Update : We today learnt, Thursday 26, that Rachida Kouki, referred ton in this article, has been granted a presidential pardon and was released this morning.

It’s the story of a mother with sad eyes, who speaks to you with her hand clenched to her chest, and of her daughter Rachida, twenty-nine, who has now been behind bars for three years. Rachida, employed at the age of 15 as a live-in housekeeper at one of the Trabelsi family dwellings. Rachida, as good as dead at the age of 15 the day she became a domestic slave and who, to return to life, set fire to a rug, preferring prison to the living tomb of her existence. Rachida will never be let out of prison, unless granted clemency by Moncef Marzouki. And what’s stopping him?

Rachida is the very embodiment of a Tunisian people who rose up for a better life: too poor, too ill-educated, and condemned to making do with what little they had. To be sent far away from your family, at the age of 15, is already quite an ordeal. To have been allowed to see them only once, for half an hour, in five years, is quite another. It’s difficult to know what one should talk about first, whether her working conditions: forced to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week caring for an autistic child abandoned by his mother… Or perhaps the fact that Rachida left school too early, meaning she was denied a major part of her teenage years?

When her employers asked too much of her and she refused, she was beaten, first by the members of the family, then by the police to whom she had gone to lodge a complaint. Her family was threatened. Today still, from time to time, the telephone will ring and a voice at the other end of the line will threaten them with physical violence or the theft of their land. The mafia here is still live and well and Saida, the exhausted mother of a young daughter who is still in jail, is the victim.

An invisible population

Live-in housekeepers… these “domestic employees” make up a whole social category that has been left in the dark. They are, however, many in number, some “tens of thousands if not more” according to Ahlem Belhadj, president of the AFTD, who has organised the meeting with Rachida’s mother, “but it is impossible to get your hands on the exact numbers because this type of job lacks any sort of proper framework, regulation or protection”. These are the studies of sociologists which enable to get closer to the reality of this profession. Studies such as those carried out by the AFTURD (the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development): “Les aides ménagères à temps complet : violences et non droits” (Full time home help: violence and an absence of legislation). The study took some time to complete: two years in total to gather and analyse the responses of around one hundred employees who had worked, or were working, full time in the families of four different governorates: Tunis, Ariana, Ben Arous and Manouba. These women are almost unreachable since no records of their employment have ever been kept and their principal concern is keeping their job. Moreover, as Samira Ayed explains, a sociologist at the University or Tunis-Carthage who carried out this investigation with Abdessatar Sahbani for AFTURD: “it is very difficult to gather any oral testimony from these women, especially since most of them are live-in workers and can practically only ever be found at the homes of their employers. So we are forced to meet them at the local greengrocer’s or in the nearby shops”. However, these domestic employees are everywhere since, as Samira Ayed explains, with the paucity of good day-nurseries, many families rely on their help.

A lack of clear legislation

For many, to become a domestic worker, is to move from a position of precarity: according to the AFTURD study, nearly 65% of domestic workers hail from families whose total income is less than 300 DT and, of these families, 43% cannot count one family member in fixed employment. For this reason they leave in search of what is for them an essential source of income.

The fact is that this sector is not regulated and so the circle of precarity continues. As Ahlem Belhadj from the ATFD comments:

“It’s a social category which is particularly exploited due to the lack of social and legal protection. There is no law regulating the SMIG (Guaranteed Interprofessional Minimum Wage), for example. But how can we tolerate a young woman being paid 100 dinars?”

In fact, the legislation goes back to 1965 and specifies that “A domestic employee is to be understood as any wage worker employed in a house, whatever the type and frequency of payment received, and engaged in regular work at the residences of one or more employers”. Proper regulation gives clear guidance on working conditions: one must have time-off every week, which should last for no less than 24 hours, on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and the total workload for employees must not exceed 48 hours a week. These general principles should apply to all domestic employees, which are workers like everybody else, but this is not the case.

Time, violence and self-esteem

Lack of job security, medical cover, retirement contributions… but this matters little for these young women who will find a job wherever they can and work unreasonable hours because, in the end, they need the money. The employers are well aware of this and, for live-in workers especially, the working day never ends, expected to be on hand 24/7 at the homes of their employers. They are not the masters of their own time, having no say in when to take a break and being called upon at any time of day.

Above all, they are perpetual victims of violence. The private space of the home, the space which should provide a protective environment, closes in on them. This violence might be physical, verbal, sexual or economic: denied any salary, intimacy, time off or way out… And violence to which, given that they have no knowledge of the law and lack any support mechanism, they have no response.

No longer are they individuals but accessories made use of by their masters who forget that they are dealing with a human being, like them, who also has wants and needs, like them.

