News | Gender Relations - Labour / Unions - West Africa - Domestic Work Gaps, Exclusions, and Loopholes

The legal situation of domestic workers in Nigeria



Angela Odah,

Nigeria is a signatory to the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, also known as C189, but has not ratified or domesticated it. As in other parts of the world, domestic work in Nigeria falls within the informal sector that operates in the invisible space of the private household, providing personal and household care. It is executed outside the purview of labour laws and social protection. Of the 83 million estimated global domestic workers, the majority are women and girls employed in private homes as domestic workers and carry out essential household tasks, such as caring for children and elderly members of their employer’s family. Domestic workers contribute significantly to the global economy, constituting 7.5 percent of women’s total paid employment globally. Unfortunately, the contribution of the sector to sustainable social development has been socially and economically undervalued and unrecognized.

Angela Odah works as a Project Manager for Nigeria at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s West Africa Office.

Setting new legal minimum global standards for workers’ rights can contribute to improving protection and working conditions for domestic workers across the globe. In recognition of this, the ILO established the Decent Work for Domestic Workers Agenda and specifically Convention 189 and Supplementary Recommendation Number 201 of 2011, which came into force in September 2013. It recognizes the social and economic value of this occupation and calls for the progressive extension of social security protection to domestic workers.

This article shines light on the local context of domestic workers in Nigeria since C189. It highlights relevant legislation protecting domestic workers in the country, and identifies the gaps within the laws, the opportunities, threats, and next steps. Furthermore, it suggests possibilities for advocacy towards promoting the adoption of C189 into national law and protecting the human rights of domestic workers so that they will be treated with dignity.

Domestic Work in Nigeria

Domestic work in Africa is performed mostly by women and children, unprotected by labour laws. The use of children, women, and girls in domestic service is widespread in metropolitan areas across Africa and Nigeria in particular. The ILO stated in 2002 that approximately 48 million children in sub-Saharan Africa between the ages of 10 and 14 are economically active, constituting 20 percent to 30 percent of children—a higher percentage than any other part of the world. A few years later, the ILO and the United Nations Children’s Fund noted that about 15 million children in Nigeria between the ages of 10 and 14 work in the informal sector, 40 percent of whom are at risk of being trafficked for forced labour. Six million do not attend school, and two million work more than 15 hours per day. As of March 2021, about 13 million children were estimated to be out of school in Nigeria, 60 percent of whom were from the north east region. Insurgency and insecurity were the factors observed to be responsible for this situation.

Due to high rates of poverty, child labour is prevalent in many parts of Africa. Children carrying out domestic work is the most common form of urban child labour. Young children are placed in homes to serve as domestic servants, while their wages may be collected by their sponsor. They work in private homes as domestic servants, as well as in small-scale industries and mechanical workshops. Most children working in domestic service are victims of trafficking. Like other parts of the globe, Nigeria suffers from the plague of child trafficking. It is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation. Within Nigeria, women and girls are trafficked solely for domestic servitude and commercial sex. Boys are trafficked for forced labour in street vending, agriculture, mining, stone quarries, and domestic work. Religious teachers also traffic boys called almajiri for forced begging.

Many people are trafficked from rural communities—Oyo, Osun, and Ogun State in the Southwest, Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Bayelsa States in the South, Ebonyi and Imo in the Southeast, Benue and Kwara States in the North Central—to cities such as Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Kaduna, Calabar, and Port Harcourt. Trafficking to these regions is mainly for exploitative domestic work, farm labour, and prostitution. Women, girls, and boys are trafficked from Nigeria to other West and Central African countries such as Gabon, Cameroon, Ghana, Chad, Benin, Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso, and the Gambia for purposes of domestic work and other types of forced labour. According to the United States Department of State, Benin is a primary source country for boys and girls trafficked for forced labour in Nigeria’s granite quarries.

One third of the trafficked persons end up in forced labour and another third in domestic work. The United States Department of State stated that Nigeria is among countries of the world where slavery and involuntary servitude flourishes, with children used for domestic work and commercial sex.

From this we can understand how precarious and dangerous the situation was for domestic workers even before 2020, but the pandemic has made it worse. The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase in violence against women and girls, and female domestic workers faced the brunt of it. There were several reports across the country of physical and sexual abuse and even deaths of domestic workers at the hands of their employers, as in the case of Joy Adole, which was reported by the media and the subject of public debates in Nigeria. She died under questionable circumstances in her employer’s house in the Bariga area of Lagos during the COVID-19 lockdown. Her relatives accused her employer of beating her to death and, in collusion with her husband, staging a suicide. The police promised an investigation, but a year later the case has still not been resolved.

