Job cuts, lock-ins, and fear: Domestic workers suffer Covid-19 squeeze

31 July 2020 - 09:04 By James Stent and GroundUp
Many domestic workers have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic or been told to stay home without pay. File photo.
Many domestic workers have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic or been told to stay home without pay. File photo.
Image: dolgachov/123RF.com

Domestic workers have faced the brunt of the Covid-19 crisis, say trade union officials, whose members have often been left high and dry by employers, with little protection from the government.

“Hunger is getting worse,” Gloria Kente, an organiser in the Western Cape for the South African Domestic and Service Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu).

She said many domestic workers had either lost their jobs or had been indefinitely laid off due to Covid-19.

Some of those who lost their jobs were not registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund because employers did not comply with the regulations.

UIF regulations were changed early on during the lockdown to accommodate such cases. However, says Pinky Mashiane, founder of the United Domestic Workers of South Africa (Udwosa), there are technological barriers for domestic workers who might apply.

Mashiane said many employers had been forced to retrench domestic workers after they lost their own jobs or income, or had their businesses closed down.

Kente told of a worker who had missed an appointment at the union’s Salt River offices. “I called her to see where she was and she told me, ‘Sisi, I can’t come now, because I’m in a long queue at the Department of Labour’. The next day it was the same, I called her and she told me, ‘I didn’t get help, and have to go again’. She went for three days to the department, and received no help. She had to borrow money to travel — what must she do?”

Even when employers had not lost their jobs, Kente said, many domestic workers had been told to stay at home.

She said employers often perceived domestic workers as being at risk because of their living conditions in townships and their use of buses and taxis, and told them to stay at home without pay. A small minority had been told to stay at home with pay.

She said some “live-in” domestic workers were not allowed to leave the house except to go shopping for food, even when they were needed to look after their own families. As the breadwinners in their families, they often had to accept difficult terms, including reduced pay, to put food on the table.

Mashiane said immigrant domestic workers were particularly vulnerable. She had recently returned from Middelburg, where she had met domestic workers from Zimbabwe.

“Many of these women have lost their jobs. They are hungry, not working, and when they can’t pay rent, they are thrown out.”

She said Udwosa had given the women some vouchers for food.

“Migrant domestic workers mustn’t be left out. The government must look after them.”

The minimum wage for domestic workers is only 75% of the national minimum wage, a regulation which Kente considers sexist.

Udwosa and Sadsawu are both calling for the government to include domestic workers under the Compensation for Occupational Injury and Disease Act. At present, domestic workers cannot receive compensation under the act if they are hurt or die while working. In March 2020, the matter was heard by the Constitutional Court, and judgment is still to be delivered.

Domestic workers were also excluded from the March 20 2020 notice issued by the department of employment and labour, which included Covid-19 acquired during work as grounds for compensation.

The two unions have launched a petition calling for domestic workers to be included in the compensation for Covid-19 claims, and for parliament to finalise the amendment of the occupational injury act to include domestic workers employed in private households.

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