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One death too many: Are domestic workers swept under the carpet?



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By Matthew Ma

“Today, many domestic workers have tales of horror to share about the ordeal of modern slavery. Sadly, some, who could not withstand torture, died in the hands of those they looked up to as helpers of destiny.”

When we talk of modern slavery, we often think of human trafficking and prostitution. But one popular but painfully common form of modern slavery is the one that happens behind closed doors, a kind of abuse inflicted on domestic workers assisting families with regular house chores.

Domestic work—succeeded by petty trade and work in the service industry such as bars, restaurants, or hotels is one of the most commonly paid jobs among girls and young women in Nigeria. Domestic work or chores performed by children is not always exploitative or harmful to the child. Research has shown that child domestic workers operate in various conditions and situations.

For example, domestic work, such as helping the family or earning pocket money outside school hours, can contribute to a young person’s positive and healthy development. However, people consider a few domestic jobs to be domestic oppression and a form of modern slavery when it has the following: Exploitative and harmful working conditions, an inability to leave the job or excessive control and confinement, long hours, and no pay, inadequate hours of rest, and the experience of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse within the context of work.

One of the distinct challenges related to a child domestic worker is the ambivalent relationship between the child and the host family, the employer. Children transition into domestic work through several avenues, such as formal or informal recruiters, kinship, or social networks motivated by their own volition, decisions by family members, persuasion, coercion, or false promises from others. In many situations, fostering is common as children from impoverished families migrate to live with better-off families.

It is not difficult to spot domestic workers from other children wherever you find one. In Nigeria, the privileged ones attend public schools with their uniforms torn and patched in different places, often barefooted. If they managed to put the shoes on, it would manifest begging for a replacement. They are the first to wake up in the house. Yet, they go to school late because they have to finish their domestic chores. Some of them do not have textbooks to do their homework.

So, when they return home from school, they spend time doing house chores. Sleeping is not allowed before midnight night when other family members are awake. They sleep when all family members have gone to bed. Others who do not have the privilege to attend school are stuck at home with unending chores, taking care of the children of their busy bosses.

Most of them wear tattered clothes and eat leftovers. Even when the bosses give them food, they are not allowed to eat where other family members are eating. Most of the time, they eat in the kitchen or at the corner of the house. They will always be the last person in the house to eat. Some of them don’t watch television. If they have to watch, they will sneak to do so. However, when caught, they get beaten.

In Nigeria, barely a month passes without news of murder or torture, exploitation, and coercion, ranging from verbal abuse to sexual harassment and sometimes even the death of a maid. In 2020, the operatives of the State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department of the Lagos State police command arrested a woman identified as Nene Steve for allegedly killing her maid, Joy Adole Aboel. The police command accused Mrs. Steve of beating her maid (Aboel) to death and staging her body in an executioner manner to make it look like a suicide action.

Reports gathered that the police arrested the suspect and her husband following a complaint they lodged at the police station. The couple had gone to the station to report the death of their maid. However, reports further gathered that contrary to their claims, homicide detectives, upon arrival at the scene, discovered that the deceased was still standing with a rope hanging on her neck, which made the suspect’s story suspicious.

According to reports, Aboel is an indigene of Benue state, brought to Lagos through an agent for domestic work. She started working but threatened to leave her job after several months of unpaid salary. She was almost departing the place when the lockdown made her stay behind. During this time, her boss beat her and accused her of stealing Indomie noodles, which led to her untimely death.


In March 2021, the police paraded a mother of three who beat her maid to death in Anambra. The incident occurred at Nkpor, Idemili North LGA, near Onitsha, where the woman, her husband, children, and maid resided. The state police command paraded Mrs. Okafor, a 25-year-old trader who deals in second-hand underwear, for the murder of Kosisochukwu. Reports gathered that Mrs. Okafor had subjected the young Kosisochukwu to intense torture until she collapsed. Neighbors rushed her to a hospital for medical attention but the doctors pronounced her dead-on arrival.

In July 2022, Justice Oyindamola Ogala of a Lagos High Court, Ikeja, sentenced another couple, Fortune and Stephen Nwankwo, to 14- and two-years’ imprisonment for the involuntary killing of their 19-year-old housemaid, Ms. Joy Adole. Their crimes revolved around conspiracy, manslaughter, and occasional intention to cover up the murder. The suspects denied the allegation, claiming that Adole committed suicide by hanging herself in her bedroom.

