“They have left their families, their children and their home countries looking for a better place to live. And we must provide them with that better environment,” said Mohamed Nashaat, a 62-year-old Cairo resident speaking about the growing number of African female household workers in Egypt.
Nashaat and his wife have employed Flora, a 25-year-old South Sudanese woman, since 2015. They treat her as a member of the family.
“When I came to Egypt, I wanted to continue my education as well as get a decent family to work for. When I came to work for Nashaat’s family, they made my dream come true,” Flora said.
Flora’s journey was not an easy one. She had to leave her family behind in a war zone. She did not know Arabic well and did not understand Egyptian culture. Most importantly, she had no one in Egypt to help her, aside from the contractor who financed her trip and helped her find a family.
Most African domestic workers have to make agreements with such contractors in terms of financial and legal means. In some cases, they may have to pay him all or a large portion of their salaries in their first year of arrival.
Behind closed doors, African domestic household workers share their many challenges
Flora is now a graduate of the Faculty of Arts in Cairo and has managed to form a dance group of South Sudanese to show off South Sudan’s culture to Egyptian audiences. For her, the journey to Egypt has ended happily. But for all African household workers, though each may have taken a different pathway and have a different narrative to tell, they share daily struggles legally, socially, medically and economically.
“I cannot open a bank account, for example. I do not have legal protection if anything happens to me,” said Fatimah, a 31-year-old Guinean domestic worker living in Alexandria. “I feel I am trapped here because my status is illegal and I am bound by my employer to certain conditions in addition to my contractor whom I feel is abusing me,” she added.
Though Fatimah’s employer, the family she works for, treats her well, she feels she has no free time for herself. “My holidays are only one weekend a month. And on this weekend, I have to travel to Cairo where I have to meet my contractor to keep him updated about my status,” Fatimah said.
Her first year was the most difficult. “I used to cry every night. It was my first time to travel abroad to a foreign country. I did not know a single Arabic word as I only speak French. In addition, I think I was exploited by the contractor who paid for my flight but did not give me any money in my first year here,” she said.
The only good thing, Fatimah remembers, was establishing a good relationship with another Asian domestic worker in the house she used to work in. “The family was good, especially when I fell ill and had to be hospitalised. The family made all possible arrangements with a private hospital until I felt better,” Fatimah told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Sagda has been working in Egypt as a domestic worker for 20 years. She came from Nigeria in 2002, is now married, and has two children with legal status.
“I am no different from the other African women who are looking for a better opportunity outside their own countries. Egyptians themselves travel abroad looking for work in other countries, so there is no shame in being a domestic worker as long as the work is benevolent and fruitful,” Sagda said.
Sagda met her husband at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He was a Nigerian Muslim student continuing his studies there. “Before getting married, we made a decision to stay in Egypt and to work here as well. So, we registered as legal immigrants and then had our two children who are now 10 and 11. We are applying for Egyptian citizenship, and we hope we can get it,” Sagda said.
“If there is anything I would ask for, it is to urge the Egyptian government to help African domestic workers with legal status and documents. We need some sort of law or even a syndicate to protect our rights and to facilitate our lives better,” she added.
African domestic household workers
The number of African women employed as domestic workers in Egypt is unknown. Even Egyptian domestic workers are often unrecognised officially. “All other professions have syndicates and laws regulating them, apart from this one. This is so even though it includes so many workers such as maids, babysitters, cooks, security guards, drivers, gardeners and so on,” said Samia Ahmed, an Egyptian household worker who has been working for over 20 years.
For Samia, as for many such Egyptian workers, the job has changed as African and Asian workers can be paid double or triple their payment as the foreign workers are ready to work much longer hours. “Most families are looking for them because of their very long and flexible hours, no holidays, and readiness to do more than the job requires,” Samia said.
“I am now working with Asian and African household workers in a mansion in Cairo, but they took over the Egyptian workers’ jobs who used to fill the same positions,” Samia added.
Household workers are categorised according to their experience and place of origin. According to one Cairo agent, Asians usually get the highest payment rates of LE8,000 to LE12,000 a month. Africans often earn from LE6,000 to LE9,000 on a monthly basis.
However, all these women still need the government to look after them and recognise them officially. And they need to be included in Egypt’s labour laws, meaning getting social, health and legal protection.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly