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Covid 19 - Compassion, empathy for domestic workers will help us triumph



Published Mar 25, 2020


Opinion - IT is trite that epidemics are as old as human beings’ existence in this world.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is just that. Yet another pandemic but with a deadly footprint.

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Historically, epidemics have had their incubation located both locally, regionally and transnationally and in the latter case more accurately described as pandemics.

I write this as a South African Muslim with a universal outlook and because of its inherent characteristic to spread easily and swiftly.

The government has taken the common sense, though the drastic approach to quarantine as the first remedial line of action for containment, a practice, I am informed, commanded by the Prophet Muhammad, himself.

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This command is consistent, as a learned senior counsel wrote, “with the Maqasid (higher objectives) of the Shariah, of which two, for the purpose of this discussion, is Haqqul Haya (the sanctity of human life), and secondly, Haqqul Karama (the sanctity of human dignity)”.

He amplified that with the logic that the sanctity of human life demands the fulfilment of organic needs such as food and water in the absence of which we will certainly perish.

First a disclaimer: What follows is not legal advice. It is my humble effort to ease concerned employers and employees.

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We have to do our best to preserve the employer-employee relationship because what we are being confronted with is unique and has never, as I can recall, confronted us at any time in our history.

The majority of middle-class South Africa employs or hires the services of domestic employees who are among the most vulnerable employees earning an income determined by the Minimum Wages Act. This currently prescribes a minimum wage of R15.67 an hour.

That vulnerability is exacerbated by the pandemic that is sweeping across South Africa and which has put middle-class households under financial strain.

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I’ve become aware that the first line of casualty is domestic workers whom employers are contemplating to let go.

This could have negative legal consequences for them if decisions to terminate their services are hastily taken.

I call for employers of this category, as well as of casual or temporary or part-time employees, to pause, think and empathise with the vulnerable.

Do not send your domestic workers home for the duration of the #coronaviruSA.

If you have to, then speak to them with care and compassion before you release them and pay them for that duration.

Also provide them with gloves, masks and hand sanitisers at home where they provide a service to you. That is a legal requirement by the way.

Provide them with provisions, as you reasonably can afford to. Share resources if necessary.

That is what the haloed principle of ubuntu expects from us.

The majority of domestic employees live out and they use public transport to commute to and from work. The potential for exposure is greater.

Maybe it will require employers to arrange for their employees to travel in safety. After all, they are like family most of the time.

I believe that ubuntu compels us to perhaps take them to their homes and arrange to drop them and pick them up. Employers are not legally compelled to do that.

The knock-on effect of Covid-19 can be devastating. We can contribute towards flattening the curve as it were, to arrest its rampant march.

On a positive side, the Department of Labour has activated a process that will provide relief for employers, who are financially stressed to be able to access help through the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). Go to the website of the UIF for details.

In addition, in direct response to Covid-19, the Workman’s Compensation Commissioner has published a notice dated March 20, 2020, namely circular CF/03/2020.

Employees who are exposed to the virus and who are symptomatic and as a result find themselves quarantined and without income have been provided with a lifeline

As a Muslim, I am reminded of the Quranic injunction with regard to the sanctity of human dignity.

The Shariah places the value of this objective as all-encompassing and superior to the Western secular notion of freedom because the cluster of environmental, political, cultural, social and economic rights is derived from human dignity.

As employers of domestic employees, we are compelled by our Constitution in any case to approach ruptures such as that presented by Covid-19 with our focus on compassion and respect for human dignity.

Human dignity, a senior counsel, steeped in Islamic jurisprudence opines, of the individual “precedes the freedom of the individual”.

I sincerely trust and pray that all South Africans do their very least to help combat this deadly pandemic. We don’t need the president to appeal to our compassion and empathy. We can do this together.

Jazbhay is a legal practitioner.


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