Texting to help child domestic workers

Naba Wangré, manager of the child labour project at the Burkina Faso Red Cross, sends bluntly worded text messages to government officials, employers, traditional leaders, teachers, business owners and housewives several times a year, trying to reduce the widespread exploitation of domestic workers by raising awareness of their rights.

“Employers: domestics have the same rights as your children. Stop under-paying them; stop subjecting them to mistreatment, sexual violence, and long hours”, said a recent SMS from Wangré, who uses lists of phone numbers provided by the local network.

Domestic workers - mostly children - have told Sister Edith a nun who runs a local NGO “Maman à L’Ecoute” (Listen to mother) in the capital, Ouagadougou, that they earn from 3,000 to 6,000 CFA (US$6-$12) per month, sometimes work up to 18 hours per day, and often experience exploitation and abuse.

No assessment of the sector has been done since a 2006 study by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, but officials estimate that thousands of children around the country are employed as domestic workers. They are often sent from rural areas where there are few work opportunities to Ouagadougou and the second-largest city, Bobo-Dioulosso.

The 2008 Labour Code makes it legal to engage in “light work” from the age of 15, but many children are put to work at much younger ages according to the Ministry of Labour. In 2009 there were only 39 labour inspectors to address violations countrywide, so their impact is limited.

A child-trafficking law was passed in 2008 to curb the practice of sending a child to a destination for the purpose of work within Burkina Faso and across the border to its six neighbouring countries - Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire - but it has been hard to enforce.

With little legislation to control working conditions in the sector, Wangré said making employers more responsible was essential to changing their behaviour.

Direct, personal

Sending text messages via cellphones is one of the most effective ways of passing information to a mass audience, said Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS, which tries to help non-profit organizations deploy mobile technology.

An SMS message is direct and personal, and about 90 percent are read within 15 minutes of arriving, he told IRIN. Nevertheless, Banks said an SMS campaign should supplement other media channels, rather than replace them.

Project Masiluleke in South Africa was one of the most successful examples of behaviour change as a result of an SMS campaign, in which text messages with HIV awareness and testing information organization were sent out, resulting in a spike in voluntary testing.

The Burkina Red Cross SMS campaign reinforces the information broadcast on radio by the Ministry of Labour to raise awareness of abuse in the six regions where most of the domestic workers come from: South-west, Cascades, Haut-Basins, Boucle du Mouhoun, Centre West and Centre East. Wangré said abuse and maltreatment of domestics could be reported on Red Cross telephone hotlines.

Behaviour change must be backed up by legislation, said Stella Somé, head of child labour at the Ministry of Labour. The government is trying to set minimum wages and working conditions in line with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and hopes to have draft legislation in place by 2012.

Domestic workers also need to be empowered to earn higher wages, said Sister Edith. Maman à l’Ecoute has trained hundreds of girls as cleaners and housekeepers, allowing them to demand wages of up to 25,000 CFA (US$50) per month. Some also learn to read and write and do sewing. The Burkina Red Cross will launch its own training scheme soon.