Mendy Lerato Lusaba, founder of the Domestic Workers Association of Zimbabwe and winner of the ILO Skills Innovation Challenge has big plans to improve the life of domestic workers in her country.
In traditional Zimbabwean culture, new mothers are given a domestic worker to help around the house. So, when I had my first child, my in-laws, naturally, brought me a helper. She was only 16 years old. That’s when I became a decent work advocate without even knowing it.
I was a young professional, I had a background in labour law and human resources management, I knew it was illegal, I knew it was wrong. So I set out to change things.
It took some time. At first, I wanted to find my own domestic worker, someone I could hire professionally. It turned out to be very difficult, given that the hiring of underage girls is very much ingrained in the culture. So, I decided to create an employment agency and that’s when I realized that the situation was much worse than I thought.
I discovered that domestic workers were abused and overworked. Zimbabwe had legislation that covered domestic workers but there was little knowledge about it.
It was a dimension of the economy, a whole side of the everyday life of the country, which I felt was not valued enough. Requests for assistance, from both domestic workers and employers, kept coming back to the employment agency.
After losing my corporate job in 2018, I decided to make a change and officially established the Domestic Workers Association of Zimbabwe (DWAZ). I said to myself, “Let me just follow my passion. Even if it does not bring me enough money, at least I’ll be doing what I enjoy.”
Let me give you some facts and numbers, so you understand what we have to deal with. Domestic work is one of the oldest and most important occupations in many countries. There are an estimated 63 million domestic workers worldwide with over 80 per cent being women.
A legalised system of labour relations was established in the 1980s together with the formation of a domestic workers' union, the Zimbabwe Domestic and Allied Workers Union (ZDAWU), which since then advocates for the rights of domestic workers, helps with employment contract issues and follow-ups in the event of a fall-out.
Despite these fundamental steps, the situation on the ground remains difficult. For instance, in Zimbabwe, it is common practice to engage underage girls as 'helpers' at home in return for 'care'. When they can’t find work here, many of them move – or are trafficked – to other countries, like South Africa and Botswana, to work as domestic workers.
At DWAZ, we believe we can contribute to a better quality of life for domestic workers. We start by addressing the psychological consequences of a challenging working situation, and we help them improve their day-to-day life. We very much feel the need to support and empower these workers, to give them other options in terms of social inclusion and career progression and to make them understand they are not alone.
I want to build a training centre that, connected with the existing institutions that share the same vision, can contribute to this goal. A space with a dedicated housekeeping class, a childcare room, a swimming pool, a pet care area, a modern kitchen, a garden as well as other aspects related to domestic worker training. After winning the ILO Skills Innovation Challenge, I’m one step closer to making this a reality.
I want all vocational training centres in Zimbabwe to have domestic work as part of their courses. People need to know that you can go to a school for domestic work. A qualified domestic worker can perform the job better and, at the same time, land jobs that offer better working conditions and wages.
And if she or he earns more money, that worker will be able to send children to better schools, buy medicine, purchase proper clothes. When we empower domestic workers we are also helping their family and their community.
My vision goes beyond Zimbabwe. African countries rely greatly on domestic workers and share similar challenges. If we run a domestic workers training centre successfully in Zimbabwe, we can also do it in South Africa, Botswana, or Zambia. Wherever it’s needed.