Coronavirus: Protect domestic workers
23 March 2020 | Labour
As wealthier Namibians slam shut their doors to safeguard their families against the coronavirus pandemic, labour experts warn against shutting out vulnerable household employees without regard to their legal labour and safety rights. Since the announcement of the first three confirmed conronavirus cases in Namibia, many domestic workers were instructed to stay home in order to limit the risk of exposure for both employers and employees.
Although many employers took these steps without slashing pay or benefits, there are concerns that domestic workers are at particular risk of unfair labour practices at this time, in a sector that is already rife with labour rights abuses.
The Namibian Domestic and Allied Workers Union (NDAWU) received a complaint last week from a domestic worker who “was told to stay home, but was not informed how long she should stay home or whether she would be paid for staying home”.
Union secretary general Nellie Dina Kahua said even before the pandemic, domestic workers in Namibia have faced an uphill battle when it comes to fair and dignified labour practices.
She said while those who can afford to employ domestic staff are able to lean on private medical care and secure jobs, many domestic workers are now more vulnerable than ever. The union also asked that those who are able to afford it to should ensure they extend help where needed, whether to assist with medical costs or other needs.
Frieda Naris of the NDAWU last week said while the union supports giving domestic workers paid leave “until everything settles down”, in order to protect workers' health and safety, those measures must be taken in line with the law, with full pay and benefits provided.
Labour expert Herbert Jauch of Viva Workers stressed last week that the labour act does not allow employers to slash pay or benefits as a result of the pandemic.
“Limiting the working hours of staff in a home has to be treated in the same way as any other staff. In case staff members are asked not to come to work as a precaution to avoid infection, then the employer still has all the obligations to the staff member. In other words, full pay and benefits apply,” he said.
Jauch advised household employers to ensure that employees are treated with respect and dignity, and discussions on the subject of reducing working hours should ensure the employee is made away that it is not “on the basis of any shortcomings of the employee, but merely based on a generally precautionary principle.”
He added that staff should be assured that the changing working condition is temporary and that an employee’s pay will not be impacted as this would “safeguard the dignity and rights of people.”
Michael Akuupa of the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) this week said it is crucial for employers to understand that “the situation as unfolding cannot be dealt with in isolation of legal measures that deal with emergencies internationally.”
He added that it is also “immature to suggest that COVID 19 is only to be found in areas where domestic workers reside. COVID 19 can be anywhere and anytime irrespective of social-economic class.”
Moreover, Akuupa said employees themselves have a choice to stay at home if they worry about their health safety, and in turn should ensure they communicate their reasons for staying home clearly with employers.
The union asked that any employer or employees who are unsure of the steps to be taken as part of efforts country-wide to slow the spread of the virus are welcome to contact them.