Domestic workers are vulnerable employees at the best of times, but the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored just how little labour protection they have. Amy Tekié, co-founder of Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance (Izwi), contends that professionalising the industry could significantly improve the lives of roughly one million domestic workers in South Africa.
How many domestic workers have been at risk during the lockdown, and what measures have been put in place to protect them?
There are around one million domestic workers employed in South Africa, according to Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey. In April, shortly after lockdown, Izwi ran a survey in Gauteng, which revealed that only 37% of the 643 canvassed were receiving their full wages, less than 10% were on paid leave, 27% were on unpaid leave, and a further 27% were on leave but were not told whether they would receive their wages.
Some 259 000 domestic workers reportedly lost their jobs during the second quarter of the year, when lockdown came into effect, and a total of 163 000 have lost their jobs since the start of the year. The Covid-19 social protections have unfortunately excluded many of these workers. The Unemployment Insurance Fund’s (UIF) Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) was intended to compensate workers on unpaid leave during the pandemic. Eligibility is based on UIF registration, and claims are made by employers who can then pay wages. Although the law demands that domestic workers employed for more than 24 hours a month must be registered for UIF, there is very little compliance from domestic employers, who are rarely held accountable to the labour law. The picture is further complicated by the fact that many domestic workers are migrants, ineligible for social grants and, until recently, not able to return to their home countries.
“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. Living on poverty wages with little to no savings, and unable to access TERS support, many domestic workers suddenly faced destitution.
From the second week of lockdown, domestic workers’ rights organisations were inundated by members at risk of eviction and unable to feed their children. An urgent court application was brought by the Casual Workers Advice Office, supported by Izwi and the Women on Farms Project, to allow workers to apply directly for TERS (rather than through employers) and to include those who were not registered for UIF due to employer negligence. On 26 May, the Department of Employment and Labour (DoEL) committed to include unregistered workers in TERS benefits, which was a victory. Yet it took an additional six months of continued legal pressure for that commitment to be operationalised; only in November 2020 did it finally create an application process for unregistered workers, and it is still not clear when those applications will be processed.
What proportion of domestic workers are registered for UIF, and what is being done to improve this number?
Estimates vary dramatically. Izwi’s survey revealed that 79% were unregistered and 10% did not know if they were registered and were therefore probably not. Some of these are migrants who cannot be registered because they are undocumented, but UIF registration rates amongst South African domestic workers have not been shown to be any higher. Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing and the University of Western Cape’s Social Law Project estimated that only 20% of domestic workers are registered for UIF. In March 2019, 680 000 domestic workers were reportedly registered for UIF (60–70%), but in the past these figures have included those who are no longer alive, whose contracts have been terminated, or whose employers have not been making payments. The DoEL’s 2016/17 annual report indicates that almost 40% of all employers are not contributing to the UIF. Only 15 888 domestic workers were able to claim from the TERS by early August.
What recourse do domestic workers have if they are unable to work due to illness?
On 19 November 2020, the Constitutional Court issued a landmark judgment, recognising the unconstitutional and discriminatory nature of the exclusion of domestic workers from the Compensation for Occupational Injury and Diseases Act (COIDA), and declaring that they must be eligible to claim from now on, as well as retrospectively to April 1994. Workers who have contracted the illness at work will therefore be able to claim support from the COIDA fund. Of course, domestic workers also have the right to paid sick leave.
How can the plight of domestic workers be improved, and what can companies do to assist?
The solution is systemic, but it is not mysterious. Professionalising the industry will entrench the rights of workers and the responsibilities of employers. Change starts with each employer providing the basics of any employment situation: a written contract, monthly pay slips, and UIF and COIDA registration. In the meantime, the state must accord domestic workers the full minimum wage, and make genuine efforts to enforce the hard-won rights they have signed into law.
Companies can assist by educating their employees about the rights of domestic workers – this will have a greater impact if it comes from employers rather than from the domestic workers themselves. In 2021, Izwi and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa are set to launch a Guide to Employing Domestic Workers, to provide clear and accessible information for employers. Companies can also support some of the advocacy organisations in this space through their corporate social investment work.