Rights without rights

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Amy Tekié
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The tragic consequences of informality in the domestic sector during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Statistics South Africa reported that over 25% of the more than 1 million domestic workers lost their jobs between April and June 2020. In April 2020, just a month into the very restrictive lockdown imposed by government, the Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance (Izwi) surveyed almost 600 domestic workers. Izwi’s Amy Tekié highlights the results of the survey and details the extreme difficulties many domestic workers still face more than a year later.

Riding a wave of job losses

Domestic work is an intimate, high-touch industry. Workers from densely populated poorer neighbourhoods move daily into the suburbs of the middle and upper classes, and spend the day in close contact with those residents. They wash dishes, clean bathrooms, and feed children. There is ample opportunity for Coronavirus transmission in both directions.

The initial South African response to Covid-19 was a complete economic lockdown, from 26 March 2020. Most businesses closed, and employees were sent home, on a government-sanctioned no-work-no-pay policy.  Under Covid-19 Level 5 restrictions, “live-in” domestic workers were able to continue working if their employer chose, but most domestic workers were sent home indefinitely.

According to the Izwi survey, from late March 2020, most workers were not receiving their full wages, and from April 2020, most were entirely without income.  





Ultra low-wage workers” is a term used to categorise domestic workers and farmworkers in South Africa. Shockingly, the government has excluded them from the full National Minimum Wage (which is itself below the poverty line). Farmworkers earn 90% of the basic minimum wage and domestic workers are entitled to only 75% of the basic wage of other workers. Earning at this rate, they usually have no financial cushion for emergencies. One month without pay can have drastic consequences.

From the second week of lockdown, domestic workers’ rights organisations were inundated with members who literally didn’t know what to feed their children. Many landlords were threatening eviction (despite the official ban on evictions). Others were charging exorbitant interest for the delayed payments. Women were scrambling, begging for whatever bits of support they could find from their families, friends and churches in order to survive.

Excluded from social protections

Domestic workers fought hard for their right to be covered by the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) which provides cash benefits in cases of unemployment, illness, maternity leave, and death. They won that right in 2002. By law, every domestic employer in South Africa must register their domestic worker for UIF and submit monthly contributions if they work for more than 24 hours per month.

With the onset of Covid-19, UIF registration suddenly became critical for businesses and workers, as the UIF’s Temporary Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) stepped in to cover wages for workers who were on unpaid leave during lockdown.

Unfortunately, those workers not registered for UIF were not eligible. Sadly, only a small fraction of domestic employers have registered their workers for UIF. The Department of Labour has reported 70% UIF coverage of domestic workers, but academic and experiential evidence says otherwise. Izwi’s survey showed that 78% of the respondents were not registered for UIF.

Most respondents to this particular survey were migrant domestic workers, some of whom are undocumented and therefore not eligible for UIF. However, UIF registration rates amongst South African domestic workers have not been shown to be any higher. The survey results align closely with estimates from the International Labour Organisation, and from the University of Western Cape’s Social Law Project, both of which found that only 20% of domestic workers are registered for UIF.

Many domestic workers have repeatedly asked their employers to register them, but to no avail. Some employers even deduct the monthly 1% from the worker’s salary but never pay it over to the government. Others try to register but give up after administrative hurdles. There is no incentive for them to push through, as domestic employers are very rarely held liable for failure to comply with the labour law.

Without UIF registration, the government has no way of tracking either workers or employers. This perpetuates the anonymity and privilege enjoyed by employers, who can exploit workers in the privacy of their own homes, with no one at all to hold them accountable.

Civil society advocacy efforts were eventually successful in pushing the Department of Labour to allow employees to claim TERS funds directly (rather than depending on their employers to claim), and after additional threats of legal challenges, the Department finally agreed to include unregistered workers in the TERS benefit.

Yet once again a hard-won battle has been meaningless: only in October 2020, after five months of continued legal engagement from workers organisations, did the Department finally update the TERS online system to allow unregistered workers to apply. The extended delays in opening the process, technical glitches which barred documented migrants from applying, and complete failure to publicise the opportunity have limited the number of worker claims. To our knowledge, no unregistered workers have been paid out for TERS claims for which they are eligible.

Imprisoned in their employers’ homes

While unemployed workers continued to scramble, those who have managed to keep their jobs, particularly live-in workers, faced their own challenges. Below is the experience recounted by Nozipho [name changed to protect privacy].

