SOUTH AFRICA: "Is there a virus in the house?"

Photo: Marvellous Maids
Many domestic workers don't know their rights are protected by labour laws
Johannesburg, 15 July 2008 (PlusNews) - Hidden behind the high walls that surround most middle-class suburban homes in South Africa is one of the largest and most marginalised black, female workforces in the country.

Domestic workers are still a standard feature of many households. Their labour is cheap and in plentiful supply, and many families rely on them to cook, clean and look after their children.

Although they are now covered by labour laws that entitle them to certain basic working conditions and a minimum wage, many employers still regard domestic workers as subordinate members of the household, according to Chloe Hardy, who worked as a paralegal with the AIDS Law Project until last year and is now with the South African HIV Clinicians Society.

"Historically, in South Africa domestic workers didn't fall within labour law and were extremely exploited," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "That attitude has persisted; [employers] often don't perceive domestic workers as regular employees - there's a paternalistic relationship where they think they should have greater control over that person, especially if they live on the premises."

In the era of HIV and AIDS, some employers believe this control should extend to knowing their domestic worker's HIV status. During her time with the AIDS Law Project, Hardy helped a number of domestic workers bring cases against former employers who had pressured them to test for HIV or dismissed them after discovering they were positive.

"In some cases [the domestic workers] disclosed [their status] themselves, but there was a lot of underhandedness," Hardy recalled. "We had one case where an employer sent an employee to their own GP [doctor] to be tested, and then the doctor told the employer their HIV status."

Hardy said such cases had become less common in recent years, and Kate Shuttleworth, founder of Marvellous Maids, a recruitment agency for domestic workers, said her company was also fielding fewer calls from employers asking if they could have their domestic workers tested.

''We had one case where an employer sent an employee to their own GP to be tested and then the doctor told the employer their HIV status.''
Yet the company's website still devotes a whole page to the issue. "We are asked on a daily basis about having domestic workers tested for HIV/AIDS," it reads. "The short answer is NO."

Eunice Dhladhla, of the Johannesburg branch of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), said several such cases had been reported to her organisation in the last year. "We tell workers: 'don't agree to go to the employer's doctor, go to your own doctor'," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

SADSAWU has tried to bring some of the cases before the labour court but, said Dhladhla, "we've never won a case, because once a worker is dismissed, you won't see her again; they don't come back to us."

Most domestic workers do not belong to the union, and many are unaware of laws designed to protect their rights. "Most of them come from rural areas to work in the cities; they're afraid to ask questions of the employer and to fight for their rights," said Dhladhla.

More at risk?

The fact that many domestic workers have migrated from rural areas or from other countries is in itself a risk factor for HIV, said Hardy. Many live with their employers and are separated from their husbands or partners for long periods.

A 2005 study by the Southern African Migration Project, which provides policy advice and research on migration and development issues, found that while most of the 1,100 domestic workers interviewed had no problems accessing health services, their knowledge about HIV and AIDS was very low. Over 60 percent of the women had never used a condom in their lives and only 16 percent knew that treatment existed in the form of antiretroviral (ARV) therapy.

Paula*, 45, a domestic worker in Edenvale, an eastern suburb of Johannesburg, said she didn't know much about HIV before she was tested and diagnosed positive. "I just saw people get sick," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

She said her employer started ill-treating her and giving her extra work when she became sick with a cough late last year. Eventually she decided to go to the clinic and be tested, and disclosed her HIV status to her employer immediately. "They knew I was sick so I told them I was positive," she said. "They're treating me fine now."

Employers' fears

Not all domestic workers disclose to their employers, with good reason: Shuttleworth said few of her agency's clients would take workers who were openly HIV-positive. "It does make it difficult for us to get them jobs," she said.

Some employers, ignorant of how HIV is transmitted, are fearful of contracting the virus or opportunistic infections like tuberculosis from someone working in their home.

Bev White, a business owner and mother of one who also lives in Edenvale, started a support group for employers of HIV-positive domestic workers after her child's nanny tested positive three years ago.

The group, which has since lapsed due to White's work commitments, had about 90 members, and White received daily phone calls and emails from people asking for advice.

"I've had people phone me saying they're worried about their nanny preparing food. There still is a level of unawareness amongst your average white, female middle-class suburban mum," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

White admitted to some initial nervousness when she discovered her nanny's status. "My doctor said to me that if your HIV-positive nanny or maid has either TB or the flu, it could be passed on to the child and, yes, that's a valid comment. However, at the time I had the flu," she said.

Other employers are less worried about becoming infected than about how often their HIV-positive domestic will miss work. Domestic workers in South Africa are entitled to six weeks of paid sick leave over a three-year period, but few employers keep records of how much leave their domestic workers have taken and, according to Hardy, "tend to become very draconian" if they perceive they have taken too much.

Getting time off for monthly clinic visits can be a problem, particularly for workers who choose not to disclose. Despite knowing her status, Paula's employer still insists that she present them with a letter from the doctor every time she goes to the clinic to pick up her ARV prescription.

Isolated from their family and friends, HIV-positive domestic workers need more than access to clinics and treatment, but the only kind of support many employers are willing to give is financial. "A lot of people just throw money at the problem," said Shuttleworth. "They give [the domestic worker] money and want them to sort it out."

White believes employers' obligations to their domestic workers should go further. "If the person is not well, we have the ability to look after them," she said. "They have looked after us, and it's our duty to look after them."

*Not her real name


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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