The need to commemorate and celebrate Workers’ Day is now more important than ever. The world is currently faced with a fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought into stark light the many contradictions in our world of unequal distribution and enjoyment of rights. The reality for too many is the deep and far too often systemic forms of discrimination that is compounded by the pandemic, but also in the measures that are being put in place to fight it. 

Womxn are in many respects and in many professions at the frontline of the fight against the pandemic as well as the impact thereof. There are clear shortcomings in our social security frameworks as well as our health care systems. The measures being put in place to address the pandemic have exposed these shortcomings and womxn in the workplace have been shown to have very little to no protection. 

Here we refer specifically to the many womxn who provide seasonal labour on the farms in our country. These womxn provide much needed labour so that our agricultural sector can provide food security to those able to buy food.  Too many of them work every year without any formal employment contracts, without any social security and health care benefits and face constant threats of evictions from the very farms, that through generations, their families have provided unrecognised work for. In the chain store sector, we have seen over the last month of “lockdown” our complete reliance on the cashier to ensure that we have our much-needed necessities. These womxn who are in the ordinary course underappreciated and underpaid are now on the frontline of contracting the pandemic. They do so much, like the farm worker, without medical benefits and a reliance on an often under resourced and capacitated public health system. 

Over the past few days, we have seen growing interest/excitement in domestic workers being listed as “essential workers” able to return to work as the lockdown regulations are being reduced. These womxn have historically been discriminated against based on their race and as a result have not had their work recognised, valued and remunerated. They continue to work without full recognition of their social security rights being excluded from the Compensation for Occupational Health and Safety Act provisions for decades.  Many of them were dismissed when the country went into lockdown and because they were never registered as employees, they are unable to access unemployment benefits. They are once more being called upon to provide essential work at the frontline of a pandemic which they cannot afford to remain in lockdown for. Generationally their income has educated, clothed and fed their families and extended families. 

At the beginning of the lockdown sensationalist media reporting drew attention to sex workers. Their ongoing struggle to see their profession decriminalised has been exposed as an utter failure on the part of law reform as no provision has been made for them in any formal social security plans related to work. Yet so many rely on their services across the country, and the President himself has committed to the decriminalisation of their profession. 

In the past weeks we have provided support to womxn on the frontline in the kitchens in their homes cooking to feed the many in their community who are unable to feed themselves. They have been struggling with the harassment by police for not being in possession of permits, which do not exist because the care work that they are doing in their communities are unrecognised. Left with the unmeasurable task of providing food security to their neighbours, they are working at the frontline of the pandemic. 

We call upon our President and government, now more than ever because of this global crisis, to recognise the rights of womxn in their workplaces and to adopt legislative and policy measures that are  gendered and intersectional. These include having specific interventions, programmes and policies in place to provide for efficient social and labour relief during this epidemic. Herewith our recommendations:

  • Sex workers: Provision for social security benefits for sex workers should be provided and legislative development processes to decriminalise sex work should be fast tracked. 
  • Domestic workers and the work that they are conducting should be appropriately remunerated. Those who become ill from the pandemic should be allowed to submit claims to the Department of labour and safety measures must be in place in the private homes where they work including masks, sanitizers, a safe working environment and transport provided for by employers.
  • Womxn’s rights defenders in communities should be supported by government social protection measures including the provision of masks, sanitizers and other personal protection equipment while they are on the frontline ensuring food security in communities. They should be recognised as essential services. 
  • Farm workers should have the necessary labour and social protections which ensures and oversees that farm owners provide adequate protective gear and safe transport – including access to mobile labour offices which can assist seasonal workers and provide access to UIF.

The COVID–19 pandemic has shown us that there is much need for collective action and solidarity towards building a rights-based framework that recognises womxn’s work and their just and favourable conditions of work. We cannot return to business as usual when the pandemic is over. In Solidarity the Women’s Legal Centre stands with womxn workers. 

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