Gender Gender

Domestic workers in COVID-19 storm

Gender Focus With EMELDA MWITWA
ONE fine morning, a woman I have known for a long time phones me to share sad news about her loss of employment.
She had worked for our family back in the days when I was in college. And because we lived like family, we have continued communicating and checking on each other once in a while.
The woman, who I will call Theresa for convenience, has worked as a maid for over 20 years. In her early days on the job, she was working as a live-in maid.
But after getting married, she opted to be commuting to and from work. Every morning, except on Sundays, she leaves home at 06:00 hours because she has to report for work at about 07:00 hours.
So on the morning that she had called me, she had reported for work as usual, but only to be sent back home by her boss.
After we exchanged felicitations, she went on to lament about the outbreak of the COVID-19 in Zambia and how it has cost her a job.
“What’s the matter?” I asked worriedly. “Are you unwell or is any member of your family showing symptoms?”
She said she was not sick at all, neither was any member of her immediate family.
But out of the blues, her employer decided to suspend services of non-resident domestic workers, until further notice.
Only the live-in maid has been spared. The day was Monday, April 6, 2020, when Theresa’s boss paid her the March salary and dropped the bombshell.
Her boss only said she was placing her on leave and would call her back when her services were needed again.
When she probed from her co-worker (live-in maid), she learnt that the gardener had been placed on leave too because their boss was trying to avoid out-door services until the COVID-19 storm was over.
Theresa shared that she had a hunch about her ‘dismissal’ from work because a lot of maids and gardeners have lost their jobs in the recent past.
Five of her own friends had suffered a similar fate soon after the first two cases of COVID-19 were announced on March 18, 2020.
When she called me, she wanted to find out if she could sue her boss for placing her on unpaid leave without notice.
I advised her to consult the Ministry of Labour and Social Security because they have already given guidelines on how such matters ought to be handled.
In fact, Minister of Labour and Social Security Joyce Simukoko issued a press statement recently, urging employers to place non-essential workers on paid annual leave.
The measure aims at decongesting workplaces and preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
However, I was not just sure how Theresa’s case could be handled because she did not sign a contract of employment with her boss.
This makes her vulnerable to abuse by her employer, whom she has served for three years without taking leave.
I bet this is the fate of other domestic workers out there because they are usually hired by verbal word and their dismissal from employment is also issued verbally.
To make matters worse, most, if not all, domestic workers in Zambia do not belong to any union.
So, in such stormy economic moments as these, there is no one to engage the Ministry of Labour on their behalf.
Taking that into consideration, I told Theresa that I was not sure whether domestic workers were covered by the resolutions of a Special Tripartite Consultative Labour Council meeting between the Ministry of Labour, Zambia Federation of Employers, Zambia Congress of Trade Unions and Federation for Free Trade Unions of Zambia held on March 26, 2020, at Twangale Park in Lusaka.
Nonetheless, I had to explain to her that COVID-19 had sent a lot of economic shocks globally, notably the suspension of services for non-essential workers, closure of industries and small businesses too.
This has seen workers being sent on leave; some with pay and others without pay, especially in cases where the employer’s revenue source has dried up.
In Zambia, I explained, some workers in the tourism and hospitality sectors have already been rendered jobless by the inability of potential tourists to travel to Zambia.
This means that there are no cash flows to tour operators and hoteliers.
Employers as well as workers have also been affected by the presidential directive to close bars, nightclubs, casinos, cinemas, gyms and some airports in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The trend is similar, perhaps tougher, in other parts of the world where millions of workers are out of employment as a result of economic, social and travel lockdowns that governments have imposed.
For example, British Airways is suspending 36,000 of its workers because, like other airlines in the world, its fleet of aircraft has been grounded as countries enforce lockdowns in an effort to fight COVID-19.
Of course, these are tough but inevitable measures that will worsen human suffering all over the world if the coronavirus continues with its devastating toll on human life.
Theresa acknowledged that tough measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus were inescapable, but lamented that poor people like herself would die of hunger if a cure for the disease was not found soon.
I told her that we needed to put our trust in God to stop the coronavirus because from what we have seen in the first world, the best health care systems are overwhelmed by illnesses and deaths.
We both conferred that much as medical staff were doing their best to fight the disease, and scientists were trying to find a vaccine, we should not under-estimate the power of prayer.
At the end of our conversation, we agreed that Theresa needed to go and consult the Labour Office on how to proceed with her case. Mind you, she has worked for three years without taking leave.
I felt she needed to be paid her leave benefits for each year served and any relief, in lieu of notice, that  the Labour Office may deem fit.
Further, Theresa wants to find out if domestic workers were also entitled to paid annual leave during this period.
This is in view of the agreement by the Special Tripartite Consultative Labour Council Meeting that non-essential employees should be placed on paid leave, including those with few or without accrued leave days.
The meeting also agreed that employers should avoid undertaking redundancies at this moment due to cost and legal implications arising from lack of notice.
Furthermore, the tripartite council agreed that the hospitality and tourism sectors should limit forced leave of its workers as much as possible.
Mrs Simukoko said these measures were subject to review should public health deteriorate.
However, the fate of domestic workers is not known.
Obviously, apart from Theresa, there are many other domestic workers who want to know their fate in view of the effect of COVID-19 on employment.
Theresa says she also wants to know if she is guaranteed of getting her job back when the deadly respiratory disease has been conquered.
However, I challenged her to make sure that in future, she signs a contract with her employer.
Being the courageous and out-spoken person that she is, I also urged Theresa to team up with other domestic workers and spearhead the formation of a union for maids and gardeners.

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