Agosto 24, 2021

Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic on Domestic Workers in Nigeria: Some Highlights

Ilustration: picture from the author


More than half of the global workforce is estimated to be in the informal economy. However, informal employment is more concentrated in certain sectors. According to the International Labour Organisation, 81.2 per cent of the estimated 75.6 million domestic workers in the world are in informal employment, making the domestic work sector one of the largest in the informal economy [1]. Compared to other forms of work, domestic work is unique in the following ways; it is mostly carried out by women and children – mainly girl children; private households are the workplaces and the relationship between a domestic worker and an employer is personalised. Given this uniqueness, domestic work is often exploitative. Furthermore, due to the high levels of informality in this sector, its workers mostly experience indecent working conditions. Domestic workers tend to have extremely long and unstructured hours, low wages, little or no access to social protection, lack of labour law protection, among others. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these pre-existing decent work deficits in the domestic work sector, particularly in developing countries. These consequences were in the form of reduced working hours, in some cases – loss of jobs, increased workload and redundancy among others. For many domestic workers, particularly those in developing countries, there were limited or no social safety nets to cushion the effect of the pandemic.


Within the above context, this study draws on a survey conducted on domestic workers who fall within the definition of Article 1 of Convention 189 to examine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on domestic workers in Nigeria. Questionnaires were administered to 220 domestic workers across four states in Nigeria­. Ebonyi and Benue states were identified as supply states, while Abuja and Lagos states were identified as demand states for domestic work in Nigeria. This study focused on four indicators – earnings, access to social protection, working conditions and labour protections to provide a nuanced assessment on the impact of the pandemic on domestic workers.


Similar to many countries, this study found that the wages of domestic workers were fixed with no reference to the national minimum wage in Nigeria. Majority of the workers who indicated that they earned wages as domestic workers earn below the national minimum wage. Questions on income were asked to determine the economic impact of COVID-19 on domestic workers. Only thirty-six per cent of domestic workers said their income has remained the same since the pandemic. On the other hand, 8 per cent indicated they experienced salary cut as high as 60 per cent.


Many domestic workers are excluded from social protection measures in Nigeria because access to comprehensive social protection is limited to workers in the formal economy and is based on contribution which is difficult to implement in the domestic work sector. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and aggravated the social protection deficits experienced by domestic workers. As a result of these deficits, domestic workers do not have the choice of staying home to avoid exposure to the virus. This study found that the majority of the participants would risk their health for their jobs. A domestic worker noted, ‘if I no go work, how we go chop’. This simply means without their jobs they cannot feed their families. This highlights the importance of social protection for domestic workers. To ameliorate the effects of the pandemic, the federal government issued the COVID-19 Emergency Regulations. With this regulation, the government introduced measures such as food and cash transfers aimed at mitigating the effects of the pandemic. While no visible measure was specifically targeted at informal workers – including domestic workers, the government developed and purportedly implemented special social protection measures targeted at vulnerable households in the country. The households of domestic workers fall within this category. However, this study revealed that only 6 per cent of the participants received palliatives from the government and 1 domestic worker benefitted from the government’s cash transfer scheme.


For many domestic workers, their working hours remained the same despite the pandemic. For the majority who experienced changes, their working hours were reduced. This study found that domestic workers surveyed appeared to work an average of at least 77 hours per week. This is longer than the 40 hours per week accepted as the international standard of working hours. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the working hours of 70 per cent of the respondents remained constant.  This suggests that domestic workers provide essential services in the households they work.


The domestic work sector in Nigeria is regulated by various laws. The primary legislation that regulates domestic work is the Labour Act, 2004[2]. This law stipulates the right to a written contract. Section 7 of the Labour Act provides that a written contract must be provided to workers stating the terms of their employment. A written contract is imperative for domestic workers as it affirms their classification as employees making them entitled to labour protection. However, enforcement and compliance with legislative provisions remain a major challenge in the domestic work sector. In this study, only 11 per cent of the participants signed a T&C document. This presents a challenge as the absence of a written contract means that domestic workers do not have the leverage to enforce their rights. This gap was exacerbated with the pandemic particularly in terms of the termination of the employment of domestic workers without notice. From the 21 per cent of the participants who lost their jobs, 55 per cent of them were informed days before, 23 per cent had no notice while 23 per cent had weeks’ notice. In terms of how easy it has been to get another job, only 6 per cent of them found it easy, 58 per cent said it was hard while 35 per cent of them have remained unemployed.


The decent work challenges in the domestic work sector highlighted in this study are not new. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these pre-existing conditions. The results presented in this study are therefore useful to inform pandemic mitigation policy and the development of a regulatory model which considers the realities in the domestic work sector.


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About Abigail Osiki

Abigail Osiki

Abigail Osiki currently lectures in the Mercantile and Labour Law department at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), South Africa. She is also a research associate at the Centre for Transformative Regulation of Work, UWC, Cape Town. Abigail’s research background is in working poverty, sustainable development and policy reform, with a specific interest in the informal economy in Sub-Saharan Africa. She recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship with the Fairwork Project. She holds a PhD in labour law from the University of Cape Town.

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