The DA’s surprising proposal on domestic worker rights

By Osiame Molefe 29 September 2011

The Democratic Alliance today put itself forward as a champion for domestic worker rights by announcing plans to put forward a private member’s bill to extend the Compensation Fund to cover domestic workers. The move confers more rights to workers, which is surprising in light of the party’s views on labour in the country. By OSIAME MOLEFE.

Announcing the party’s plans on Wednesday, shadow minister for labour Ian Ollis (disclosure: Mr Ollis is an iMaverick/DailyMaverick columnist) said that the DA also plans to put pressure on Parliament to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s convention concerning decent work for domestic workers.

“Domestic workers are unsung heroes in our country and yet they are treated as second-class citizens by our labour dispensation,” Ollis said in a statement.

Currently, the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) excludes all domestic workers (including gardeners and au pairs) and contractors from participation in the Compensation Fund. The only other categories of workers excluded are members of the South African National Defence Force and the police services as they have their own arrangements.

South African Regional Poverty Network – a poverty reduction civil society organisation – reckons that the exclusion of domestic workers, contractors and the self-employed from COIDA may be unconstitutional as it infringes on section nine’s provisions for equal protection before the law and protection from unfair discrimination on the basis of gender and race (as most domestic workers are black females).

Under the DA’s plan, employers will be obligated to contribute to the Compensation Fund based on the value of the salaries paid to workers in their employ. For an employer who pays their domestic worker R150 a day for five days a week, this will come to R3.23 a month, according Ollis. It would entitle domestic workers to claim for loss of income and medical expenses due to workplace injury – a benefit that every other worker except domestic workers enjoys.

Ollis also proposed the creation of an online registration process and that the collection of employer contributions for the Compensation Fund be synchronised with those for the Unemployment Insurance Fund to reduce the administrative burden to employers and the government.

However, in March this year at the launch of the labour department’s education campaign on COIDA, Compensation Fund commissioner Shakes Mkhonto proposed plans similar to those put forward by the DA. He said the fund’s benefits should be extended to include domestic workers because it is unfair discrimination to exclude them. And labour minister Mildred Oliphant added earlier this month that her department was also exploring the feasibility of a provident fund for domestic workers.

The DA’s move was also met with surprise by the 25,000-member strong South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU).

Myrtle Witbooi, SADSAWU provincial secretary, said, “I am surprised that they (the DA) are supporting it. We have been sending in submissions to Parliament and have now heard through the International Labour Organisation that it will happen.” Witbooi welcomed the DA’s initiative, but said that the party should start talking to domestic workers and their representative bodies if they are serious about championing their cause.

She said that once this battle is over COIDA is won, the union will be pushing for a bargaining council for domestic workers with representatives from employer and domestic worker groups.

This domestic worker bargaining council is one of the provisions in the ILO convention that Ollis has proposed Parliament adopt. But given the DA’s stance on the power of unions and the collective bargaining power they hold, the party may be treading perilously close to contradicting its own views.

Ollis dismissed that his proposal is political grandstanding and glory grabbing from a department that has already committed to doing what he proposes. He said, “We’ve been promised this for three years. The unions are saying they’ve been promised this for ten years. So quite honestly, it’s another promise (from the Department of Labour), and we want to push that envelope by tabling proposals on legislation that Parliament must then answer.” DM


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