July 2020: Myrtle Witbooi is Secretary General of the South African Domestic and Allied Workers’ Union (SADSAWU) and Chair of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), South Africa
Where are you working at the moment?
We are all working from home, since the 18th of March. I have set up an office at home and communicate mostly via WhatsApp or Skype with our organisers in the different provinces.
Has your work been strongly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Yes, as all domestic workers have been under lockdown, and we have had to answers questions daily and educate them about the crisis.
How have you managed these changes?
Suddenly we were exposed to new technology and found ourselves with our phones not working to get Zoom or WhatsApp. We had to start spending money on data and airtime as we had to stay in contact with workers. We have also had to get involved in online discussions, webinars etc.
What are the overall challenges?
Workers are losing jobs. There is hunger and no food and workers expect the union to assist. Many workers are not registered and therefore can’t claim unemployment benefits. Trying to get onto the special line to get some assistance for workers is a nightmare. No actual domestic worker that is not registered has benefited from the Solidarity Fund yet.
Does this change the way you operate and plan, and how? What are you doing differently?
We had to learn fast how to contact workers. We have set up WhatsApp groups in all our provinces. We have a weekly video call. Our message to workers has changed to ** SMS us we call you back**.
What would you say are the biggest challenges specifically facing domestic workers at the moment?
Losing jobs and loss of income. The fear of travelling to work. Also, some employers are requesting that workers who used to travel each day to work must now stay in, on the premises. However, these workers have children at home. We are in discussion with the Department of Labour about this.
Can you give us some examples of the positive aspects of your work at the moment? Are there good things that have happened?
Yes – we have a much better communication system. And we have learnt many ways of how technology can provide the tools for online education.
Workers are also realising the role of the union, much better now.
We will definitely go forward with what we have learnt. The biggest challenge will be to re-organise and rebuild the union.