BY ISAAC SWILA
In the last six years, heart-wrenching stories of domestic servants, mostly house helps, abusing children under their care have been awash in the media so much so that it is no longer treated as “hot news”.
Put differently, the number of rogue house-helps either bullying, beating up, kidnapping or even killing children of their masters have been full throttle that it’s no longer shocking news in this part of the world.
And as the vice continues unabated, its mind boggling that to date, even some of the most educated middle class couples still dare the devil by failing to take due diligence when hiring babysitters for their new borns.
It is against this backdrop that one middle-aged woman, 32-year old Grace Machuki Masereti, founded “Find Real Me” an online background check company exclusively for domestic workers and care givers.
Machuki’s desire to spearhead the campaign saw her launch the online company in 2015 after she became fed up with the numerous cases of child abuse by rogue house helps – which were either reported in the traditional or social media platforms– or not reported at all.
So, under Find Real Me, a potential employer can log on to the portal and find history of the house help they intend to hire, or report a case. Under the tab “report a criminal or abusive help.” This is open to the public.
The portal also gives a platform to those seeking opportunities as house helps to register.
Ms Machuki, the founder and director of the company, the first of its kind in Kenya, says that their role is purely limited to background check.
“Our background check is aimed at ascertaining if the individual has, in the past, committed any criminal offence,” she said adding that, “We however advise the-would-be employers to do their own due diligence by doing the pre- employment screening.”
“If we do our background check and when we ascertain that there is a criminal record, we inform the prospective employer on the same .As to whether they decide to hire or not, it’s up to them,” she told the Nairobi Business Monthly.
Founded three years ago, the company has continued to grow and Ms Machuki says that significant progress has been made.
“When we started it was very difficult. We had to collate data on these occurrences; either from the mainstream media, social media or sniff through the court records.
“It’s more of a family venture as I get assistance from my siblings. At first, just like anything new, people were slow at embracing it but right now the attitude is changing,” she says, breaking into an easy laughter.
Besides the online portal, where Find Real Me describes itself as “a background check company exclusively for domestic workers and care givers, with a mission “to improve the quality of safety in households and care giving institutions”, the company also has an active Facebook and Twitter accounts from whence it shares reported cases of abusive house helps.
To carry out a background check on a prospective employee, the company requests for one’s identity card number and a first name. Upon keying in the bio, and within a matter of minutes, they are able to ascertain whether the candidate has a criminal record or not. If the individual, let’s say, is dishonest and gives out a wrong bio, then the system would promptly tell as much.
Trained as a journalist, Machuki also advises would-be- employers to insist on getting phone contacts of the former employers of their prospective employees to determine their records and characters.
Machuki stresses that employers also need to seriously undertake the pre- employment screening to know whether they are compatible with the individuals they intend to hire.
In this aspect, she argues that matters faith, culture and health history should be looked at deeply.
“We have had cases where a strict Muslim family hires a Christian girl who does not subscribe to the Islamic ideals and teachings. For instance, the female house help may resort to wearing figure-hugging dresses in the house and this may lead to conflicts. It is a scenario that is best avoided if a pre-screening was done,” Machuki advises. “In the event where she refuses to give out contacts of her previous employer, that alone should raise an alarm. Good house helps won’t have anything to hide,” she adds. “One should also seek out the house help’s school certificates like KCPE or KCSE certificates, where they suffice.”
“For us background check is easy because we have a data base, so we simply key in the particulars .It is a lively aiding tool but not 100% efficient because there are many cases which go unreported and may escape our attention.”
Besides the background screening, Machuki advises employers to write Employment contracts with their house- helps.
“For us this is not about punishing house-helps. It is about ensuring the rogue ones are brought to book while appreciating those that do a good job.
“Remember, as domestic workers they have rights too. Guided by the Employment Act of 2007, employers should ensure that, for instance, a house-help has a 24hr rest (off day) within seven days.
“Most domestic workers do not even know their rights. For instance, you shouldn’t fire a house-help because she fell pregnant. She should be allowed to resume her duties after her 90 day maternity leave,” the third born daughter of Peter Masereti Machuki and Caren Machuki, in a family of ten; two boys and eight sisters, says.
For their services, Find Real Me charges clients a Sh500 to conduct a search, Sh300 to check on previous employer, and a further Sh700 to check one’s criminal record, making the total sum up to Sh1, 500.
The St Bridget High School Kitale Alma Mater however argues that this figure is pocket friendly compared to the high price employers may pay for hiring a rogue domestic servant.
So what drives her quest to bring sanity in an industry that is hirtetho not streamlined?
“It is passion and concern .I had a strict upbringing under a father who was a police officer and who settled for nothing but discipline,” says the staunch Catholic, adding that, “as much as I was the third born, I began undertaking tough chores in the family when I was still very young.”
Apart from her work at Find Real Me, Machuki who holds a Diploma in Journalism and an equivalent qualification in International Relations from the University of Nairobi is an avid reader, artistic designer, and loves travelling.
She singles out her family’s support, particularly her elder sister Anne Machuki, whom she says sponsored her studies in International Relations.
“From the beginning I knew that I wanted to be either a journalist or a model and I’m glad I lived my dream,” she says in a subtle reference to previous stint with KBC and the Nation Media Group.
The Find Real Me currently has over 400 offenders in its database, and as the numbers steadily swell, the founder believes that with concerted efforts rogue caregivers will be weeded out.
Machuki however reckons that challenges have been plenty. “Changing stereotypes and mindset, uncooperative police system and sometimes judiciary, employers, and domestic house helps who are not familiar with their legal obligation (employment law) are some of the major challenges I have encountered,” she says, noting: “The police and judicial systems are so frustrating in that, at times, police refuse to investigate, make arrest or prosecute criminal cases before them in the pretext of “small crimes”. In short , they turn a blind eye on some of these cases.”
“On the judicial front, cases take way to long for sentencing. It took 5 years for a pedophile to be sentenced last year. Not many employers would want to subject their kids to this long frustrating process,” Ms Machuki says.