Worldwide, domestic workers work in precarious conditions and, during a pandemic, their situation becomes more difficult. Within a system that lacks structure, there are household employees who work for Swedish development aid workers. "It became a lot of personal responsibility," says Anna-Carin Matterson, a former employee of the Swedish embassy in Zambia.
Globally, 67 million people work as domestic workers, of which 80 percent are women, according to International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) annual report 2019. It is often a low-paid but hard work with poor working conditions. The fact that it is work that is carried out in isolation in the employer's home makes household employees extra vulnerable according to the IDWF.
Household staff employed by Swedes
Anna-Carin Matterson became interested in and involved in issues concerning the working conditions of household employees when she worked for Sida at the Swedish Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, in the early 2000s. Anna-Carin says that it was common for seconded Swedish staff to be employed as seconded Swedes, but that there was a lack of guidance on salaries and benefits for the employee. Most often, they took over the staff who already worked in the house they moved into and then had to take personal responsibility for salaries, holidays and school uniforms for their household employee's children, according to Anna-Carin.
- One of the tricky questions was how far one's responsibility went, she says.
The difficulty became more complicated with the HIV / AIDS epidemic that took place during Anna-Carin's time in Zambia. It happened that household employees became seriously ill and that the employer then also had to take responsibility for the employees' medical care.
- The treatment became arbitrary and different depending on the embassy employee's grade.
Consequences of the corona pandemic
Today, it is another health issue that affects household employees. Emilia Mangwengwende works as a domestic worker for an aid worker in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. She tells how the Corona pandemic has worsened the working conditions of household employees, especially during the period last spring when society was at its most closed.
- Several did not get paid during the closure. Those who were paid received only half of their salary or less than half. A friend of mine has not had permission to leave his employer's plot since the pandemic started, Emilia Mangwengwende writes in an email to us.
Emilia Mangwengwende's statement is similar AllAfrica's information that the Corona pandemic has led to redundancies and poorer working conditions for domestic workers in South Africa. Emilia herself has been lucky. She was paid during the shutdown period even though she had to stay at home and could not work. But this was entirely due to her employer, she says.
The situation today
Anna-Carin Matterson's goal with her involvement in Zambia was to get the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or embassies to introduce a clearer structure for the employment of domestic staff. This would both make the employment of household employees more secure and make it easier for embassy staff to provide their household employees with good working conditions. But during her time in Zambia, no change took place.
What does it look like today? Ulrika Hertel, who has been working at the embassy in Lusaka since 2016, explains that during her time as a posted worker, there have still been no guidelines regarding the employment of household staff. It is common for you to take over your successor's household staff and have to construct a contract on your own.
- My opinion is that it has not been in a consistent way, says Ulrika.
She explains that you receive compensation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cover the salary of a household employee. But when the embassy staff were asked to fly home to Sweden at the end of March due to the Corona pandemic, it became complicated with the household staff's employment. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out an e-mail informing the Swedish envoys that the compensation for household employees will end after one month in Sweden. This was perceived as that dispatchers should terminate the contracts with their household employees because it was unpredictable when they could go back again.
- We were very surprised, admits Ulrika who chose to continue paying salaries to her household staff despite the Foreign Ministry's advice, which was later withdrawn in early April.
Change on the way
At the beginning of August, Ulrika Hertel returned to her house in Lusaka and met the household employee again. Mouthguard requirements now prevailed in public places and in shops. She says that the embassy in Lusaka is currently developing a template for the design of standardized contracts for household employees. A more formal system is thus being built up.
- I think it's good. I do not think that delegates on their own should make individual decisions as employers, Ulrika concludes.
Anna-Carin Matterson agrees. She thinks that personal responsibility should be reduced and that household staff should be employed by the Swedish embassy.
- It needs to be more institutionalized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says Anna-Carin.