The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have left many workers retrenched and some unfairly dismissed. Maria Chauke* (54) of the Centurion township Olievenhoutbosch shares the story of how she lost her job as a domestic worker in Cresta, Randburg, for not being able to get a letter declaring her Covid-19 free.
This is her story:
“I was working for this woman for seven months before the lockdown was announced. On the eighth month, in March, I asked if I could take leave the week before my birthday. That’s when the initial problem started.
I asked for five leave days and planned to come back to work after the weekend of my last day of leave. She told me I needed to be back at work on Friday which was the fifth day and the start of the nationwide lockdown.
On the Friday she sent me a message saying I had to come back immediately if I still wanted my job. I then explained that I didn’t have any money to come back on the Friday as I was waiting for her to pay my salary on the 25th, which was the coming Saturday. I explained to her that I wasn’t well and had had a slight cough.
She became very hostile and told me that I should make a plan to come to work and if I didn’t I would be out of a job. I was very confused. I had worked in this home for what was close to a year now. I worked like a horse. I would be up at 5.30am and would only go to bed at 10pm every day. In the eight months I worked for her, I had never had a break while on the job, having my lunch while on the go was part of how I got through the day.
I was the driver taking the kids to and from school. I was the alarm clock that woke them up and got them into their uniforms while I made sure their lunch was packed so I could take them to school. That wasn’t even the start of my day. I was the house cleaner, the laundry service, the cook, the errand lady who was sent as a massager and lived with their bank card to make sure the kids had all they needed.
I had served them well and all I needed was some understanding. In the days that followed she sent me a list of screening questions for the coronavirus and I answered: yes, I had a cough, but that was it. She told me I had to quarantine for 14 days, taking care of the cough before I came back.
I told her I was ready to come back after the 14 days, I had cleared the cough and told her I was well again. She said I needed to get a letter from the hospital stating I was Covid-19 free before she’d allow me back in her house.
She called me to tell me I needed to provide that letter as soon as possible as she had done the same with other employees who had applied for my job. I couldn’t get the letter at a public hospital as I was told they don’t do that and suggested she be the one to take me to a doctor to be screened and tested.
She told me I wasn’t her responsibly and that I should consider myself fired. We had a verbal agreement at the start of my workdays that if she ever dismissed me, I would get a months’ notice – that didn’t happen.
I am a Zimbabwean national who doesn’t have permit to be in the country, which was one of the reasons she hired me.
The past month has been hard for me and my two kids. We live off no salary, no government aid and there is not much I can do during this lockdown to earn a living.”
Maria has joined the Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance to find a way through her dire circumstances.
Co-founder of the alliance, Amy Tekie, says Maria is one of thousands of undocumented migrant workers who’ve been unfairly dismissed during this time.
When asked about avenues available to such workers she stated the bleak odds migrant workers face. “There isn’t a lot of avenues available for them. They aren’t eligible for UIF and can’t access the government grants, it is really going to be a difficult few months for these families.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.
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