Unable to sleep at night, Lessie Masango from KwaNdebele in Mpumalanga stares at the ceiling as she tosses and turns. What makes her restless is the realisation that she has nothing to show for the 28 years she has spent toiling – mopping people’s floors, washing their clothes, raising their children and listening to their problems.
“We are forced to do it [being a domestic worker] because we are poor. You don’t even get paid [well] for all that you do from the bottom of your heart,” she said, letting out a deep sigh.
Masango is one of more than 250 000 domestic workers who had lost their jobs by the end of June, after the lockdown was imposed in March to curb the spread of Covid-19. These numbers were revealed in Statistics South Africa’s latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey.
Masango, 53, a grandmother of six, was looking forward to celebrating her 17th year with the last family she was working for. But things changed when she realised that she was no longer needed because the couple’s children were all grown up. When the country was still on alert level four, Masango received a devastating call from her employer informing her that they would be letting her go.
“During level two, they called me to fetch my clothes and treated me like I was a thief. All along they would leave me alone in the house while they went on holiday to places like Dubai, Durban and Cape Town… I genuinely think they used Covid-19 as an excuse to let me go instead of telling me the truth that they did not need me anymore.”
At the end of August, Masango received a final payment of R22 000 [severance] from her former employer. “I am not sure what I am going to do because domestic work is all I know. I am truly heartbroken…
“Sometimes I lie awake until late at night thinking about how much I endured while working for the family, from their two daughters who could not even pick up their used sanitary pads on the floor to me sitting them down and teaching them about menstruation and their growing bodies, and even keeping their secrets. I lie awake thinking about how their mother failed them, because by the time she spoke to them I had already spoken to them.”
Also sitting at home after losing her job is Elisabeth Tlou, 56, who hails from Bronkhorstspruit, 50km east of Pretoria. Tlou has been a domestic worker for about 20 years, spending almost six years with her last employers.
“When I arrived in 2014, she was pregnant and I looked after the baby until she had another one, who is three years old now,” she said. “I worked Monday to Friday, and I used to buy my own food because I was not allowed to eat anything in their home.
“I said to myself I will show them… One day I took out a cup and made myself some tea to see if they would kick me out. But they didn’t and I didn’t care about the security cameras that they installed. I continued to make tea and look after their children.”
Despite all the humiliation, Tlou, who was earning R4 100 a month, says she held on to the job because she was looking after her sickly mother. “In March this year, she [the employer] told me to go home because of Covid-19… She called in May to inform me that she was not sure when I would return to work because of Covid.”
Later, her employer called her and told her to fetch her clothes because she could no longer afford to pay for her service. “They paid and gave me my UIF [Unemployment Insurance Fund] documents and that was the last time I heard from them. I had told myself that I would retire there.”
Tlou says that when she went to the Department of Labour, she was told that the document she had been given states that she resigned. “How could she do that, because she knew that I am uneducated? Now I have to depend on the family for assistance for food and other necessities.”
Sibongile Gumede*, 57, also from KwaNdebele, is among the lucky few who still have their jobs. She, however, has had to take a pay cut.
“When the president announced that there was a national state of disaster, I didn’t go home. And it’s not because I was forced to stay. I remained and cooked and cleaned for the family because I am looking after an elderly [person],” said Gumede, who has been a domestic worker for 17 years.
“Although there are a lot of things that I can’t do anymore because my salary has been cut, at least nothing was repossessed. Imagine taking home R4 800 and later taking less than R3 000. The shops and the banks do not care that your salary was cut. Covid-19 really messed things up and I cannot blame my employers. They do not work anymore.”
Working for understanding employers
Coming from Delft, a small township on the outskirts of Cape Town, Veronica Simon has a glowing testimony about one of her three employers. The 53-year-old mother of seven went home on 14 March and recently returned to two of the families for whom she works on a part-time basis.
“I am just thrilled to still have a job and grateful to God for keeping my job… One of my employers has also been really good to me,” said Simon, who has been a domestic worker for 25 years. She bemoans the fact that other women haven’t been so lucky as they have been ill-treated by their employers.
During the peak of the pandemic, when domestic workers were permitted to return to work, Simon says her employer used to call an Uber to take her to the taxi rank when she was unable to do it herself. “Even if I was coughing because I have asthma, she didn’t say I was bringing her Covid. We sat and chatted together without masks like we always did before.”
Nongcebo Mbatha*, 40, works as a domestic worker for a family living in Morningside, Durban. “I work three days a week and I am not even sure how much I earn, because I get R1 200 for looking after the child, R1 200 for the mother and R400 for the elderly woman. The father does not pay; he hasn’t paid since last year.
“I think they are a great family, it’s just that they are struggling financially. When I returned to work during level two, my employer got Covid and the family sent me home until she recovered. But since I’ve been back, they have been great. I cook for them, clean and look after the family.”
The only problem, she says, is that she is not registered with the UIF. “Being a domestic worker was not my first choice. I really wanted to study hospitality but I couldn’t. I am not working for much anymore, everything I do now is for my four children.”
The president of the United Domestic Workers Union, Pinky Mashiane, laments the poor working conditions that some women have had to endure. “Some domestic workers were already experiencing discrimination before the lockdown,” said Mashiane. “There were employers who started sending their employees home because they feared Covid-19. Some domestic workers were told that they were a high risk because they needed to fetch chronic medication from their clinics…”
Amy Tekié, co-founder of the Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance, says the most important question is whether or not employers follow proper procedures when letting their domestic workers go.
“You can be retrenched on the basis that your employer’s financial status has changed. For example, if they lose their job and suddenly they can’t afford to pay for your services. Remember that they are not forced to pay for services they no longer need.
“During Covid-19, most domestic workers were dismissed unfairly. The majority of the employers … did not pay severance packages, outstanding leave and, in some cases, some employers used Covid-19 as an excuse. Some domestic workers are or were let go without final warnings or disciplinary processes, and the vast majority of the 250 000 have not been registered with the UIF.”
Tekié says around 80% of domestic workers are not registered with the UIF and there are no consequences for their employers. “Some domestic workers were literally told to choose between their children and their jobs. Some were on the brink of losing their marriages and some couldn’t fetch medication from the clinics, and yet their employers went to the zoo with their kids.”
*Not their real names.