A unique poignancy shrouds Workers’ Day this year – an occasion meant to celebrate the endeavour and economic contribution of organised labour – as millions of South Africans face an uncertain future in terms of health, employment and economic stability. The nationwide Covid-19 lockdown and measures designed to encourage physical distancing certainly appear to have slowed the transmission of the virus in South Africa so far, compared to many countries. However, the economic cost to domestic workers and low-income families has been immeasurable.
Dr Aisha Pandor, CEO and co-founder of SweepSouth, says that despite the gradual relaxing of the nationwide lockdown, the protection of the country’s unemployed domestic workers must continue. The reality is that SweepStars and domestic workers from outside of the SweepSouth platform have had to endure more than three weeks without any form of income and that the majority may have to wait many more weeks before the opportunity to return to work becomes possible.
“The launch of the SweepSouth Covid-19 SweepStar Fund over three weeks ago has enabled us to support over 3000 domestic workers who had been deprived of any form of income, due to physical distancing and travel restrictions. However, the post-lockdown return to work for the majority of domestic workers will be agonisingly slow,” says Pandor.
As of 1 May, lockdown restriction will be downgraded from Level 5 to Level 4, meaning that it is likely that live-in domestic workers will be able to return to work. Although additional clarity is being sought from the government in this regard, it appears that domestic workers who provide care services for employed, actively working employers (for example nannies of families where both parents are working), will also be permitted to return to work. However, those who provide regular and on-demand cleaning services will still be prevented from working until lockdown measures drop to Level 3 or lower.
Pandor continues, “Domestic workers do not have the luxury of working from behind a computer screen, from their own homes. In an ideal scenario, people who are able to will opt to pay their domestic workers, their cleaners, nannies and gardeners, throughout lockdown and social distancing or quarantine. Even as restrictions are lifted, domestic workers will face the additional challenge of regaining their former employment. Many previous and potential future employers will be hesitant about admitting visitors and employees into their homes because of the understandable fear of Covid-19 transmission.”
For the last two years, SweepSouth has produced annual reports that paint a portrait of the lived economic reality of the women who care for our children and clean our homes. The data uncovered by SweepSouth on pay and working conditions for domestic workers opened South Africa’s eyes to the fact that their needs are not met by the prescribed minimum wage. Many domestic workers are the sole earners in their families. They spend every cent that they make on essentials like transport, food and supporting other family members.
“When domestic workers can’t work, the knock-on effect is immense. Looking at this information with new eyes, against the backdrop of the lockdown resulting from the widespread global outbreak of COVID-19, shows the reality in a much more grim light,” says Pandor.
“That said, one thing that South Africans can do like no one else in a time of crisis is creating a sense of solidarity. We need to do whatever we can for those who are most vulnerable, and not just at the outset before we put it out of our minds. We need to raise our voices this Workers’ Day and keep a conversation going. We must continue to help people through lockdown and beyond when social distancing is likely to continue.”
Pandor notes that prior to the lockdown announcement, around 40% of SweepSouth users opted to continue to pay to support domestic workers while practising social distancing.
She says: “I hope people will continue to contribute. Seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world, this is a long-term situation that will not resolve itself in just a few weeks. We need to be thinking about how we can support people. We need to protect each other under these unprecedented circumstances.”
Likewise, if you employ a full or part-time domestic worker privately, Pandor urges to continue to pay and support them for as long as you can afford to, or alternatively consider partial pay when you cannot. Importantly, Pandor emphasises, “communicate with your employees and stress that they have a job to come back to”.
If you would like to contribute towards the SweepSouth COVID-19 SweepStar Fund, you are welcome to do so here: https://bit.ly/3d2hCFu