Covid and the life of a domestic worker
Gladys Mnyengeza | Amandla 71/72 | September 2020
My name is Gladys Mnyengeza. I am 67 years old. I am married and staying in Kuyasa, Khayelitsha with my husband, children and grandchildren. I am still working as a domestic worker at 67 years old, and I am working for this family for 38 years.
Going to work during the Pandemic
You know it’s very bad. I stayed at home for three months. It’s very sad because you used to see your friends. Now you don’t see your friends anymore.
And now in this time of Covid-19 you find out that in the taxi they don’t care. They are supposed to give us sanitiser, but they haven’t got. You feel they don’t want to do what the government said. So we have to just sit there, because you can’t say anything to the taxis. So that was the first fear.
Then to find out two of my friends died. It was so sad because I couldn’t go to my friend in Site B. We used to travel together. I couldn’t go there because I am scared, and the law said 50 to go to the funeral. So that hurts you, you know, because we have been together for more than 40 years.
It’s very sad. You hear the stories of domestic workers who are losing their jobs and they don’t get nothing. Like in March they got half, but then after March the employer says, “I can’t pay you because of Covid-19”. The other bad thing is now they are saying that it is us domestic workers that is bringing this Covid-19 into their houses.
I will tell you something that I saw one morning. Next door to where I work, there is a lady working there. The lady called me and she said, “Gladys, can you look”. When I look at my friend, I saw the employer undress her outside on the veranda. She undresses her there. And then after, she takes those green things that the doctors are using when they go for operations, but it’s a plastic one. And then the employer covers her with this thing. And then she takes something that looks like a belt and puts it around her hips, and puts another thing over it. And then she leaves the lady’s clothes outside.
My question was this: if she must wear something like this, does her employer also wear something like this inside the house? And then we see the employer coming outside with no mask, no nothing.
But it was so sad to me. It’s like they are saying that the domestic workers are bringing the Covid-19 in their houses. That’s why now they treat the domestic workers like this.
And the other case that I am dealing with is this domestic worker who was told by her employer to come and live with her from June until December. And she said to her employer, “I can’t do that because I have kids. Who is going to do my kids’ homework? Who is going to look after my kids, because they are still very small?” But the employer said if she doesn’t stay there, she will have to find another person.
She started working somewhere else and this employer has still not paid her. She then says she must go and claim UIF, only to find out that the employer did not register her. Then she eventually said I will give you your wages for three months and my father’s old car.
You know I am working in an area where most of the white people knows me and sometimes you want to answer when they say to you, “can you see Gladys, she puts her mask under her nose”. But she is shouting this to me when she is not wearing a mask. But they make us feel like we are the ones bringing the virus. So sometimes I want to respond and ask, “where is your mask?” But then they will say I am being rude. So I just keep quiet.
Joining the Union
I think I joined SADSAWU (the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union) in 2007. I am now the Deputy Chairperson and Treasurer of SADSAWU nationally and here in the Western Cape.
But you know it’s very difficult. We have domestic workers coming to the office and there are many cases during this time of the Covid. And it is so difficult. Employers will tell you to go to the UIF, and when the domestic worker gets there to Department of Labour, she will find out that the employer has not registered her. You know as domestic workers it is so hard; we often do not know where to go. Even if you go to Department of Labour, even they do not care for us as domestic workers. And most domestic workers, we do not understand the laws of Labour. That’s why we have all these workshops for domestic workers, so that they understand the laws.
But what must we do when the employer says they cannot pay her? Where is the domestic worker going to get money? She did work for that month but now the employer says I cannot give you this amount because I haven’t got money. We must stand with the domestic worker not for the employer.
When it comes to the domestic workers, we are always suffering, not the employer.
And who is going to look after me?
We have to suffer because there is kids, there is food, there is electric, there is everything we must buy. Its winter now, so we must buy paraffin. We must buy bread. You know when the kids are at home they eat too much.
So really, who is going to look after me? Because I am still looking after my family. I am helping them. Is my employer going to look after me? If I get Covid, my employer is going to say I must stay home. She will be scared. When I am sick, my employer would always take me to her doctor. But I doubt if I get Covid if she will take me to her doctor; maybe she will be scared of taking me to her doctor.
I was not scared before I saw two of my friends passed away, and my family, three of them, and my husband’s family. Then I did get very scared. I believe to pray God just help us. This thing must go past. Please look after us. I do believe in that.
Loss of society
Its worst on Saturday. I wake up at 4 o’clock to go to work. You know, I used to travel alone. I used to go out alone and catch the bus at 4.50am, but now I catch the bus at 6.10am. We are scared because our places are not safe, but we take that risk. We used to go to work as a group but these things changed because of Covid, and they are not at work. Now I have to go out alone. Luckily my granddaughter she is doing grade 7. I walk with her now to the bus.
You know in our culture you must go to your neighbour and ask how they are. Now we cannot do that. But now every week we get in touch with each other on the phone. It is very difficult.
I will be very glad if I can see my friends and colleagues again. I think I will see them. This virus will come down and then we can see each other, and I will be very glad to see them.
In town, there is a café there in Golden Acre. In the morning before we go to work, we sit there and we meet there and we talk and talk and then we go to our work. There, in Kloof street, there’s a place, it’s a pizza place. We like to sit there and wait for each other there. Because if we don’t see each other, we ask “where is this one”? We wait there and we see each other and then we go to work after that.
Now we don’t do that. We get from the bus and you just walk straight. Sometimes I sit outside 7/11 in Kloof street and wait. But there is nobody; I am sitting alone there. It was only this morning I saw one of the ladies. We were so happy, you won’t believe. We were laughing. You know, mos, our people we like to hug. We are not supposed to hug, but we did hug each other this morning. But after we hugged she said to me, “mama, we not supposed to hug”. But we had hugged already.
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