But in her judgment, the judge maintained that the prosecution had convincingly proved the charge of manslaughter, conspiracy, and attempt to pervert justice and misconduct against Fortune. The judge affirmed that the defendants did not inform or call the deceased family when they found out Adole had died. Instead, they waited until the afternoon when the second defendant called the sister and asked for her full name and other personal information to deposit her (Ms. Fortune) in the morgue. The judge sentenced the first defendant to 14 years for involuntary manslaughter and five years for an attempt to pervert the course of justice and misconduct toward a corpse. Later that year, the Plateau police command arrested a woman for allegedly torturing Margaret Joshua, an 11-year-old girl, to death. According to NAN, Alfred Alabo, police spokesperson in the state, confirmed the development. Alabo said the suspect, a mother of two and a microbiologist in one of the research institutes in Plateau, forced the minor to sit in a bowl of hot water, which resulted in severe injuries in her buttocks and private part. The suspect, who resides in K-Vom, Jos South LGA, was said to have inflicted injuries on the minor until she died from the torture. The victim, a native of Kebbi state, escaped her community over insecurity. A good Samaritan brought her to Jos and gave her out as a maid to the suspect. Although Mrs. Joshua promised to enroll the victim, she failed to register her at the school. The police spokesperson promised to charge the suspect in court once they completed the investigation. Grace Pam, the coordinator of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in Plateau, who followed up on the case, said the injuries on the minor showed severe signs of torture.


Sometime in March 2022, reports of the kidnapped of the ten years old Precious Korshima appeared in the news. According to the story by Jerry Achirkpi, a business woman Mrs. Nelly Okoroafor approached and pleaded with him to give her his daughter to train in school through her friend, Mrs. Ujunwa Benaihils. In return, the minor would look after Mrs. Ujunwa’s newborn baby. He agreed to the proposal and sent his daughter to live with Mrs. Ujunwa in Enugu State.

Things turned from bad to worst on November 10th, 2022, when he received a strange call from an unknown caller using Mrs. Ujunwa’s phone number. The caller claimed that the kidnappers had kidnapped his daughter, Mrs. Ujunwa, and her children. The alleged abductors demanded N20M ransom as a condition for releasing his daughter. He (Mr. Achirkpi) told the caller that Precious was only a maid to Mrs. Ujunwa and that he could not afford to pay that huge sum of money as ransom. Later, the kidnappers released Mrs. Ujunwa and her daughter but allegedly killed her daughter.

Upon Mrs. Ujunwa’s arrest and interrogation, the suspect admitted that she beat Precious to death and dumped her body in a bush near a community called Ituku Ozalla in Enugu state. A man claiming to be the chief in Ituku Ozalla told the police that he came across the corpse and directed youths in the community to bury it. But they later burnt the body.

The question is, why are deaths of domestic workers mostly happening among Benue indigenes? What are the factors influencing the demand for domestic workers from the state? Are domestic workers another form of human exploitation or modern slavery? How will Nigeria act to protect or prevent this from occurring?

The death of domestic workers arriving from Benue state needs proper attention. For a while, families in Benue state keep sending their children to Oyo, Ogun, Lagos, Ekiti, Osun, Kwara, Ondo, and Edo for domestic work. With over 10,000 children taken out as child laborers from Benue state yearly, stakeholders say it is time authorities curb the dangerous practice where parents willingly coerce their children into child labor in farmhouses in remote forests.

Although Benue state has domesticated the Child Rights Act, children in the state are still being trafficked to most parts of the country to serve as domestic workers, farm assistants, and sex workers. While some parents willingly give out their children, human trafficking syndicates collaborate or trick others into giving out their children. After realizing the enormity of human trafficking going on in its domain, the Benue State government, in collaboration with the anti-trafficking efforts of the Federal Government through the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), set up an anti-human trafficking task force to tackle the problem related to domestic workers.

All these efforts reveal that child trafficking is still high in most rural communities of the state. A dive into the situation uncovers that the constant displacement of families in affected villages and the constant face-off between herders and farmers fuel this trafficking. This notion is in addition to poverty and lack of basic social amenities in these communities, such as schools.

A walk on the street of Benue at night will show you why Benue ranks among states where modern slavery and involuntary slavery thrive, with children used as domestic servants and prostitutes. In the last two decades, I have watched the internal trafficking of Benue girls to other states increase slowly. Although endowed with rich natural resources and extensive human resources, Benue state has not developed the necessary technological, industrial, managerial, and political know-how to pull its resources together in a sound economy to take care of the basic needs of its population.

Consequently, poverty and worse living conditions became prevalent, affecting children. The severe economic and social deprivation also made poverty rampant in rural areas. The situation has reached an alarming stage as more and more people continue to live below the poverty line. It has made it worse for parents who have not received a salary for months, either lost a job or suffered a dramatic decline in income. As the problems exacerbate, many parents have no option but to leave their children in the hands of the so-called saviors and bosses to do domestic work in exchange for a better life.


However, in most cases, these children become breadwinners from age five, serving variously as house helpers, farm assistants, or sex workers in communities over 500 kilometers away from their ancestral homes. But many of these children, who usually leave their villages with excitement, often regret ever taking such trips due to the ill-treatment meted out to them by their employers. With the constant stiffening economic realities in Benue, it is unlikely that the importation of child domestic practices in Benue will stop anytime soon.

Several families in Nigeria turn in their girls to domestic work as one of the few options available to provide for themselves and their families. Families in villages usually express joy when a family member moves to big cities with the anticipation of a brighter future than their counterparts back home. But reality dawns on them as their children become glorified slaves on reaching their new homes. Findings revealed that most parents release their children to relatives and people they do not know due to their impoverished conditions.

