She even considered living in a tree: A Domestic Worker Speaks

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Bronwen Dachs Muller
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Bronwen Dachs Muller,  and writes for Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) as part of its communications team

Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) conducted a number of interviews with workers in vulnerable and informal employment during the 2020 lockdown.  This is a condensed version of a migrant domestic worker’s story which highlights the conditions of many domestic workers in South Africa at the time.

Selina Ndlovu (not her real name)says one of the most painful parts of lockdown for her and migrant domestic workers in Cape Town was feeling hungry while watching employers giving food donations to the poor. Groceries for distribution, sat on the kitchen table in the home where she slept in an outside toilet with a bed squeezed in.

She saw eggs in one of the bags and thought, “What about me, I can’t eat an egg. It’s a luxury.”  Domestics who asked employers for some of this food were told, “You at least have a job, these are for people who have nothing.” But they also had nothing.  Selina could not buy food for herself because she cares for three children back home in Zimbabwe.

Arriving in South Africa

Selina has worked in South Africa since 2011.  Her violent husband evicted her so she decided the best hope of feeding her children and paying school fees was to do domestic work in South Africa.  Her baby was 1 year and 8 months when she left him and other children in her grandmother’s care.  When the older woman died, Selina’s 21-year-old son started to care for the youngest, who was by then 11 years old.

When Selina arrived in South Africa, she found live-in employment in the Cape Town suburb of Durbanville. Her employer was pregnant and had a toddler, and often joined her husband on work trips. Meanwhile Selina was taking care of the house – cooking, cleaning and doing childcare. The children woke at 5am and she cared for them until 2pm when they had a sleep. She never got any rest. “Even when I went to church on Sundays, I would come out and she would be in the car, hooting, waiting for me.”

“I was in my tennis shoes all the time. Sometimes I wouldn’t know if it was day or night. I asked my employer what my hours were and she said, ‘Your off time is when the baby is asleep’”. Selina had grown to love the children but her employer decided she didn’t need her anymore when the children went to school and were more independent. She then found a three-day-a-week job working for a woman she met at church.

She came to an arrangement with her former employer to keep her accommodation, which was within walking distance of her new job. In return she had to help with the children. But there were no details and the agreement was verbal. Her ex-employer told Selina not to let people see her room. “She was embarrassed and she would always say they will build me something better soon.”

Before lockdown, one set of grandparents moved in and Selina found her unpaid tasks extended to cleaning up after them. Sometimes the grandmother gave her old clothes. “But”, said Selina, “it’s expensive to send clothes to Zimbabwe and who will want to wear torn t-shirts?”

Lockdown: unpaid and overworked

During the stay-at home lockdown that started in late March 2020, Selina was stuck in the home of her ex-employer where she was living. She found herself working harder than ever. She was not charged for accommodation but had to clean and babysit unpaid. Her current employer paid her for five weeks of the three-day-a-week job that she could not get to.

Selina’s former employer asked ask her for a shopping list, then bought the items at Checkers. Selina couldn’t pay her back, especially as she normally buys from Shoprite “where it is cheaper.”

Her unpaid work during lockdown exhausted her. She even considered living in a tree as a better arrangement to the one she had.  Ignoring government restrictions, the family invited friends who stayed for days. She had to constantly clean up all the kids’ mess. 

These guests shied away from Selina even though they were breaking the law and Selina was entirely house-bound. “They’d back away like I’m the one who’s got COVID. But I’m cleaning the glasses they’re drinking from. I’m picking their clothes off the floor.”  They showed no concern for her health in the light of their risky behaviour.

When schools reopened, Selina continued her unpaid duties for free rent before leaving for her job. “I would get up at six every morning to wake the children and get them ready for school; make their breakfast, pack their lunch.  I was tired.  They know we foreigners don’t have options, but I couldn’t carry on anymore.”

Selina knew she was exploited, but felt she couldn’t quit. Her children in Zimbabwe relied on her income.

Little support for migrants

Selina moved when South Africa shifted to a less strict lockdown in June 2020. She now pays R1,200 per month for a room,  and R800 on transport to her 3-day-a-week job. That accounts for almost two-thirds of the R3,200 per month she earns. Still, her salary is double South Africa’s minimum wage for domestic workers, set at R21.69 per hour. 

She is no longer doing unpaid work, and feels her workload is more manageable. Her employer lets he rest when she needs to. “She is nice and I feel loved. She will say to me, ‘Selina you look so worried.’ ” She sometimes helps with extra money that Selina sends to her children.

