“Where I work, the utensils I use to eat stay outside. It is apartheid… Because they still think that Africans aren’t on the same level as them. When I want to eat I have to get the dishes from outside and she’ll dish up for me…” (Orlando East worker)
Despite advances in legislation to protect domestic workers from exploitation and to create an environment where fair labour practices and decent work are the norm, research conducted by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) paints an ugly picture of women at work in South African homes. Focus group research indicates that the abuse of domestic workers is not a bygone of apartheid but is alive, well and living in the suburbs.
“I have worked a long time for this employer of mine, you know why, because she gives me lots of second-hand clothes for my children. So even though she does these [bad] things to me I think again, as to where I will get these things that she does for me. When I look worried at times she goes to her room and give me some things, like she gives me kettles, school shoes for children, so that is why I tolerate some of these things. I have worked for this employer for more than 8 years but I am tolerating her. I have been asking about pension from her because I am old now and she always promises that we will talk about that.” (Gugulethu worker)
Stricter measures to eradicate the exploitation of domestic workers are on their way, as the Labour Department looks set to urge Parliament to ratify Convention 189. A treaty adopted by the International Labour Conference in Geneva, Convention 189 is a rights-focused document that affords domestic workers benefits like vacation, maternity leave and unemployment insurance while protecting their rights to fair working conditions.
During her 2012 budget vote, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant said discussions had been initiated with the National Economic Development and Labour Council on the possible ratification of the treaty.
She indicated that once talks had concluded, government would consider the ratification of Convention 189 “to bring our inspection activities within the framework of international good practice”. Oliphant also mooted the creation of a retirement savings scheme for domestic workers during her speech.
For Convention 189 to be effective and to make decent work a reality for domestic workers, the department of labour will still have some way to go beyond merely adopting the treaty. The ratification is merely a commitment to implementing the obligations set out by the treaty – the real work is the political will to modify legislation and what it will take to police the treaty so that new, protective laws have teeth.
Three years ago, a shocking story came to light in the Cape Times, headlined Domestic worker misery in MP village. The news report told the story of well-at-heel politicians who paid negligible rents in Cape Town’s parliamentary villages, but employed domestic workers at below minimum wage and made them do outrageous tasks.
One woman employed by an MP told of having to give her employer massages on weekends, while another claimed she had to live in a store room without ablution facilities.
Myrtle Witbooi of the SA Domestic and Allied Workers’ Union said in the news report that she had brought these issues to Parliament but nothing had been done. At the time, Witbooi labelled MPs as the “worst employers” of domestic workers.
Patricia de Lille raised this matter in Parliament the same year. About a month later the then minister of labour stated that a blitz inspection had been conducted at some Parliamentary villages, and over half of the MPs that employed domestic workers did not comply with legislation. Writing law, it appears is one thing. Abiding by it and ensuring it is policed is another, even among people who really should know better.
In a recent interview with the International Trade Union Confederation Witbooi said it was important to put pressure on government to better apply the laws in place by ensuring that there were an adequate number of labour inspectors.
“The South African government made labour inspection available to domestic workers in 2010. They have a telephone number they can call if they have a problem, but given the shortage of inspectors, they (domestic workers) still have little chance of receiving help from this front,” she said.
Witbooi said access to employers’ homes for inspections had been a major challenge, but that this problem was easing. “Employers do not usually refuse their access and allow them (labour inspectors) to talk to the workers. The situation has changed in relation to a few years ago and employers usually no longer refuse to dialogue, even with the unions. They understand that we want to build relations, not destroy them. There may still be some reticence here and there, but I have never known an employer refuse access to the domestic employee’s workplace,” Witbooi said.
Another issue that will determine whether or not the introduction of Convention 189 is successful in South Africa is the education of domestic workers on their rights. Witbooi said if domestic workers weren’t made aware of their rights, Convention 189 would be useless.
Without rights education, amended legislation and the proper policing of law, South Africa has little hope of setting up global rights standards for local domestic workers. And if those in Parliament haven’t got their own houses in order, how can they be expected to muster the political will to ensure domestic workers enjoy better lives?
Until then, reports like that from CASE will be commonplace as migrants, the unemployed and the marginalised jostle for whatever work and money they can get as domestic workers.
“The boss can also tell you what to do around the house. For example, she’ll say wash the dogs even though it’s not your job to do that. Then she’ll tell me to put sunscreen on the dogs because they get burnt. Now the dogs run away from me when they see me because they hate sunscreen. Have you ever seen a dog that uses sunscreen?” (Pimville worker)
“When I asked my employer why she did not give me my bonus the other year she told me that when she renovated her home she gave me all the cupboards so she has treated that as my bonus for that year. My complaint was that we did not agree on that otherwise I would have known before taking them” (Gugulethu worker)
“[The work] was nice at first until I realised that my employer gave me food from the dish that they dish for the dog and I did not eat that food.” (Ginsberg worker) DM
Photo: A woman sits in the rain on the place where her shack once stood before a fire razed it down in Durban April 23, 2012. (REUTERS)
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