Some of these maids come from families who have lost their mother or father. Others are victims of human trafficking, whose parents fell prey to the deceit of agents who promised their children better living conditions. But instead of providing them with safe and healthy working conditions, the agents systematically denied these children the essential labor protections extended to other workers.

The long list of abuses committed by employers and labor agents includes physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, forced confinement in the workplace, non-payment of wages, and excessively long working hours with no off days. In the worst situations, girls are trapped in forced labor or trafficked into forced domestic work in conditions akin to slavery.

Unfortunately, the government has not implemented labor protections for domestic workers, so they are at the mercy of their employers. Sadly, Nigerian law does not guarantee equal rights under its labor laws. The Nigerian law is so weak that it ignores sanction against those maltreating domestic workers or provide weaker, poorly enforced regulations that leave employers enjoying virtual impunity to exact excruciatingly long hours of work for domestic workers with grossly inadequate wages.

Unlike other African countries like Kenya and South Africa, where workers are organized into associations and unions to fight for their rights and regulations of their wages, Nigeria is the worst-performing country when it comes to conflict and the breakdown of the rights of workers. Workers have no guarantee of labor rights. So, when workers protest about injustice, they are suspended or fired for taking legal strike action. Even with a structured agency to monitor the activities of domestic workers, they do not receive much attention from the group because they do not form associations or unions.

Unlike most workers employed by private companies or the government, households often recruit domestic workers. As a result, domestic workers often work in isolation, at higher risk, and find themselves sexually exploited and constantly manipulated by their bosses. Efforts to detect and punish workplace abuse are always inactive and severely limited. Government legislation to protect child labor is poorly enforced.

Although the Nigerian government adopted initiatives to address abuse of domestic workers, much-needed legal reforms, enhanced oversight and regulation of employment agencies, and improved access to mechanisms for redress and rehabilitation for abuse are still lacking. We need comprehensive and aggressive strategies to monitor labor agencies and recruiters, monitor working conditions, detect violations, and enforce civil and criminal sanctions against agencies and employers who abuse their power.

Today, many domestic workers have tales of horror to share about the ordeal of modern slavery. Sadly, some, who could not withstand torture, died in the hands of those they looked up to as helpers of destiny. The question is, what is the way forward? While it is unrealistic for parents to spend all their time with their children, it is vital that if they leave them for too long with someone else, they are co-parenting with that person.

Part of the problem today is that parents do not have the right priorities. They do not manage their time well and, as a result, are always busy that they do not have time for their children. The continual raising of children by maids means that strangers will continue to raise an entire generation if we are not careful. Unlike in the past, today’s parents do not value families. Many parents see the home as a transition, forgetting that the home is a first-hand teaching place.

Even at church, some parents still bring their maid along so she can look after the children while the parents enjoy singing, dancing, and preaching. They give too much responsibility to strangers by letting them do activities they should have done themselves.

An appropriate legal framework is critical to protecting the rights of domestic workers. Labor legislation should set a positive example. Labor legislation must complement criminal laws allowing for the successful prosecution of people who physically, psychologically, and sexually force, confine, or abuse a maid. Let us change our ways and stop being mean to a house help.

In recent times, videos have emerged showing how some women maltreat their maids. One lady bought fried rice and chicken for her child but biscuits for the maid. Another poured hot water on the maid because she lost 500 Naira. A good Samaritan filmed another family slamming her maid on the floor and kicking her on her belly. Another family locked her maid in a dog house and moved to pamper her children. Sadly, these bosses are Christians and Muslims. Most are even evangelists.


Now, if not for the high poverty rate in Nigeria, why would parents give out their ten-year-old girl to go and become a maid elsewhere? Why will you pamper your children and maltreat another person’s child? Tomorrow you can be in a dire situation, and your children will be in the care of another person. Will you be able to make prayers like God treat my children as I have treated other people’s children? Can we confidently say that? May God have mercy on us all.

The big question that should be central to discussions around the abuse of domestic workers is, what should we do about this as we look forward to a new year? The case of Precious Korshima and others must not be allowed to die just like that. We should not sweep it under the carpet. We should not delay or deny justice for her and others in her situation. There is no reason to take in someone’s child and not treat them as every true parent would want their child treated. Sadly, most of the offenses for which people abuse these maids are things that madam’s children repeatedly do without repercussion.

As we look forward to the new year, we call on the Nigeria Police Force to be thorough in their investigation and bring to book all those involved in these crimes, no matter their status. We fully condemn these actions and demand that the authorities smash them by ensuring those affected receive the justice they deserve.

The National Human Rights Commission should also follow up on the case to a logical conclusion. While urging the authorities concerned to trace the family of the slain Precious and others for compensation, we call on parents to resist the temptation of handing out their children to strangers to fight poverty or other excuses. The relevant agencies should ensure they protect Nigerian children from abuse and exploitation. These recommendations should be our new year’s gift to the entire nation.

  • Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and doctoral student in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.


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