HAVANA TIMES, Dec 6 (IPS) — Since arriving in Cape Town five years ago, Erina Manyene (not her real name) has eked out a meager living picking up shifts doing laundry and cleaning other people’s homes in the city’s leafy southern suburbs.
Manyene (28) left her young son, then only seven months old, in the care of her common law husband in her native Zimbabwe, crossed the crocodile-infested Limpopo River and crawled under thick layers of barbed wire to enter South Africa at an unauthorized 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,” said Erina, a former school teacher in Harare.
International aid agencies estimate that between one 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 –forced to downsize their trades in their adopted countries to cobble together a frugal life on the fringes of South Africa’s main economy.
An escape from poverty?
Traditionally, domestic work provides an entry point into the South African job market for new arrivals and is a crucial employment area for both in-country and transnational female migrant workers. The Zimbabwean women beef up an expanding legion of domestic workers from Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique, spread across South Africa.
Statistics South Africa indicate that 42 per cent of black women from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) 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.
Their remittances contribute to shoring up ailing economies in their home countries. The International Labor Organization (ILO) says globally, migrant worker remittances rose from US$60 billion worldwide in 1990 to US$328 billion in 2008, contributing over 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 22 countries in 2006.
World Bank figures show that $1, 2 billion was sent out of South Africa last year, the bulk of it to surrounding countries.
On average, migrant domestic workers earn between R1200 and R2 000 (about US$170 to US$300) a month, which they use to pay rent, buy food and send to their families at home. Beatrice, a retired Zimbabwean police officer and single mother of three, says she sends at least R2 000 home quarterly to pay for her children’s education and meet their daily needs.
Many migrants in low paying jobs rely on informal channels, dubbed omalayitsha, to send money and household goods home. “If I had not left Zimbabwe, my children would be out of school by now because the pay I got as an inspector was not enough to meet all our needs,” said Beatrice.
Isolated and without fundamental rights
However, 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 suffer arduous working conditions for low wages and are often sequestered behind their employers’ high walls, cut off from family and friends for long periods.
“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 some of their South African counterparts have made notable headway towards claiming labor 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… 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,” said a migrant domestic worker in Cape Town.
The immigration laws relating to workers from other parts of Africa present make it very difficult to implement policies that would ensure their fundamental rights and dignity.
“Foreigners” may only be issued with a quota work permit if they fall within a specific professional category; a general work permit and exceptional skills permit if their skills are deemed beneficial to South African development.
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 is if they qualify for refugee status, a daunting task for most potential refugees.
Threat of violence, deportation
Migrants also face xenophobic resistance both at work and in society at large. They suffer silently for fear of approaching law enforcement agencies because anti-migrant tendencies run deep within the police force and in government departments.
The world was shocked by the violence that swept the country in 2008 when locals attacked mainly black people from other African countries. The “makwerekwere” (foreigners), the attackers alleged, were “stealing” locals’ jobs, women, and houses and were a drain on scarce resources.
Analysts attributed the violence to a number of factors but the main factor appeared to be local leadership, either encouraging xenophobia or failing to prevent it.
Following a fresh episode of xenophobic violence that flared up in October 2009 when an estimated 2,000 Zimbabwean migrant farm workers were forced out of their shacks at De Doorns, some 140 km northeast of Cape Town by bands of locals, an African National Congress councilor 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 to 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”.
Yet these hurdles have failed to dissuade women migrants from streaming into the country to seek work.
*Ray Mungoshi is a Research Assistant with the Domestic Workers Research Project, Faculty of Law, University of the Western Cape