Ruth Khakame is frequently woken up in the night. Sometimes it’s the fault of WhatsApp — the constant stream of messages beaming a UFO-like light shaft towards the ceiling of her home. On other occasions, it’s the urgent phone calls — a domestic worker has been chucked onto the street, another says she has been poisoned.
Whereas others might roll over and fall back asleep, Ms Khakame can’t. Or at least, she won’t. As the head of the National Domestic Workers Council of Kudheiha, a trade union that advocates for Kenyan workers’ rights, she is the first point of contact for women’s pleas across the country and beyond.
The softly-spoken 30-year-old spends her time recruiting, organising and mobilising domestic workers, as well as campaigning to improve working conditions and wages. If there is a dispute between employer and worker, she will often intervene. Since the coronavirus pandemic first erupted, bringing with it economic blows, this has become a significant part of her job.
Many workers have been dismissed unfairly, others have not been paid in months. For migrant domestic workers who left Kenya, typically for the Gulf, the situation is exacerbated by a lack of support and being stranded far from home. They’re also often locked into the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system, which gives employers huge power over domestic workers and their movements.
If Kenyan workers want to lodge a complaint —or simply need help—they can ring the union’s 24-hour toll-free line. This then connects directly to one of Ms Khakame’s mobile phones.
Calls come day in, day out
“Now, for me, it’s always hectic,” she says via Skype one afternoon.
“It’s always bad, but it’s gotten worse since COVID-19. Some call through the toll-free line, others call my personal number. But I don’t turn off my phone because someone may be in distress. I follow up on their cases every day. We have piles of cases.”
There are roughly two million domestic workers in Kenya, according to Kudheiha. Last year, nearly 45,000 Kenyans, the majority women, registered to migrate to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.
Numbers are patchy, however, because domestic work falls under the informal sector in Kenya. They work as housekeepers and nannies but have few legal protections — no unemployment benefits, safety regulations, nor job security — and are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
“Their stories are so heart-breaking,” says Ms Khakame, whose phone is currently filling up with hundreds of messages a day. If left unread, it can stretch into the thousands.
The local cases are slightly easier to deal with, she says, because the problem is happening in-country – the woman’s family or police can often intervene. But migrant workers are trickier.
“One woman in Saudi Arabia sent me a voice note. She was just screaming, saying she’d been poisoned and asking us to call her dad. We called him, told him what happened and liaised with our partners on the ground to help her get to hospital.”
If you don’t have a heart for this work, it’s very hard for someone to handle them as people who want to be heard.Ruth Khakame, head of the National Domestic Workers Council of Kudheiha
She continues: “You have to play a role in advising and counseling them. I tell the women; this problem you can take care of, this one you need to act, this one you wait. But sometimes I’ll stop listening to those voice notes because they disturb me. At times I am not so sure whether I’m doing the right thing.”
After school, Ms Khakame dreamed of becoming a nurse but her family couldn’t afford the university fees. At age 19, she moved to Nairobi, the sprawling capital, in a bid to “hustle my way to a better life” and started renting a home in Kibra, the city’s largest informal settlement.
Later, her aunt reached out. She lived in a wealthy suburb of Nairobi and suggested Ms Khakame live with her family for free while being paid a stipend to occasionally help out around the house. She jumped at the chance – she needed to save for university.
What started off as the odd job soon morphed into full-time domestic work. The hours were long, the pay was low and the environment increasingly hostile.
One day, a couple of Kudheiha officers were carrying out door-to-door workers’ rights awareness campaigns. After speaking to them, Ms Khakame began to better understand her working conditions for what they were. Soon after, she joined the union full-time.
Two years later, in 2015, she learned about the formation of an upcoming body: the National Domestic Workers Council.
“Back then, the domestic sector had no structure so it was hard to even organise people,” she says today. “This was a way of tackling that.”
She ran for the leadership position and won with a huge backing. The council is made up of nine elected members who are all domestic workers from various regions in Kenya.
“At first, I wasn’t so sure,” she says.
“Everyone was saying I should take the job but I had never thought of myself as leading a mass of people. Then I thought about my current situation. I was supposed to be saving for college. I’d been at my aunt’s for nearly four-and-a-half years and… nothing. So I resigned.”
A demanding job
Today, roughly 17,000 domestic workers have joined the union. To reflect low wages and pay disparity across the sector, the membership fee is low (Sh160 per month).
During her time as chairperson, Ms Khakame has witnessed several sweeping changes, including minimum wage increases and updated holiday regulations (workers are now entitled to one off-day a week).
Her background clearly helps. The women seem to trust her, and only her. Before the pandemic, workers would arrive at the Kudheiha office looking for Ms Khakame and leave again once they realised she wasn’t there.
Last year, when she moved from Nairobi to Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast, to work on a migration advocacy campaign, women began to withdraw their membership because they could no longer see Ms Khakame around.
The hours are long and the work is intense. Which is why, she says, only a domestic worker could do this job.
“It’s not easy,” she begins. “People still disregard domestic work as mere low cadre that has no value.
“You need someone who welcomes them and listens to their issues. If you don’t have a heart for this work, it’s very hard for someone to handle them as people who want to be heard.”
By her own admission, last year got a little out of control. Between an intense work schedule, juggling family pressures and studying for a part-time Sociology degree in the evenings, she was barely sleeping. She burnt out and took time off to recover.
Now, she sets boundaries. Or is trying to, at least. She puts her phone away at 10pm. “Or 9pm maybe,” she smiles. “Unless there is an emergency.”