SAs immigrant housemaids — a desperate tribe

domestic_workerCAPE Town -- Since arriving in Cape Town five years ago, Erina Manyene (not her real name) has survived by doing laundry and cleaning other peoples homes in the leafy Southern Suburbs. (Pictured: Domestic worker doing laundry)


Erina (28) left her young son, then only seven months old, in the care of her common law husband in her native Zimbabwe, forded the crocodile-infested Limpopo River and crawled under thick layers of barbed wire to enter South Africa at an authorised crossing point.

There has been a reversal of roles since the Zimbabwean crisis started. Because the type of work available in foreign countries is more suited to women, husbands are remaining behind to take care of the children while we venture out, she said in an interview.

International aid agencies believe that between 1, 2 and three million Zimbabweans have fled the country in the last decade to escape political repression and spreading poverty.

Many of the reluctant migrants are highly trained professionals teachers, lawyers, journalists, engineers, doctors and nurses who are forced to downsize their trades in their adopted countries to cobble together a frugal life on the fringes of the main economy.

For most women, informal trading, waiting on tables, commercial sex work and domestic work offer an escape route out of a life of penury.

The Zimbabwean women beef up an expanding legion of domestic workers from the economic backwaters of Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique spread across South Africa, the industrial leader of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Desperate people

The countrys sturdy manufacturing base and relatively high wages act as a magnet to millions of unemployed people in the region, those fleeing war, and the after-effects of ill-conceived economic austerity measures.

Traditionally, domestic work provides an entry point into the South African job market for new arrivals and is a crucial area of employment for both in-country and transnational female migrant workers.

Statistics South Africa indicates that 42 per cent of black women from the SADC region who lived in the Johannesburg area in 2001 worked in private households, although they represented only 4.9 per cent of women working in this atypical sector in the precinct.

Findings of an ongoing study being conducted by the Domestic Workers Research Project (DWRP) at the University of the Western Cape confirm that migrant domestic workers still suffer arduous working conditions for low wages and are often sequestered behind their employers high walls, cut off from family and friends for inordinately long periods.

While some of their South African counterparts have made notable headway towards claiming labour rights such as minimum conditions of employment, minimum wages and leave pay, most migrant domestic workers are denied access to trade unions and are resigned to their situation.

You see here in South Africa, most of the people they under rate us, mostly they isolate us; in our workplace most of the people they want to pay us low money. Maybe they will say R50 a day, because they know us Zimbabweans we are stranded and desperate people, and we do not have money.

In our country we are suffering and because I have nowhere to go in South Africa, we end up agreeing that money. And thats the problem that we are facing here: we want sometimes to send food back to our children back home but we cant afford to do that because of the money they are giving us, said a migrant domestic worker at a recent DWRP workshop in Cape Town.

Formidable obstacles

Coupled with isolation, low levels of education, exploitative wages and a largely inflexible immigration law regime limit migrant domestic workers access to health services, raising the spectre of accelerating HIV infections among illegal foreigners.

Isolation in our country is still a main problem where we [domestic workers] are isolated from families. The regulations that they lay down for you is not to bring anyone on the premises. I felt sometimes like I was in a prison cell, said Hester Stephens, president of the South African Domestic Workers and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU).

While on the face of it isolation should help curb HIV infections, trends in China and India among the burgeoning in-country migrant population paint a different picture. In the Philippines, migrant workers most of them domestic workers – account for 28 per cent of the total number of reported HIV/AIDS cases even though they constitute only 10 per cent of the population.

At the same time, flows of migrant remittances from developing countries have shored up ailing economies in their home countries.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says remittances rose from US$60 billion worldwide in 1990 to US$328 billion in 2008. In 22 countries remittances equalled more than 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006, while in six countries they amounted to more than 20 per cent.

Still, the regulatory framework applicable to the migration of workers from other African countries to South Africa presents formidable obstacles to the implementation of policies upholding the fundamental rights and dignity of those workers.

