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Domestic workers are hit hard by lockdown

Patricia Langa* has been told not to return to work. “The problem is this lockdown,” the 63-year-old domestic worker says. “I was working for that lady for nine months. Last month she paid me. This month, she didn’t pay me. If I ask her why she didn’t pay me, she says: ‘We don’t have money’.”

Langa is not registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and so does not qualify for the Covid-19 benefit. She, like many other domestic workers, is now struggling to survive. “I must pay rent. I must buy food. I must buy everything. What about my rent this month? I don’t have money to pay. I’ve only got now about R700 left.”

According to UIF data, only 15888 domestic workers, of a possible 673940, have been paid from the Covid-19 Temporary employer-employee relief scheme (Ters).

A presentation by the fund to Parliament’s employment and labour portfolio committee on Workers’ Day stated that by April 28 the payouts to domestic workers from the scheme totalled more than R60-million.

But the 15888 workers only represent about 2.35% of the total number of UIF-registered domestic workers and 1.2% of the total private household workforce.

With the easing of lockdown regulations, only live-in domestic workers and caregivers have been allowed to return to work. All domestic workers will be allowed back at work only under level two restrictions. As a result, many of them will continue to go without incomes until the lockdown is relaxed further.

According to Statistics South Africa’s most recent quarterly labour-force survey, there were 1.28-million domestic workers at the end of 2019. In April, UIF spokesperson Lungelo Mkamba told Business Insider that 673940 domestic workers were registered with the fund.

The government set aside R40-billion from the fund to provide support to workers who have temporarily lost their jobs as a result of the countrywide lockdown.

A report by the International Labour Organisation found that measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus will result in global working hours being cut 10.5% in the second quarter of 2020. This is equivalent to 305-million full-time jobs.

Despite efforts by the government to soften the blow of the lockdown on employers — and, by extension, their workers — Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi has warned that large-scale job losses are inevitable. In its worst-case projections, the treasury has forecast job losses of seven million.

During the Workers’ Day portfolio committee meeting, employment and labour director general Thobile Lamati said the UIF would not be able to cope with this spike in unemployment. “It wasn’t designed for this kind of a situation,” he said.

By Monday, the fund had paid R7-billion in Ters benefits, meant to cover about 1.2-million workers. It had also paid out more than R1.16-million in ordinary UIF benefits.

But access to the Ters benefit has been strained, with employers complaining that they have not received their claims and the department accusing them of failing to submit the proper paperwork.

On Monday, the department released a statement urging employers to ensure the money they receive from the UIF is disbursed to the workers. This was after complaints by workers alleging their employers were withholding these payouts.

Last week, the Mail & Guardian published a guide for applying for the benefit online and subsequently received a number of complaints and queries. A feedback form accompanying the article received 867 responses, most from workers.

Of 163 employers, 92.6% claimed they had not been successful in claiming the Ters benefit, despite the large majority of them saying they had the correct information to complete their applications. “The system to apply for UIF Covid relief has changed three times, and each time the process is complicated and frustrating,” one employer said. “The online application is almost impossible to complete, as the system constantly bombs out and you have to restart the process over and over.”

About half the workers who filled in the form claimed their employers had tried to access UIF relief on their behalf, but 95.7% of 645 workers said they had not received payouts.

Martha Thusi*, a domestic worker from Mpumalanga, is not sure how she will make it through the lockdown. Thusi, who has worked for the same employer for more than a decade, is registered with the UIF.

Thusi’s employer paid her full R3 500 salary for April, but said she will now only be able to pay her R1 000. The minimum Ters payout is R3 500. “She promised she will pay me R1 000, but I don’t know when that R1 000 will come … I am worried. What am I going to do with that R1 000? Because R1 000 is nothing.”

*Not their real names

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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