'My boss says I will bring corona from outside': Live-in domestic workers are being denied the right to leave

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I am not allowed to go anywhere since lockdown started, my boss says I will bring corona from outside.
I am not allowed to go anywhere since lockdown started, my boss says I will bring corona from outside.

The Covid-19 pandemic has everyone worried about catching the virus and falling ill, and numerous precautions have been implemented to protect us from it. 

While the lockdown initially helped South African medical services to prepare for an influx of Covid-19 patients, the regulations have now mostly lifted and we have many of our freedoms back.

When going out, to work, to the shops and so on, as long as we all wear a cloth mask, wash our hands often and practice caution, the majority of us will be safe.

Also read: How nannies and parents navigated lockdown in South Africa 

But obviously not everyone feels this way, as sadly that is impacting some people more than others. 

A domestic worker wrote to Parent24 this week, revealing that she has not been allowed to leave her home, which is also her place of employment, since March.

Sadly, since the start of the pandemic we have received several emails from domestic workers and childminders, just like this one, asking if their employer is correct in preventing them from leaving their workplace, for weeks at time - or at all.  

Hi,

I am a stay in domestic worker, I need your help.

I am not allowed to go anywhere since lockdown started, my boss says I will bring corona from outside.

Please, what help can we get as stay-in domestic workers to find our freedom back?

Thank you,

Locked up

A strict requirement 

We spoke to Laurie Ann Hingst, owner of nanny placement agency Super Nannies, to find out what employers, and employees, should expect.  

She stressed that this is a very tricky situation and advised that it's best for the nanny and employer to have a mutual understanding and agreement for this to be a workable situation for all involved.

"I have had quite a few clients indicating this as a strict requirement as they have co-morbidities or are at a higher risk, but not all nannies are in agreement as they have their own families to see on the weekends," she explained.

Also read: Uptick in childminder queries, as businesses offer to subsidise childcare costs 

"One solution is that the employer could agree to two weekends where the nanny can return home and offer to transport her privately and also reiterate strict hygiene measures for herself and her family during that time off," Hingst suggested.

"It seems to work and be a happy medium. During these times we all need to be a little more flexible, understanding and respectful," she added. 

What the law says 

We also asked Mr Tom Smith, an attorney at LAW FOR ALL for legal advice in this regard. 

He pointed out that South African workers have been facing restrictions on their freedoms and tremendous uncertainty living under lockdown for the last 5 months.

And maybe more especially the 1 million domestic workers, for whom it is impossible to work remotely, and who fell outside the essential business list and had to stay home - or in the case of live-in employees, at their employer’s premises.

Also read: Are you paying your nanny a living wage? Probably not

While a significant number of domestic workers have been back at work since 1 June 2020, some employers feel that the daily commute to and back from work poses a health risk, Smith says. 

Many have then asked their domestic workers to continue staying at home until it is safer to return. Some placed their domestic workers' on special leave with full pay, or assisted them to claim from UIF. 

Limits to freedom of movement

It is unfortunate though that some employers have discouraged their live-in domestic workers from leaving the premises, in an attempt to prevent the virus from spreading in the household. 

Must read: Coronavirus: How to keep childminders safe in your home  

Smith explains that "While employers can encourage their live-in domestic workers to stay on the premises as much as possible, they cannot one-sidedly limit their constitutional right to freedom of movement by prohibiting them from leaving the property."

As the number of new cases and fatalities drop, government has further eased restrictions, allowing South Africans even more freedom to move about, but that doesn't mean we're off the hook.

"Easing restrictions doesn’t reduce the risk of infection or need to safeguard personal health or that of workers, but it should be reasonable, fair and in line with the law," he adds.   

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