled by the treatment reserved for domestic workers in Guinea: “Many of them sleep at their employers’ homes, where they are victims of all kinds of abuses. I know some who work until two in the morning.”

Equally shocking is how some underage domestics are remunerated. “They are most often paid in worn-out clothes at the end of the month, on the pretext that they are already fed and lodged,” the union leader explains. According to information from the Guinean government, the majority of the domestic workers in Guinea are female and some are minors.

According to a survey conducted in partnership with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2010, 43 per cent of children aged between 5 and 17 years old are economically active in Guinea, which amounts to more than 1.5 million children.

Such practices nonetheless violate Guinean law. The country has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and regional and international treaties on the prohibition of child labour, gender discrimination and trafficking in persons. Under Guinean law, children have the right to education and primary education is compulsory. Guinean law authorises children to work under certain conditions (as of the age of 16), but they have to be protected by all the labour rights established under the law.

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Guinea is also among the countries that have ratified ILO Convention 189 and ILO Domestic Work Recommendation 201. The convention recognises the right of domestic workers to form and join a trade union, to receive at least the minimum wage and to be paid at regular intervals of at least once a month and to have access to social security. The convention also provides domestic workers with the right to one day off a week and regulates their working hours so that they are placed on an equal footing with workers in other sectors, in accordance with the labour law.

Unfortunately, these legal instruments are rarely applied on the ground “due to a lack of political will”, according to jurist Moussa Camara. In the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report Bottom of the Ladder, published in 2007, the organisation paints a clear picture of the abuses faced by child domestic workers, describing the conditions they live in as “akin to slavery”. Thirteen years later, the reality described in this extensive report remains largely relevant today.

As part of the bid to improve their situation, Camara recommends “taking brave steps to professionalise judicial employees and, above all, to tackle the corruption in the security apparatus and the judicial system”.

According to some observers, there is a cultural element to this ever-growing phenomenon. In Guinea, as in other parts of Africa, “child labour is not seen as a scourge, but rather as a natural learning process and, in the case of poor families, as a contribution to household spending,” says sociologist Mamadou Barry.

Interestingly, this view is held by many within Guinea’s elite. “The exploitation of children as domestic workers is very widespread and largely socially accepted. Middle- and upper-class families, including government and NGO employees, often have child domestic workers in their homes and rarely consider their treatment an abuse,” says the HRW report.

Men also affected

Although fewer in number, men also work within private households. The figure is hard to estimate, with most of them being informally employed. Commonly referred to as “boys”, they mainly work as gardeners, cooks and drivers. Amadou Sanoh, a man in his forties, is one of them. He works as a cook for a couple who are both doctors. Being a man, he fares better than most other domestic staff. He is paid more than the minimum wage and has one day off a week. Despite these advantages, Amadou is not too happy with his work because of the day-to-day psychological strain.

“I’m the employee of every member of the family. Even the youngest child can ask me to fetch water or go to the tailor to get her dress,” he explains.

Ousmane Sylla runs a restaurant in a district on the outskirts of Conakry. He worked as a domestic for three years. His memories of this experience are not all good. “I was accused of stealing money or valuables several times. It was a ploy to avoid paying me my wages. When I insisted on my right to be paid, my boss threatened to send me to prison for theft. In the end, I had no choice but to give up, because when it comes to the police, the bosses are always right,” he says, bitterly.

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Although less exposed to physical violence than women, men are also confronted with rights violations such as unfair dismissal, arbitrary detention and psychological abuse. In spite of everything, many prefer to keep a low profile. At the SYNEM head office, unlike their female colleagues, men are not clamouring to get their membership cards.

Progress made, but can do better

In the latest US Department of State Trafficking in Persons ReportGuinea was classified as a tier two ‘watch list’ country. “In 2017, we were downgraded to tier 3. But in 2019 our country was taken out of the red zone. And this year we are still in tier 2, in the sub-category of watch list countries,” says Aboubacar Sidiki Camara of the National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons and Similar Practices. He adds that if nothing is done to improve the situation, there is a risk that the US State Department will review the aid the US provides, as is the case for all countries failing to comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons”.

Guinea’s ranking in this area should not, however, overshadow the work being done by NGOs and trade unions to protect domestic workers on the ground. With the support of the IDWF’s My Fair Home campaign, these organisations are raising employers’ awareness about how they should treat their employees and, in the worst case scenarios, are taking the younger ones out of harm’s way and placing them in shelters or within the small network of foster families. “These associations are a great comfort to child domestic workers and have changed the lives of many,” says HRW, in its report.

Unfortunately, these organisations lack the staff, the training, the geographical mobility and the financial resources needed to respond to the scale of the problem. Above all, they do not have the legal authority to represent the children in their care before the courts. The state, meanwhile, is able to investigate and combat abuses committed against the young members of society through its Office for the Protection of Gender, Children and Morals (OPROGEM).

But the results on the ground leave much to be desired. In the field of education and training, the Guinean state and its partners have adopted some promising measures to improve girls’ access to education, but their impact on underage domestic workers remains limited.

One solution to this would be a specific programme to keep track of girls’ education, to encourage those who drop out of school to go back or, in the case of the older girls, to do vocational training.

On the judicial front, there have been very few prosecutions to date. The justice system is plagued with serious institutional weaknesses such as the lack of training and the corrupt practices. It is hoped that bringing Aïssatou Diallo’s employer to trial might help move things forward. The case has already, at least, succeeded in opening the issue up to public discussion.

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