Domestic workers caught between a rock and a hard place

The International Domestic Workers Federation held its congress in Cape Town in November 2018 where it committed to improving the working and living conditions of domestic workers. around the world. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

Covid-19 and lockdown have made working conditions for domestic worker worse.

According to government statistics, more than 250,000 domestic workers lost their jobs between the first and second quarters of this year. Behind the stats are the workers struggling everyday. Groundup tells us the story of domestic workers forced into begging and competing with each other at robots.

Others will be able to pass all the problems and get UIF – if the employer obeyed the law. Some are able to pass all the difficulties and get social security grants. For those from other countries – not even grants.

Soon, UIF ends, but unemployment does not end. The increase in some grants disappears. These are not a solution to poverty. They are another form of being in poverty. For the vast majority, it means going from the poverty of employment to the worse poverty of unemployment.

 For workers who are not dismissed, and like domestic workers, they will work in perpetual fear of losing their job – and covid-19 has just made that all worse.

The National Labour and Economic Development Institute tells us the story of Nono (interview, 31 July 2020). When lockdown started and her movement was restricted, Nono decided to stay home to protect herself from her employer and the danger of the coronavirus.

“I chose to be home… l knew how hard it is to be working without rest Sunday to Sunday from 6am to 8am, when my body needs a rest. And l thought, what if this covid catches me when at work? That would be the end of me because they don’t care about someone’s life.”

Her employer did not pay her and she was nearly evicted from her home in Johannesburg. When lockdown travel restrictions were eased, Nono’s employer told her to return to work. She was told to “not use public transport because l will bring them corona”. And they told her to go for a test. The private transport she caught back to work waited while she took the test. His fare went up even higher. Her employer made her pay for the costly transport and the test.   

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There are workers who have covid-19 symptoms. They know this. The employer asks. The worker is paid by the day – when she works for the day. She must decide what to tell her employer. She must choose between her health and money for food on the table.

A worker who keeps  her job must care for more people who are sick; she must support people who are unemployed; she must travel in transport which is the most unsafe. She must be in a workplace all day where other people do not have to follow safety measures because it is their home.

The rights of the employer come before the worker. The situation of the employer comes before the situation of the worker. There is discrimination all the time against the domestic worker.

It happened before with HIV. The employer demanded protection from the worker as if the worker was a threat. And protection for the worker from the employer? The law says that the worker must inform the employer if she is HIV positive. But no law says the employer must inform the worker if the employer is positive. The law says that the employer can smoke at any time because it is her house. The worker is not protected when it is her workplace.

And now – the worker must wear PPE to protect the employer – but the employer does not have to wear PPE because it is her home. It is the law which says that the rights of the employer in their own home are more important than the rights of the worker in her workplace. The worker comes second – a second class citizen

As it happened with HIV, so it is happening with covid. A domestic worker must listen to her employer disrespect her as if she is bringing a disease into the house. And she must choose between her health and her job: she must face the pain and stress and struggle with it like this, all day long everyday.

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She is looking at me as if I am bringing the disease. But she is the one who can be diseased. I must hear about protection for her and the children. What about protection for me and my children. She tells me I must wear a mask. But she is not doing that. She is not the one who must sit in a crowded taxi. We all know this is a massive risk. Every day. To work. From work. And worry: what if I am taking this disease home to my children? But again, the domestic worker is forced to choose: travelling in overcrowded taxis, or no work. Protection or her job. Health or money.

Along that route of struggle, there has already been so much pain. Each day workers are forced to ask: what is happening to my children while I am looking after my boss’s children?  Each day there are domestic workers who must choose: can I make my demand and know that she will look at me with eyes which say: ‘if you are not satisfied here, go somewhere else. There are many people who are desperate for this job’.

Domestic workers ask themselves what they must do and what they can do.  They wonder whether it’s just the way things are and forever will be.  Over the years, millions of domestic workers have given their answers to that question. They have tried to organise and come together and struggle. Sometimes, they have done this in groups. Sometimes domestic workers have done it alone. Because the truth is that at work, they are usually forced to be alone. There is all that strength, knowledge, experience, determination. And right through history, there has been another force: the force of workers seeking strength and solidarity with and from each other. With that force, organised and mobilised, no worker needs to struggle alone.

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