A hunger crisis for informal workers

by Blandina Ijecha Bobson | December 17, 2020
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Background media: Oxfam worker with woman in red, hand on face.
Sven Torfinn / Oxfam

A hunger crisis for informal workers

by Blandina Ijecha Bobson | December 17, 2020
Domestic workers like Beatrice rely on a daily wage to support their families. The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting them hard: “All my employers called and cancelled on me. They told me to wait until COVID-19 has been contained; then they will call me for work.”

For workers in Kenya who rely on daily wages to survive, the pandemic lockdown and unemployment translate into little food for their families.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Nairobi suburb where she lives with her four children, Beatrice says “life was good.” The 38-year-old domestic worker struggled to provide for her family since her husband left her, but, she says, “Even if we couldn’t afford a good diet, we had three meals a day.”

The pandemic drastically changed things. She lost almost the entire $35 weekly income she earned cleaning and washing the clothes of her clients in the wealthier areas of town. She’s now pregnant and struggling to feed her children.

Beatrice lives in one of the informal settlements in Nairobi. She came to Nairobi in 2007 to seek employment in paid domestic work as a “stone lady.” Stone ladies are women mostly from the informal settlements who sit on stones in leafy suburbs of Nairobi and wait for the middle-class citizens in these areas to offer them casual domestic jobs. Beatrice has depended on this work to provide education, shelter, food, and healthcare for her family.

Stone ladies left out in the cold

Beatrice says her life changed the minute the government announced the first confirmed coronavirus case in the country. “All my employers called and cancelled on me. They told me to wait until COVID-19 has been contained; then they will call me for work.”

Informal workers who cook and clean for wealthier families in Nairobi are struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic with no savings or government support. Oxfam and a group of six other non-governmental organizations are distributing cash to thousands of informal workers and single mothers in Kenya to help families get food and meet other crucial needs.

She was immediately under pressure: Her landlord began calling her to ask for rent. “I explained to him that I don’t have any work,” Beatrice says. “Every morning I go to the waiting place hoping to get something … but [there is] nothing. There are so many of us waiting and hoping to get work.”

Food remains her highest priority. She says she’s ready to sleep in a ditch with her children as long as they have food.

Domestic workers like Beatrice have been particularly vulnerable in the COVID-19 pandemic as their ability to survive depends on a daily wage. She and thousands of female domestic workers in Kenya have been left without a source of income, because their former clients are either too afraid of being infected with COVID-19 or can no longer afford domestic workers.

Beatrice also represents single mothers who struggle to provide for their families during this outbreak on incomes of sometimes less than 200 Kenyan shillings ($2) per day, while also shouldering an increased load of unpaid care and domestic work at home — particularly if family members become ill. Beatrice and many other pregnant women without incomes still need access to antenatal care but cannot afford it. They may also fear contracting COVID-19 in Kenyan hospitals.

After suffering through the initial weeks of lockdown, when police would chase her and other stone ladies away from the neighborhoods where they would normally find work, things actually got worse for Beatrice. By August she reported that she had been ill, saying she suspected it was a bout of malaria and pneumonia.

“I know it’s not coronavirus,” she says. “I don’t have a headache, have never had breathing problems, and don’t have a fever. I can’t even go to work because I am not feeling well. Even if I went, I wouldn’t get any jobs because I am heavily pregnant.”

Beatrice lives with her children near Nairobi and supports her family with wages from informal domestic work.

Beatrice was relying on money from friends, but in late October she received $71 in cash from Oxfam and a group of six other non-governmental groups and foundations funded in part by the European Union and Danish government.

Already the consortium has provided 91,060,280 Kenyan shillings ($910,000) to 11,328 vulnerable households in Nairobi’s informal settlements to help them afford basic necessities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In its next phase, the group will provide 564,000,899 KSh ($5.6 million) to 27,390 families (an estimated 69,560 people) in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Cash helps Beatrice pay rent, buy food and soap, and cover medical expenses. In late October she delivered a healthy baby girl. She named her Tracy.

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