Post-apartheid policy

Post-apartheid immigration policy has mostly been exclusionary, based on a strongly protectionist and territorial vision. The governments determination to keep out migrant workers and immigrants is reflected in the Aliens Control Act of 1991, which was conceived and constructed during the unstable cross-over period from apartheid to democracy.

Sally Peberdy, a professor of geography at the University of the Western Cape argues that the ways that the new state used and amended the 1991 Act and its replacement, the Immigration Act of 2002 (as amended in 2004), indicate its commitment to the exclusionary principles on which South African immigration legislation has always rested.

However, there was a shift in approach in the early 2000s to make policy more responsive to South Africas skills and investment needs and to engage with xenophobia. [But the] thrust of policy remains largely exclusionary. African immigrants and migrants, documented and undocumented, seem to have been the most affected.

The preamble to the Immigration Act confirms that it was framed to ensure that the South African economy may have access to the full measure of needed contributions by foreigners, but immediately adds that the contribution of foreigners [must] not adversely impact on existing labour standards and the rights and expectations of South African workers.

Furthermore, foreigners may only be issued with a quota work permit if they fall within a specific professional category, a general work permit and an exceptional skills permit if their skills are deemed beneficial to South African development.

Anti-migrant tendencies

Evidently, domestic workers are not eligible for the various categories of work permits and would struggle to obtain permanent residence status, which is earned after more than five years of continuous legal residency in South Africa.

In practice, the only basis on which non-South Africans who do not possess the requisite qualifications or skills and experience can obtain the right to work in this country is if they qualify for refugee status owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted by reason of … race, tribe, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

Crucially, they must also succeed in obtaining asylum in terms of the Refugees Act, as any non-South African who is employed without possessing these qualifications is an illegal foreigner, and faces deportation. Acquiring a refugee permit is, however, a daunting task for most potential refugees.

When you go to Home Affairs it is very difficult to get that paper, said a migrant domestic worker. We just go there and therell be a queue, they will just be pushing and pushing. I think the minister was there at one stage and she saw for herself what is happening thereif you dont have that asylum document, employers manipulate us because of that, they know we dont have any papers here, so they can give you any amount they want.

Yet these hurdles have failed to dissuade migrants from countries which share traditional and cultural ties; and borders with South Africa from streaming into the country to seek work.

Despite this cultural nexus, migrants run the risk of encountering xenophobic resistance both at work and in the community. They suffer silently for fear of approaching law enforcement agencies because anti-migrant tendencies run deep within the police force and in government departments.

Cold comfort

In 2008, South Africa was shocked by the violence that swept the country when locals attacked black people from other African countries. The makwerekwere, the attackers alleged, were stealing locals jobs, women, houses and were a drain on scarce resources.

Analysts attributed the violence to a number of factors ranging from a third force, an influx of illegal immigrants, poor border controls, changes in the national political leadership, rising food and commodity prices and poor service delivery.

But the main factor appeared to be local leadership either encouraging xenophobia or failing to prevent it.

Following a fresh episode of xenophobic violence in October 2009 – when an estimated 2 000 Zimbabwean migrant farm workers were forced out of their shacks at De Doorns by bands of locals – an African National Congress (ANC) councillor for the area was fingered for fanning the attacks.

Isolated incidents of violence against black Africans have been reported countrywide since the end of the football World Cup in July. The government has vehemently refused to acknowledge that the violence was inspired by xenophobia, arguing instead that it was the handiwork of common criminals.

This is cold comfort though for migrants like Grace Matenhese who was chased out of her corrugated iron and board shack along with her infant child in the dead of night at De Doorns. Being a single mother in a foreign country is not easy at the best of times, but it is even harder now that we have been deprived of our livelihood.

Like the majority of aspiring African migrants seeking low-skilled work, Matenhese failed at the first hurdle in her attempts to acquire a work permit. Consequently, she lives under the perpetual threat of deportation, violence and exploitation because of her status as an illegal foreigner.

The writer is a researcher in the Social Law Project, Faculty of Law, at the University of the Western Cape.

Post published in: Politics

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