Domestic Workers And Aids
Integrated Regional Information Networks
March 19, 2003
Posted to the web March 19, 2003
This report does not necessarily
reflect the views of the United Nations
Florence Tshabalala [not her real name]
had been barely working for a month when her employer took her
to the clinic for what was supposed to be a routine check-up.
After being tested for HIV without her knowledge, she was told
that her services as a domestic worker were no longer needed.
"She gave me my money for the month
and some transport money and told me to go home, she didn't
even tell me why," Florence told IRIN.
It was only after a visit to her local
clinic in the Northern Cape province, that she found out why
she was dismissed.
"I tested HIV-positive and then I
went back to the clinic my boss took me to and the white
sister asked me why I was here because she had told my boss I
had AIDS," she said.
DOMESTIC WORKERS VULNERABLE
South African law protects the rights of
employees living with HIV/AIDS on paper, but for domestic
workers, such as Florence, the reality is very different.
"The law is very clear that
employers are not allowed to conduct testing without consent
and they are certainly not allowed to discriminate against
those who are HIV-positive. But for the most part, employers
of domestic workers seem to feel that this does not apply to
them," Chloe Hardy of the AIDS Law Project told IRIN.
Domestic workers are particularly
vulnerable. The nature of the industry has made it difficult
for workers to enjoy the full benefits of the law, and the
regulation of this sector is something the government has
recently begun to consider.
But according to activists and social
workers, the government still has a long way to go in
protecting HIV-positive domestic workers.
The AIDS Law Project has noted a
disturbing rise in the unfair dismissal of HIV-positive
domestic workers. According to Hardy, the major problem is
"constructive dismissal", where employees are
harassed to such an extent that they are forced to resign.
They are ordered not to touch food, or to eat from different
utensils and even not to touch the children.
"We had one case where the employer
would tell the kids 'don't go near the helper because she is
going to die soon'," Hardy added.
According to Eunice Dhladhla, general
secretary of the South African Domestic and Allied Worker's
Union, HIV testing without the employee's knowledge is
becoming increasingly prevalent.
"As soon as she [the worker] starts
to lose a bit of weight or starts to cough and is ill, they
[the employer] take her to their own doctor and subject her to
a test," she told IRIN.
But most of these doctors will not
provide counselling before or after the test and workers
remain unaware of how to cope with their status.
RELUCTANCE TO DISCLOSE STATUS
Florence only received counselling at
her local clinic. "They gave me all the help so now I
accept and believe it. I even had the strength to tell my
parents, now I must just tell the rest of my family," she
Consequently, domestic workers living
with HIV/AIDS are reluctant to disclose their status. Mavis
Kunene, a counsellor at Johannesburg's Esselen Street clinic
calls it as a "catch-22 situation, if they don't disclose
they lose their job and if they do and they are positive, they
will still be fired."
This is especially true in rural areas,
the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAPWA)
spokesman Thanduxolo Doro, noted.
Hardy agrees: "In smaller towns,
farms and rural areas, there are very few support services
available to those who are positive."
Despite the country's numerous policy
and legal instruments that protect the rights of people living
with HIV/AIDS, many still do not know their rights have been
Educating both employees and employers
is crucial towards addressing this problem. Employers need to
be taught about the medical aspects of HIV/AIDS and the
methods of transmission.
"They need to understand that there
is no reason why the [HIV] positive employee cannot play or
touch the children," Hardy said. "Doctors also need
to learn that if an employer brings a worker for a test, this
is unethical without the worker's consent. They should not be
in collusion with the employer."
But despite the relatively high levels
of awareness in the country, many people balk at accommodating
those living with HIV/AIDS in their homes, NAPWA's Doro said.
"Employers want to protect
themselves and they are still sceptical [about the
disease]," he added.
But the recent implementation of
legislation protecting domestic workers was a hopeful sign,
Kunene noted. "Now people realise that they will be taken
to task for this and things will slowly fall into place,"
"Its not all negative, people are
beginning to wake up and they can see that HIV/AIDS does
affect them one way or the other," Kunene said.