Unskilled domestic workers suffer in silence

’MATHATISI SEBUSI

MASERU – After her husband passed on five years ago, ’Malefu Matšosa’s life took a turn for the worse forcing her to take a job as a domestic worker. The 40-year-old mother of a teenage son’s first salary was a meagre M500 per month and the hours were excruciatingly long. Because the money she brought home at the end of the month was not enough to meet all her family’s needs, so she decided to migrate to South Africa hoping for a better paying job.

But what was in store for her in South Africa was something she had not anticipated in any way. Instead of getting the job she desperately needed, she found herself without a roof over her head and having to sleep on the streets on an empty stomach on several occasions. The abuse she suffered is revolting, though she declines to speak in detail about what actually transpired out there. The nights she says were long, empty and very cold but she had to persevere because the odds were stacked against her.

She eventually sought sanctuary in a tin shack located somewhere in Soweto where she was crammed with several other women from other countries who were also in search of employment.“The shack we stayed in was at a recruitment agency in Soweto and it was terrible when it rained because water would flood the house and we would wake up in a pool of water.“We had no option but to stay there and wait patiently for potential employers to come pick the ones they wanted. We paid for our stay failing which our passports were confi scated.

“On dark days we went to bed hungry. How long one remained at the recruitment agency depended on how lucky one was to get employed; some only spent a few hours, while others spent days and at times even months,” she says. To survive, some of them got involved in underhand activities that sometimes put their lives at risk. “To quickly secure a job, one had to look shabby and vulnerable, the desperate look worked in our favour because it got us employment very fast.“But low wages, excessively long working hours,vulnerability to physical, mental and sexual abuse and restrictions on freedom of movement were the order of the day,” she says.

Several young women and girls from rural areas in a lot of countries view the move to cities and other countries as a vehicle out of their predicament. This, however, opens them to the rampant risk of human trafficking and sexual abuse. A Women in Informal Globalisation and Organising (WIEGO) report shows that rural poverty has increased in many countries, causing young women to move to urban areas and even to neighbouring countries in search of employment.

The report says the women are not just from poor households or disadvantaged communities but are normally illiterate too. Often they have few employment opportunities, and may face discrimination based on gender, class, race and ethnicity. It also shows that domestic workers comprise a significant part in informal employment and are among the most vulnerable groups of workers. They work for private households, often without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any book, and excluded from the possibility of labour legislation.

“Since cleaning, cooking, and caring for children and the elderly is almost universally regarded as women’s work, men rarely compete in this job market. “Several common features of domestic work set it apart from other types of paid work. First, domestic workers are employed in private homes rather than firms or enterprises. This tends to make them invisible as workers and isolated from others in the sector. They are dependent on the good or bad will of their employer.

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