Domestic workers

We no longer sing, “My Mama was a kitchen girl’’ (SADSAWU interview). “When he is inside the house he can shout, and you feel... you are not dressed, you are not a human... So I don’t know, now I don’t want her [his] money. I want justice only. Because he already... accuse me of stealing. What I want, I just want justice only. ” Christine Wiro, domestic worker who claims she was assaulted by ANC MP Mduduzi Manana (Eye Witness News 8/5/2018)

According Rees (2018), there are over a million domestic workers in South Africa of which the overwhelming majority (96 per cent) are women. A third of all domestic workers are under the age of 40, the rest are older. In terms of education, numeracy and literacy levels were low with the majority being without formal schooling. In terms of formal conditions of employment such as written contracts, which were introduced several years ago in a bid to formalise and improve the social protection of domestic workers, 77 per cent did not have a written employment contracts while less than 4 per cent had limited duration contracts (QLFS of 2017). A total of 42 per cent of all domestic workers reported that they were permanently employed. Added benefits such as retirement or medical aid benefits were the exception, with less than a quarter of workers having taken annual leave in 2018, despite this right being legislated under the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the sectoral determination for the sector. Even more disconcerting is that three quarters of all domestic worker employers did not have UIF (unemployment benefits) despite it being a legal requirement.

Less than 1 per cent of these informal workers are organised. Those who are organised belong to a union called the South African Domestic Workers Union (SADSAWU). Those domestic workers who have belonged to a union for decades attribute their salary increases to the union, as a result of negotiations or collective bargaining. Since 2018, domestic workers have fallen under the new legislation of the National Minimum Wage Act 2018. The minimum hourly rate is now set at R15 which is a slight increase from R13.05, and there are regional variations which, depending on the cost of living, vary across the country. In a bid to improve the social protection and rights of domestic workers almost 20 years ago, a submission was made to the September Commission highlighting the plight and challenges facing domestic workers. Unfortunately, despite legislative changes as a way of regulating the working conditions, the aspirations are yet to be realised.

A new trend emerging in Cape Town province is that of placement agencies starting to operate in the sector and broker between workers and employers. The placement agencies engage the union as an advisor)' body and also advocate for decent working conditions, but the effects of this are yet to be seen. That this new process has not necessarily improved conditions facing domestic workers is evident from the demands being raised by SADSAWU. Domestic workers have made several demands that they want formalisation to achieve: freedom from harassment or abuse by recruiters or employers; freedom from exploitation by agencies and intermediaries; implementation of the Domestic Workers’ Convention and accompanying Recommendations as a minimum set of conditions; the right to a living wage and working conditions such as time off and leave, overtime pay, sick leave, health insurance and pensions; the right to have workplaces (effectively private homes) taxed, inspected and controlled; decent living conditions where live-in arrangements are part of the employment contract; access to education, recreation and leisure time; no child labour (including when disguised as family labour); migrant workers’ contracts concluded before leaving home countries; and full and equal rights for migrant domestic workers.

The very nature of these demands demonstrates vividly not only that these conditions are not being met, but also that formalisation requirements are sector specific and have very different implications when the workplace is within private households. In addition, the patriarchal nature of domestic work that places domestic workers at the mercy of their employers (male and female) has not been addressed through the gains made thus far, as issues of abuse, sexual harassment, rape and forced family or child labour continue to permeate this sector. This situation has worsened in South Africa particularly with the entry of undocumented workers, who are often well qualified but driven by circumstances into this market. Their myriad vulnerabilities have played into the hands of employers who in the face of an abundant workforce are flouting the law and gains made by South African domestic workers, by pegging worker against worker in a bid to drive wages lower. WIEGO has tried to organise domestic workers to mitigate this situation, but with limited success. Hence, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether the benefits to be derived through formalisation would actually be realised by domestic workers.

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