A Zimbabwean domestic worker with a live-in job told Selina she was starving and had no means of buying food. Selina messaged her to say she would pass food over the wall. But her friend stopped her because her employers were relaxing outside with drinks and snacks and she knew they would be embarrassed and angry.

Zimbabwean domestic worker friends who lost their jobs or had their pay reduced, received no support because they had no South African identity document. Selina had not heard of any successful applications among migrants for the Special COVID-19 Social Relief in Distress Grant of R350 per month. 

Lean season far from home

Selina was remitting R600 a month to her children but now her accommodation and transport costs make this impossible. “If I can find a room to share, it will be easier.”  Her older son is angry that she sends less money home. He talks of leaving to do illegal goldpanning on disused mines that have killed many Zimbabweans.

This worries her as there will be no one to care for her youngest in Harare.  Her ex-husband lives in Harare but has several children and does nothing to help. With the COVID-19 health risks, as well as the cost of a trip home, Selina has no plans to visit her children.  But she’s scared they might close the border again.

Also she needs to find another two days of work per week.

Conclusion

What does Selina’s story tell us about the lives of domestic workers before and during the Covid-19 crisis?

Myrtle Witbooi, a trade union official from the South African Domestic Service & Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), commented that during the lockdown she had never seen a crisis of this proportion in the 50 years she had been involved with domestic workers. Workers were asking, “How are we going to survive?” 





Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik

Hunger during lock down was widespread, along with frustration and exhaustion. Long, unspecified hours of work and low pay were common. These conditions are illegal in South Africa as domestic workers are covered by the Labour Relations Act, and South Africa in 2013 was one of the first countries to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention on the Rights of Domestic Workers.

In addition the widespread belief among employers that workers carried the infection, while not protecting their domestic workers against infection, was commonplace. This highlighted whose lives mattered.

Domestic workers play an essential economic role by providing labour so others can work outside the home. But accessing labour rights is an uphill battle. Isolation in private homes make it hard to organize and educate these workers. Also many are unregistered migrants and so vulnerable to exploitation. SADSAWU works to educate employers, but many still refuse to comply with legislation.

Domestic workers from neighbouring countries also battle to keep their work permit documents up to date.  In addition they fear South African’s xenophobia extending from high-ranking officials to ordinary citizens. They worry they will end back in Zimbabwe, where they cannot find work. 

These workers traditionally travel to visit family in rural areas or in neighbouring countries over Christmas. But COVID-19 health protocols has made travel difficult, and severe income drops was another hurdle.  Some employers told workers that they paid them for a month of no work in lockdown and so they wouldn’t receive their usual holiday pay.

Workers are also finding that employers are cutting their work days. Employers argue, “We too are suffering. Take it or leave it”.

Early in the lockdown, SADSAWU began a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help domestic workers, particularly single mothers. One worker had nothing to eat at home and wept when she saw an app on her phone showing a food voucher.  SADSAWU’s food vouchers and rent assistance reached over 300 domestic workers desperately in need of help.

The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, an NGO providing social welfare and poverty alleviation for migrants and refugees, had by June 2020 raised over R130,000 to help women migrants with food, rent, health-care and other needs. It also won a court order that enabled some asylum-seekers and others to apply for a R350 relief subsidy.

Government introduced TERS (Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme) to provide up to 60% of salaries to workers who lost jobs during the COVID crisis. It allowed employers to claim on behalf of employees if they were registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). However, most employers have not registered their domestic workers.  Only 20% of the 1.2 million domestic workers are registered for UIF according to the Quarterly Labour Force Surveys. 

By mid- June only 35,374 domestic workers had been paid UIF, representing 15% of those registered.  There were also accusations that employers had not passed on UIF monies to employees.

The UIF later in mid-November 2020 allowed employees to register themselves for TERS, and allowed unregistered workers to apply.  But still employers did not contribute to the UIF. These payments would have made a big difference to domestic workers in the crisis. Instead, five days a week, women WhatsApped or walked into SADSAWU retrenched or working fewer days asking, “What can I do?”

Witbooi believes domestic workers need training to start generating an income in a changed world. Domestic workers are saying, “I need you to teach me, to empower me, give us ideas on how to move into the gig economy. I need to raise my five kids. If I have to make something—like aprons—that’s fine, I’ll do it’.”

The original story was written by Bronwen Dachs Muller, who edits and writes for Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) as part of its communications team.

For further stories of workers labouring in the informal sector in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa go to https://www.wiego.org/coping-crisis-south-african-workers-lives-covid-19      

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