– Martha Mukaiwa
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, *Diamond, a domestic worker in Swakopmund, was relieved to have another way to earn an income during Namibia’s prolonged lockdown.
In 2017, she had augmented her wages as a hotel housekeeper and part-time domestic worker with the sale of dried fish. Diamond returned to this trade as her various employers, fearful of the virus, sent her home.
“My dear, you have to hustle,” says Diamond who works for four different households in the coastal town. “You cannot just sit at home and wait for that salary because there’s rent to pay.”
A mom to two children and also working to support her own mother, Diamond faced the first few months of the pandemic without social security, medical aid or savings.
Diamond’s lack of social and economic protection is the tale of the majority of domestic workers in Namibia and globally. The United Nations reports that over 80% of the world’s 67 million domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, lack access to any kind of social coverage.
In Namibia, Minister of Labour and Industrial Relations, Utoni Nujoma has stated that 6.9% of the labour force does domestic work. Minister Nujoma has also called for Namibia to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 189 which recognizes “the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy” and demands the protection of their rights, remuneration and dignity.
Though domestic workers may not immediately come to mind when one considers the pandemic frontline, domestic workers are, in fact, an integral part of the global economy.
While other workers across all industries attend to their jobs at home, in offices or in the field, domestic workers tend to an array of invisible household labour including but not limited to cooking, cleaning or caring for children and the elderly.
Despite the essential nature of this work, most domestic workers labour informally and without any kind of contract providing for sick leave, hazard pay or severance.
Namibia has a domestic worker minimum wage of N$1 564.39 per month for part-time workers working for 5 hours per day or less. As pay is low and the price of necessities is constantly rising, many domestic workers are employed at multiple households.
These realities increase the risk of their exposure to Covid-19 and also leave domestic workers vulnerable to unpaid leave and sudden dismissal.
“Some employers don’t provide essential products to domestic workers and they have to make their own mask and hand sanitizer,” says Namibian Domestic and Allied Workers Union (NDAWU) general secretary Nellie Dina Kahua.
“Homelessness has become critical among domestic workers. Some domestic workers pay rent for N$800.00 to N$1000 00 per month with a minimum wage of N$1600.20, it is difficult to sustain themselves with the low wages they are earning.”
Kahua, who worked as a domestic worker in Windhoek for 17 years before being elected NDAWU general secretary, says the effect of the pandemic has been harsh.
Painting a picture of discrimination, salary cuts of up to 50%, reduced working hours and sudden job losses, Kahau says NDAWU does its utmost to have member workers reinstated at their former places of employment through a process of consultation.
Some employers say that “domestic workers living in informal settlements must not attend work as they might carry the virus to the family of employers or that their kids are not safe in the hands of domestic workers,” says Kahua, who maintains that the biggest fear facing domestic workers is getting infected with the virus or losing a loved one to Covid-19.
“Living with fear all the time increases depression among domestic workers,” she says, and notes that domestic workers’ mental health is currently just as overlooked as their physical health.
“In terms of medical aid, the majority of domestic workers don’t have it. Domestic workers are entitled to sick leave but employers are playing a tough game to release them when they are sick and money will be subtracted from their salary if they stay home.”
As *Blessing, a young domestic worker from Zimbabwe found out, the economic impact of trying to safeguard one’s physical health can also extend beyond unpaid sick leave.
“One of my employer’s relatives got Covid-19 and they were in contact with them. I then asked my employer for some days off for caution’s sake and she got angry. She accused me of not taking my job seriously and I got fired!” says Blessing, who worked at multiple households for three years before being completely out of work as a result of the pandemic.
“I think I was completely out of work for about 6 months before one of my employers called me back to work. I had a few savings that I had intended on sending home to my family and we had to survive on that,” says Blessing, who is a mother to two girls and also supports her extended families.
Though work increased in the households where she was employed, Blessing was not compensated for the extra labour.
“The kids not being in school meant a messier household but I wasn’t compensated for that. I just got what I got before the pandemic,” she says.
“Generally domestic workers are treated as ‘less human’, if I can use that term. For the three years that I worked as a domestic worker, I worked for about six different households and, of those, only two employers treated me very well,” she says.
“At some point I was told directly that I’m not part of their family. I’m a cleaner and I should know that my place is cleaning after them, nothing more. They told me that you Zimbabweans are poor and we should go back to our poor country.”
Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organising (WIEGO), an NGO advocating for informal workers’ rights, reports that “migrant workers, who make up a significant portion of domestic workers, are extra vulnerable as they have little legal protection, especially if they are undocumented or have been trafficked”. The organisation also records that, globally, one in six domestic workers is a migrant worker.
On top of her fear of contracting Covid-19, Blessing also dreaded ill-treatment due to her non-Namibian status. This status also prohibited her from accessing stimulus payments or registering for social security.
“I think employers should not underpay domestic workers,” says Blessing. “A lot cannot afford medical aid which is essential.”
During a pandemic, the ability to access healthcare is vital but, even when domestic workers get sick, they may refrain from going to the hospital for fear of contracting Covid-19. Domestic workers also fear testing positive for the virus and being quarantined for an extended period which may result in wage deductions, pay cuts or job losses.
“Last year in June, for 4 days, I was just lying down. I was feeling feverish, very cold. I had a headache. Food was tasteless,” says Diamond who was never tested but suspects she had Covid-19.
“I said ‘uh-uh. Me, I’m not going to go to the hospital.’ I think that was Covid but I was very strong.” Diamond treated her symptoms at home and eventually recovered. She says if she ever gets sick again, she will simply stay home and put her faith in God.
“I’m not scared. I trust my God. If I get sick, he will heal me eventually,” she says.
Though the challenges for domestic workers are significant, many of these issues were present before the pandemic and, in her work at NDAWU, Kahua urges employers to adhere to the directives and regulations already in place to protect the rights of domestic workers.
particulars of a minimum wage, a transport allowance, the provision of food, health and safety requirements, suitable accommodation for live-in domestic workers and additionally protects domestic workers’ freedom of association and access to trade unions.
Despite these directives, many employers prey on the desperation of uneducated, lower income and migrant women and are highly exploitative.
They undervalue domestic workers and pay them poorly. They may subject domestic workers to verbal abuse or sexual harassment. Employers may even make arbitrary or malicious deductions to their domestic workers’ wages or threaten job loss should they call in sick or come to work late.
“As a union we try our best to motivate domestic workers to use their small remuneration to start a small business and sell small things from home to sustain themselves and their family,” says Kahua, considering the reality of low wages and pandemic-era job losses.
Kahua also sees value in platforms where domestic workers and employers can engage, and suggests a domestic workers’ awareness campaign to educate the nation on the relevant laws and the reality of domestic workers.
Namibia may also learn from a recent study titled ‘Remunerated Domestic Workers in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Covid-19 Crisis’ which recommends the implementation of domestic worker unemployment benefits, tailored health and safety protocols, guaranteed health coverage, the formalization of domestic work and ensured access to information and legal advice.
“Domestic workers are entitled to their rights. They deserve to be treated with respect and to receive decent pay like other workers,” says Kahua.
“Domestic workers are human. They need respect and their dignity is important as well.”