Maternity and domestic work
2015-07-01 15:43:25 -
Human Rights

Mariaam Bhatti: Tales of a Domestic Worker


Maternity leave was the subject of an interesting story on domestic work in South Africa that I read recently. The article was by the Department of Labour, as it happens, and it explained in depth which workers had the right to maternity leave. That list includes domestic workers. But things get hazy when the article added that such arrangements must be according to the employment contract with the employer. That got me worried, as it is common in the domestic work sector that if things are left to contracts between employers and the domestic worker, rights mean almost nothing. Another puzzling clause was that this maternity right did not cover domestic workers working on farms. Why are they not included?


This article brought back memories of the time when I was 18 and had just left school. I briefly lived with my paternal aunt in a small town in the northern province of South Africa while saving money for rent and deposit for my own place. I had taken the first job I found – waitressing – in my first ever job hunt. During this time it happened that my aunt’s domestic worker of two years had to leave immediately to look after her younger siblings because their mother had passed away. While my aunt was stressed out figuring out what to do, a heavily pregnant woman who happened to be knocking door-to-door looking for work as a domestic worker appeared at our house.


I remember the woman during the interview stating that she needed a job because she had nothing bought in preparation for the arrival of the baby, and her partner had denied responsibility. She came in with no luggage, barefoot, hair unkempt, her only belongings what she was wearing. One could tell life had got the better of her. 


As odd as it may sound, my aunt – who the rest of the family considered not a very sympathetic person – gave the woman the job and treated her reasonably well, even giving her some of her old clothes and shoes. And she was not as harsh with her as she sometimes was known to be to her other domestic workers. 


My aunt surprised me with this, but I also asked myself: ‘Why would she hire a heavily pregnant woman?’ (I plan to ask her about that when I hopefully visit home in December.) This poor woman was still expected to perform her duties, such as hand washing piles of clothes, standing for very long periods of ironing, cleaning the house, preparing meals. I did help in the house when I had a day off but felt for the woman, who often had sweat streaking down her forehead as she toiled. 


Three months later, the woman had a baby boy, and I remember us visiting her in hospital and then bringing her home. Two weeks later, when she was strong enough to walk, my aunt paid her and told her to go to her relatives, without even asking if she had any. That was the last time I saw her and her baby. 


It feels sad now to think back but also to ask myself what would have been the right thing to do? Was my aunt supposed to pay her maternity leave while paying another domestic worker she hired as her replacement? How would that have worked with the upkeep of this worker and her baby?


For interest’s, sake I found my hands typing in Google something along the lines of ‘domestic workers and maternity leave rights in Ireland’…



Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the Domestic Workers Action Group and Force Labour Action Group of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

TAGS : Mariaam Bhatti Tales of a Domestic Worker South Africa Department of Labour
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