Last year, the world reacted in outrage to a CNN video showing black men being sold as slaves in Libya. Many of us in Africa joined in, feigning shock at a level of dehumanization that thrives variously in many of our countries. The gruesome experiences narrated by some of the migrants are similar, for example, to those of the typical domestic staff in places such as Nigeria.
Many middle- and upper-class Nigerian families hire people to work in their homes, carrying out tasks such as cooking, cleaning and babysitting. Known as “house help,” a good number are children sent by their parents to work, sometimes becoming the main breadwinners of their families. Some Nigerians who live in countries such as the United States also import house help to work for them. Why should they hire domestic staff right there and be expected to provide a living wage, benefits, and to have their hours limited, when there are hoards of wretched and unprotected people in Nigeria who can be taken advantage of?
The FOS/ILO National Child Labor Survey estimated that 15 million children under the age for 14 are forced into labor in Nigeria, with 21 percent of trafficked children engaged in domestic labor. More than 70 percent of working children started work between the ages of 5 and 9. When I was a child, my mother depended on the recommendations of people she knew in villages who knew people who were willing to offer their wards. Today, many Nigerians use “agents,” who supply servants from as far away as neighboring countries. The agents sometimes demand six months’ of the help’s salary in advance. A percentage is given to the help or, in the case of children, to their families. House help are also taken advantage of sexually, according to reports.
Like the migrants trapped in Libyan detention camps, children usually are not allowed out of the homes where they work from dawn till dusk, often with no formal break time. And, like captive migrants, house help are customarily lashed and slapped. The intensity of the corporal punishment usually depends on the temperament or temper of their employers. Recently, a local newspaper reported the story of a house girl who was tied up and chained while her back was whipped sore with cable wire.
Some time ago, I interviewed Titi, who at age 8, was sent by her mother from neighboring Benin to work in Lagos. From 5 a.m. till night, she labored nonstop for a woman who rarely fed her and lashed her with a whip for offences such as breaking a plate. Titi was sent to yet another strange home when her two-year contract expired. Her family needed the cash, so whatever horrors she might experience on the job were considered immaterial.
Luck favoured Titi in her second place of employment, where I first met her. At the time, she was about 12, living with a family that fed her three times a day and sent her to school for the first time in her life. Her employer’s description of the process by which Titi came to work for her differs only slightly from a slave auction: “When the agent first brought her to me,” she told me, “I didn’t want her because I felt she was too small (in size). I wanted someone bigger, but my (teenage) daughter felt sorry for her and said to me, ‘Mummy, if we don’t take her, they are going to take her somewhere else where the people will maltreat her.’”
Titi’s pleas to remain with this family were ignored by her mother. When her two-year contract expired, she was sent to another family whom she tells me are kind but do not send her to school. Agents and families prefer to move house help regularly from one household to another because of the fresh commission a move generates and the higher wages they can demand.
Many Nigerians are quick to point out the advantages of the house-help system. With limited support from the government for the country’s poorest, it is usually regarded as a form of welfare. As Titi’s former employer noted, “If she had lived with her parents, she would never have had the opportunity to go to school.” However, the lack of regulation leaves it open to all forms of abuse. I know a woman who tests new brands of skin-bleaching cream on her teenage house girl before deciding whether to use it herself.
“Complicity of families makes it difficult to successfully prosecute cases of abuse,” said Lambeth Onuoha, deputy head of protection and investigations at the National Human Rights Commission. Relatives usually prefer to settle out of court, he told me, including in the case of a 14-year-old whose parents got the equivalent of $9,000 in compensation after the girl’s employer pressed her breast with a hot iron.
The issue of house help may not be as emotive as the open sale of humans. But as the world continues to express outrage over these young men who with eyes wide open strolled into the lion’s den in Libya, let us also spare some thought and action for the thousands of nameless and faceless boys and girls, helpless and hopeless, who continue to slave day and night in homes around Nigeria and in many other African countries.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a journalist and author of the novel “I Do Not Come to You by Chance.” Her debut young-adult novel, “Buried Beneath the Bobab Tree,” is scheduled to be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in fall 2018.