Legislative (In-)Action

Nigeria is a signatory to the ILO Convention but is yet to ratify and adopt the tenets of the convention into national law. However, Nigerian legislation and policy give effect to a number of ILO’s C189 standards for regulating domestic work. There are policies that recognize 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). Article 91 of the Nigerian Labour Act (1990) even 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 and used motor car”.

Still, the existing policies expose several 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 the Nigerian Senate proposed to raise from 18,000 Nigerian naira (58 US dollars) to 30,000 (97 dollars) in March 2019. 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 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 or in writing and whether it is a contract to personally execute any work or labour”. However, domestic workers are excluded from the minimum wage under Article 2a 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.

Nigeria’s 2003 Child Rights Act prohibits child trafficking, although only 20 of the country’s 36 states have enacted it. Article 35 of the Child Rights Act (CRA) focuses on the prevention of child trafficking for any purpose or in any form. The use of children for domestic work is highlighted in the Amendment to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) Act of 15 December 2005. The Amendment specifically provides that no child (persons under the age of 18) should be used in domestic service outside his or her family. The importance of this provision is to strengthen the rights of the child as provided in the Child Rights Act and to ensure full mental and physical development of children.

The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act VAPP Act 2015 is designed to eliminate violence in private and public life. It prohibits all forms of violence against persons and seeks to provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims and punishment of offenders. NAPTIP is mandated to administer the provisions of the Act as highlighted in Section 44 of the Act. The weakness in law enforcement and prosecution has led to continued physical, verbal, and sexual attacks against domestic workers, with the culture of impunity at an all-time high.

These weaknesses in legal and policy provisions relevant to domestic workers in Nigeria are exacerbated in a country where cultural and social attitudes facilitate the stigmatization and discrimination of domestic workers, along with a lack of formal mechanisms to enforce any existing laws.

Next Steps Towards Domestication of C189 and Beyond

To put it another way: setting international standards for protecting domestic workers is important, but regulation and protection also require social recognition of the vital role domestic workers play in the sustainable growth and development of the economy and society.

Given that Nigeria has not adopted Convention 189 into national law, advocacy to sensitize stakeholders on the need to do so, and to highlight the contributions of domestic workers to society, their rights, and gaps in the law and social protection policies is imperative. According to Aderemi Adegboyega, the President of the Human Capital Providers Association of Nigeria (HUCAPAN), an umbrella organization of registered and licensed recruiters, measures are needed for monitoring people who employ domestic workers, arguing that countries smaller than Nigeria have standards they observe in terms of domestic work. With reference to the aforementioned loopholes, he recommended that Nigeria should enact its own national law on domestic work before ratifying ILO C189. He added that domestic workers should receive trainings to know that they have rights and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity—for example, they cannot be beaten or subjected to corporal punishment. This information needs to be put in the public domain to help people know their rights and responsibilities.

Nigeria has a thriving Social Protection Agenda that presently excludes domestic workers. Current social protection programmes include a Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Programme focused on providing 5,000 naira (16 US dollars) per month month to one million extremely poor Nigerians, and a National Home-Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP) providing one meal per 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, and the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP). Given the contribution of paid domestic workers to the Nigerian economy, it is imperative that social protection be extended to them and other informal sector workers.

Perhaps domestic workers are excluded from the social programmes highlighted above because there are currently no unions or visible associations for domestic workers in Nigeria. If they become unionized, their issues and concerns would be at the front burner of public discourse and policy formulation processes. Thus, initiatives by civil society activists to raise awareness in communities on the roles and challenges of domestic workers, build synergy, and set an advocacy agenda on the issue for relevant stakeholders in the media, legislature, trade unions, government, and development agencies would be strategic to support.

Advocacy for the regulation of the working and living conditions of domestic workers is imperative, with a focus on their needs, working hours, health and safety, prohibition of unrestricted working hours, monitoring mechanisms on their working and living conditions, and the adoption of appropriate sanctions for defaulters.

Organizing domestic workers into unions will have a positive effect on the social and economic development of the national economy. Research has revealed that domestic work, when it is regulated, is of great importance to the development of the economy as it provides opportunities for women to work in the formal sector, especially women who would have remained at home as care givers if they did not receive paid help within the home.

Organizing domestic workers into unions may grant them the rights and protection they need, as well as a platform for recognition by the state and visibility in wider society. Organizing domestic workers is essential to prevent exploitation of domestic workers by employers through national legislative framework that will protect the rights of both parties in line with the provisions of the International Labour Organization Convention 189 from 2011.

Another valuable initiative could be a survey on the state of domestic workers in Nigeria, which could be used for advocacy to strengthen the laws governing domestic work in the country. Media advocacy to put the issue on the front burner of public discourse will also be strategic.