Picture: ALON SKUY
Picture: ALON SKUY

The Covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown in SA have had a devastating effect on the lives of domestic workers and their families across the country.

Many have been dismissed unfairly or put on unpaid leave. A survey conducted earlier in the month by Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance in Johannesburg found that only 38% of 600 respondents were being paid full wages during the lockdown period.

With domestic work is only scheduled to be phased back in when the economy is at level 2 restrictions, it is likely that many workers will not have an income for the months ahead. Hundreds of thousands of domestic workers and their families are therefore at risk of hunger, since little of the R500bn pledged in Covid-19 relief is destined to reach them.

On March 10, just before our nation was turned upside down by the global health crisis, the Women’s Legal Centre, amicus curiae in the Constitutional Court case Mahlangu vs minister of labour, observed that black women were historically specifically excluded from contributing to the economy.

“As a result of their racial and gender status in our society, their work was undervalued, unrecognised and unpaid ... domestic workers today continue to fight stigma and discrimination. That they were viewed as not worthy of receiving social protection in the workplace is an example of how the stigma continued within our constitutional dispensation.”

Despite their official status as workers and inclusion under basic labour regulations, domestic workers continue to fall through the cracks of social protections. When the Unemployment Insurance Act was promulgated in 2001, it initially excluded domestic workers. The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act continues to exclude domestic workers (pending a Constitutional Court judgment).

When the national minimum wage was implemented, domestic workers, along with farm labourers and expanded public works programme workers, were given a lower minimum wage than other workers. As most domestic workers are breadwinners for extended families, the effect of these exclusions is tragic and the consequences dire.

This lack of recognition continues in the Covid-19 era. The domestic work sector does not have a bargaining council and as such has limited representation on National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) forums.

The department of employment & labour has neglected to directly tackle the issue of SA’s 1-million domestic workers and their employers, leaving this vulnerable sector without clear direction. As a result, most domestic workers will be unable to benefit from the department’s interventions to support unpaid workers.

The Covid-19 temporary employer/employee relief scheme (TERS) only includes those whose employers have registered them for UIF. While this is a legal obligation on the part of employers, according to estimates from Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (Wiego) and the University of Western Cape’s social law project, a mere 20% of domestic workers are registered. Efforts to push for unregistered workers to be included have not yielded results.

Furthermore, many domestic workers will not benefit from the support grant for the unemployed as they are still employed but on unpaid leave.

It is time for domestic employers to be held responsible for their failure to comply with labour regulation. For the most part, domestic employers do not think contracts, payslips and UIF registration are necessary or worth the effort. The consequence of their carelessness is that domestic workers and their families, some of our population’s most vulnerable citizens, are now paying a dear price.

The department of employment & labour is equally responsible for the situation in which domestic workers find themselves. For years, domestic workers’ unions   called for the department to strengthen its enforcement mechanisms in the sector by deploying more inspectors and giving them the right to carry out unannounced inspections in domestic settings, but to no avail.

Given the history of the sector and the current severe context, the department must engage directly with domestic workers’ unions and allied organisations as it has been doing with other bargaining councils, industry bodies and associations.

As in other industries, the department can collaborate with these bodies to facilitate Ters applications, regardless of whether workers have been registered for UIF. It would need to be accepted that the stringent requirements of the normal Ters application process should be relaxed and creative ways found to help domestic workers apply. Employers failing to participate in this process should be compelled to continue to pay their workers’ wages.

Domestic workers’ support organisations and unions are being flooded with requests from members who have no income and are unable to feed themselves or their children. Unless the department acts expeditiously, conditions are likely to become much worse for domestic workers in the coming months.

•Tekié represents the Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance and Khunou the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA

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