The question of self-esteem is therefore of real importance. How can one be proud of one’s work, to really put an effort into carrying out tasks, to grow and develop, when there is so little place for respect and decency in one’s place of work or, rather, in one’s place of life.

The issue of domestic employees, in fact, raises a number of related problems, as Samira Ayed comments, “notably those of informal work and women’s work, as well as the issue of unemployment”. But then this also has to do with the condition of women and access to education.

Young, defenceless women

Because, as can be seen in the AFTURD report, most domestic employees are young women, 17.5% of which are between 12 and 17 years old and 60.8% of which are between 18 and 29 years old. More than 32% have never had a formal education and nearly 31% have been forced to leave school. They are therefore young and vulnerable women, without any means to defend themselves who don’t dare rebel despite the injustice of how they are forced to live.

The question of age is therefore central since it is linked to the development of personality and the ability to defend oneself. Up until 2005, young people could be employed from the age of fourteen. The law of 1965 relating to the situation of domestic employees did provide some controls by stipulating that such employees should be declared and that the Secretary of State for Young People would be in charge of assuring the legality of the situation. Few employers paid any attention to this law. If at any point these young women and their families were in need, they would be very surprised if anyone were to make known their presence.

And it seems that age is a determining factor. Because these young women find themselves stuck between twin pressures: that of their families which have them sent off to work and that of their employers who demand so much of them. For Chokri Ouali, director of controls on work legislation at the Ministry of Social Affairs, it is for this reason that they don’t want to speak about their situation.

The need to act

These domestic employees are in the grey zone of informal work and the Labour Inspectorate (l’Inspection du travail) seems able to do very little about it, as Chokri Ouali explains:

“The current legislation does not allow us to carry out spot checks in homes. According to the Labour Code, inspectors must obtain prior authorisation from the homeowner. Few people let us enter their homes. So there is really no effective way of taking action”

So it is impossible to arrest any employers who are breaking the law since, as things stand, “there is no specific legislation to define working hours and a minimum wage for these domestic employees. Everybody knows you cannot pay someone less than minimum wage, which currently stands at around 320 dinars, but it’s not uncommon”.

In the opinion of Mr Ouali the young women should themselves go to the Labour Inspectorate if they want their situation to get better, but for that to happen they’d need to know this was even a possibility. And as long as this workforce is made up of vulnerable, uninformed young women there is little chance of them actually demanding their rights. However, one doesn’t need a work contract to be able to lodge a complaint. As Chokri Ouali explains “The Labour Inspectorate will intervene as soon as a working relationship has been formed, and this means as soon as a person is remunerated for time given over to work, in whatever form this remuneration may come”. Considering the figures from the AFTURD study, it is reassuring to know that a working relationship is said to exist even without a formal contract since out of the hundred or so young women questioned, 96.7% did not have a contract.

For Mr Ouali, one solution in the struggle against job insecurity rests in the ability of these young women to speak out; they are almost impossible to reach in person since so few employers actually register their names at the CNSS. For that matter, in 2002, a law was passed to give a formal framework to the system of recording the names of these employees. One would be hard pressed to say that this law was in any way enforced since there is no register of the employees and so no one knows whose name has been recorded and whose hasn’t. But has this law really had any results? One has to go about moulding a framework for the informal sector in a different way. It’s the workers themselves who must let their situation be known. For that to happen they must know where to go. An awareness campaign is therefore urgent if we no longer wish to hear stories like that of Rachida. We need to think about setting up a freephone number which allows young women who are unable to leave their place of work to make themselves heard. As Samira Ayed explains:

“It’s a vicious circle of precarity. These young women get a job as live-in housekeepers in order to put a bit of money away for their wedding, as their dream is to get married. The problem is that often she will marry an unemployed person and end up working in a house again”.

It is very difficult to envisage any sort of upward mobility. Unless we were to look into the training of these young women. “They look after babies, they take care of ill people, they use electrical appliances… So they should receive some sort of training”. For their own safety as well as for others. For Samira Ayed, one solution could be found in proper training, which would enable this sort of work to enter into the formal sector and to open up new avenues for these women. Once their skills had been officially recognised they would be able to work in the hotel and restaurant industry, for example, or even in creches or retirement homes.

But, above all, it is time to put in place a proper legislative framework for these workers and to assure them the security and stability that is expected in other types of work. A form of national legislation must be implemented and the ratification of international conventions on the right to work would provide further protection for workers’ rights. As such, the ATFD is demanding the ratification of ILO Convention 189Decent work for women workers and domestic workers”. A treaty adopted by the International Labour Conference in June 2011 which seeks to give a proper framework, regulation and safeguards for domestic workers, in order to allow everyone to have access to decent work and a more dignified existence.

Translation by Christopher Barrie from the original French article.