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Domestic workers and the coronavirus in South Africa – what you need to know

The South African government has encouraged ‘social distancing’ as it grapples with coronavirus pandemic, and the official recommendations published by the Department of Health state that people should avoid ‘non-essential workers’ in their homes.

While a number of large South African companies have indicated that they will follow these restrictions and allow employees to work from home, this issue is complicated by the fact that thousands of South African homeowners are the sole employers to workers in their own households.

With approximately 1 million domestic workers employed across the country, South Africans will have to carefully consider how they apply leave and whether they will opt to allow workers to take ‘special leave’ during the pandemic.

Please think of those who have to use crowded public transport to get to work. For where you do have responsibility, and you do for domestic workers and gardeners, I’d suggest you do not make them come to work BUT PLEASE STILL PAY THEM!!

Labour law specialist, Natasha Moni, told Health-e that employers have to ensure that employees have a safe environment to work in.

The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) states that workers are entitled to claim compensation under specific circumstances. However, Moni pointed out the act does not cover domestic workers and gardeners.

“So for instance, if you have a family that went to Italy to ski, and you came back with the Covid-19 virus, chances are you’ve affected the people around you in your home and in your workspace,” she told Health-e.

However, the legal expert noted that the Occupational Health and Safety Act comes to the defence of domestic workers.

“The Occupational Health and Safety Act does say that every employer must make the environment safe. But if you have a domestic worker or gardener order that does not fall within COIDA, then we use the Occupational Health and Safety Act to ensure that you made the environment safe for this employee.

”This includes the employer taking precautionary measures such as providing hand sanitiser.”

Moni said that people who contract the virus are entitled to paid sick leave days to recover, or to self-isolate.

Special leave

“Employers and employees have a statutory obligation to ensure health and safety in the workplace,” law firm Bowmans said.

“Accordingly, employers must take precautionary measures in circumstances where there is a reasonable apprehension that an employee has been exposed to Covid-19.”

Below it outlined the recognised forms of leave in South Africa:

  • Statutory annual leave: employees are entitled to 15 working days’ statutory annual leave per annum on full pay. This entitlement may be increased by agreement between the employer and the employee;
  • Statutory Sick Leave: employees are entitled to 30 days’ paid sick leave over a 36-month sick leave cycle. Where the employee is absent for more than two consecutive working days or on more than two occasions in an eight week period, the employer is entitled to require a medical certificate as proof of the employee’s absence due to illness;
  • Statutory family responsibility leave: employees are entitled to three days’ family responsibility leave on full pay per annum when their child is sick. The statutory entitlement does not apply to the case where a close relative other than a child is ill, e.g. parents or siblings. Employers may grant such additional family responsibility leave at their discretion.

“In instances where a reasonable apprehension exists and an employee is self-quarantined, the employer may decide to regard the absence as a form of ‘special leave’ in respect of which the employees would be entitled to be paid,” said Bowmans.

“Special leave is not a legislated form of absence and an employer is not legally required to offer such leave. This is because the absence would not be as a result of any of the recognised reasons for employee-absence, such as those listed above.

“Rather, the reason for the absence is the employer’s need and obligation to ensure a safe and healthy work environment.”

Employers should also be cognisant of the new national minimum wage for domestic workers which was implemented as of 1 March 2020.

From 1 March 2020, domestic workers will be entitled to a minimum wage of R15.57 per hour – an increase of 57 cents from the current baseline.

Precautions being taken

Online cleaning service SweepSouth has announced that it has proactively started preparing domestic workers who use its platform to tackle the illness.

“In light of how rapidly covid-19 has spread in other countries following the announcement of their first cases, we want to make sure that our SweepStars are following the advice guidelines set up by the national department of health and the World Health Organisation (WHO),” said Aisha Pandor, chief executive and co-founder of SweepSouth.

“As we are in constant communication with our SweepStars, we have used our communications platforms to pass along these messages as many of them may not be aware of the various websites set up with this information.”

SweepSouth said it has also updated its training to ensure that its members are aware of how to effectively clean domestic and work environments in light of the coronavirus.

“As the need for cleaning services become more prevalent in light of the current situation, we wanted to proactively confirm that our SweepStars are aware of how they can ensure a home or office is properly cleaned in light of coronavirus.”