Right now, since this lockdown I can’t see my husband. they locked me before lockdown and say I will only go out when there is a vaccine. I am like a criminal cz (sic) m locked, not allowed to go outside even. I need to be myself, I have needs like them […]

I am not allowed to step my foot on the street in front of the house, but they go to see their parents, relatives. 3 weeks back they went to Pretoria zoo with 3 other families. On Saturday they went to a brother’s 50th birthday. My flat is a walk away from here but they don’t want me to go. […]

I feel like we domestic workers are being taken advantage of because it’s not fair to lock me in while they go everywhere [….]  She said Ramaphosa does not make rules in her house so even if lockdown is eased, if there is no vaccine I won’t go out or else I have to go and look for another job .

Some domestic workers who normally travelled to work were asked to move in with employers during the lockdown period. In many cases they were sleeping in the lounge or sharing a room with the children.

They were frequently refused the right to go to the clinic or to collect medication. They were not allowed to do their own shopping or take care of family responsibilities. One worker reported that her daughter is living at work with her, and the employers won’t allow the teenager to return to school, despite the loosening of Covid restrictions and reopening of schools. Another worker who is newly married, and whose husband has not been able to see her for months, was told by her employer that she must choose between her job and her marriage. Workers were still suffering from these conditions over six months after the lockdown was over, and some are still facing these barriers, well more than a year later.

The emergency situation effectively nullified the rights of domestic workers in their workplace. If they refused to comply with employer demands, they could legally be placed on indefinite unpaid leave, with virtually no recourse. Below are just a few of the many complaints that workers reported in Izwi’s April research:

  • They told me I have to work until that 21 days sitting with them; they refused to let me go home to take care of my kids to make sure my kids are safe.
  • I am working every day no off day, non-stop, no holidays, no overtime
  • Due to this Corona virus, I have to work, sleep in, and get paid half of the salary I’m used to getting.
  • My aunt is a live-in domestic worker; she has been stuck in lockdown from the beginning of March and has never been out to even buy herself toiletries, her bosses just tell her we will buy you everything. But why can someone go choose what soap or which type of pads do l use? Because shops are close by, she can go by herself, no taxi, to buy her stuff. The worst was last week when she asked to go [to the ATM] send money home and boss said No.
  • I am staying at work so my family is running out of food and l can’t help them.

All of this treatment is explicitly illegal under the labour laws regulating domestic work. Yet those who are still working know they are considered the “lucky” ones. With job opportunities so scarce, they are having to endure terrible rights violations, including violence and sexual abuse, (Hlanganisa Institute & Izwi, 2020) to preserve their livelihoods. When we asked Nozipho if we can engage with her employer about the various rights violations in her situation, she said the following:

My main concern is that if you can take the msgs (sic) and put them on news so that it can be heard by government.  I need the job, if you talk to them about it they won’t keep me working for them anymore, that I know.

If the stories are public but without my name then it will go into their minds. I just want this [to] be heard and something be said to our bosses

Government must also put us first and say something about domestic workers being ill-treated, refused freedom, not allowed to go to our families, mainly being locked in and separated from loved ones even after lockdown. It is depressing, cz (sic) our relationships with husbands is not healthy anymore; imagine from March until there is a vaccine! What if the vaccine comes after 3 years? I see this as unfair treatment – they live with their whole families.

As we adjust to new ways of working and living, let these tragic months be a lesson learnt. The solution must be systemic, but it is not mysterious. It starts with a written contract, payslip, and UIF registration. Change starts with each employer, and with genuine effort from the State to enforce the hard-won rights it has signed into law. Once domestic workers are visible and recognised, their rights can start to become meaningful. Once they earn a living wage, they can start to build financial independence and stand up to exploitation.

(StatsSA’s latest quarterly labour force survey (April – June 2021) show that the number of domestic workers has climbed to almost 900 000 – still below pre-Covid figures of more than 1 million)

Izwi has just released a booklet: Employing a Domestic Worker: A Legal and Practical Guide. It is freely available online and can be downloaded here.

Further reading:

  1. Hlanganisa Institute for Development Studies in Southern Africa and Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance, (September 2020). “South African domestic workers’ vulnerabilities to (and experience of) GBV in the workplace”. http://www.hlanganisa.org.za/  
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