Trade unions organising domestic workers in Zimbabwe say that employers are taking full advantage of the changing work environment imposed by the lockdown due to covid-19.
Locked down at their workplaces and isolated from their families, most of Zimbabwe’s domestic workers are now faced with much longer and unpaid working hours as a result of covid-19 regulations.
The majority of domestic workers in Zimbabwe are live-in employees, with most getting just two days off per week, usually on Saturdays and Sundays when they’re allowed to visit their families and friends. However, the introduction of the lockdown has meant they would have to spend their off days at their places of employment.
In such circumstances it becomes difficult for them to refuse to perform any extra duty assigned by the employer though they may be officially off-duty.
In many instances, domestic workers are not provided with personal protective equipment (PPE), exposing them to the deadly coronavirus.
George Maphosa [not his real name] who works as a gardener in Mount Pleasant, an affluent suburb of Harare, recalled how he was forced to work for long hours without any protective clothing despite repeated appeals to his employer to supply him with PPE.
“I told my employer that I needed a mask in the wake of the outbreak of the coronavirus and he offered me his old towel so I could improvise and make my own mask from it. When I provided my own piece of cloth, he still could not help make the mask for me but instead, offered me an old mask which he had used and was torn, which I only kept and did not use,” he said.
Maphosa, who lives in the backyard cottage, said the employer had also barred his wife from visiting him, saying he did not want many people at his house.
Zimbabwe Domestic and Allied Workers Union’s deputy secretary-general, Toindepi Dhure, told Elitsha in an exclusive interview Tuesday that they have received several reports of unfair labour practices from their members related to the current lockdown.
“They have always been invisible and now it has been heightened by the lockdown restrictions and has become easy for employers to abuse them. They now work harder and longer hours without compensation,” he said
Dhure said the union has recorded several reports of non-payment of wages, long working hours, forced leave and dismissal without terminal benefits.
He noted that employers were taking advantage of the pandemic by imposing unfair labour practices under the guise of lockdown regulations.
“Covid-19 prevention regulations do not suspend labour rights enshrined in the country’s laws, but we have seen employers trying to smuggle slave conditions into the workplace, especially when it is a private house,” Dhure said.
The union, he said, had to intervene in the case of Maphosa and dozens more whose employers had not provided them with PPE, providing them with hand sanitisers and masks although they soon ran out.
“Almost all the cases we are handling now have to do with covid-19. Domestic workers work in our homes and look after the sick, including children and the employers and they are exposed. The lockdown regulations are too generalised and do not protect domestic workers,” he lamented.
It was foolhardy for employers, he said, to expect domestic workers to buy their own sanitisers and other PPE as they earned paltry wages which strip them of their dignity.
“Yes there are minimum wages but our Constitution speaks to a fair and reasonable wage. Our employers are breaching workers’ constitutional rights and preferring to uphold the minimum wage, which is not fair, ” said Dhure.
Domestic workers in Zimbabwe are paid on average ZWL 1,500 (Zimbabwe dollars) per month which is equivalent to round US$20, depending on the location and nature of one’s job.