South Africa

South Africa

The real, grim world of Madam and Eve

The real, grim world of Madam and Eve

An effort to ratify a National Domestic Workers Day came and went this July, but nothing changed for the people who too often are the most vulnerable sector of South Africa’s labour force. Yes, we're talking about people who help raise our children, clean our houses and wash our clothes. By MANDY DE WAAL.

“I was living in a shack made with planks. It was one room. There was no toilet or water there. If I needed the toilet or to shower I went outside the house. I didn’t go to the toilet in the night. I would go to the toilet before I went to sleep.”

Catherine was, until a while back, a domestic worker. She asks Daily Maverick not to use her real name because she’s also a Zimbabwean, and her paperwork isn’t up to date. “My documents are valid in my country, but they are not valid here. Please don’t use my name,” says Catherine, who is working with the Orange Farm Human Rights Centre to get recourse because of the problems she encountered as a domestic worker.

“I was working in Albertville near Northcliff from last October until the beginning of this year. I was working for a lady called Bernice Williams. My mother’s friend found this job for me. I just got in and worked, with no contract,” she says.

Catherine alleges that when she started work, she was told by Williams that her hours would be from seven in the morning until five in the late afternoon, but alleges that her employer didn’t keep to this agreement. “I was working from six in the morning until late. I could work to nine at night. I lived on the premises and was a house worker, but I had to cook because she was a caterer. We would cook until late. Some days we would wake up at half five in the morning to start cooking for the office where she works in the kitchen. She would go to sleep and I would have to wash the dishes until late in the night.

“There was no lunch break, I would drink tea and then get up and work. There was no one hour to rest. She would tell me I am not sitting in a park, I am there to work,” says Catherine. Catherine earned R1,600 a month and R200 or R300 for weekend overtime, regardless of the length of that overtime. “One day I asked her about the money, and she said she gives me enough.”

The Zimbabwean woman – who is the breadwinner for her family – says she was often scolded or screamed at. “Mrs Williams was so cheeky and would shout at me. I don’t know why she was always so cheeky to me. If I came to work she wanted her tea straight away, and if I didn’t bring it straight away she would shout at me. If I didn’t make her clothes nice she would shout at me. She can’t show you what to do, but she will just shout. One day she would call me a ‘raw people’ (unsophisticated). I went to my room to cry, but I would come back and work because I am the only person who is working in my family.”

Catherine has two children aged eight and four, but she also has to look after her younger sister and brother because her parents are unemployed. She supports eight people in her broader family, including her own children. When she felt that her working conditions had become unbearable, the domestic worker turned to the Department of Labour for help.

“I went to the Department of Labour and the CCMA. It was January this year and they said I must give my employer a letter. But Mrs Williams didn’t give the letter back to them.” After three weeks, Catherine went back to the labour department, only to find that her case had been transferred. After months of to-ing and fro-ing, she eventually got a case number and the contact details of the inspector handling her case. The inspector was to have called her after a couple of weeks, but Catherine heard nothing. That’s when she went to the Orange Farm Human Rights Centre for help.

The domestic worker’s situation with her employer came to a head one weekend, when she wanted to go home but her employer had catering work to do. The same situation occurred the following weekend, according to Catherine. “I told her I have children and I can’t stay for long. She told me to go and get my clothes in my room. When I went to my room, I left my handbag on the table in the kitchen.” Upon her return, Catherine’s employer alleged she was a thief and had stolen goods from the house. On the table were two bars of soap, one slipper and a couple of screwdrivers.

“She said to me she can’t give me my money because I am a thief. Those things were on the top of the table. I never took them. Even in the labour office they asked me, but I told them I never took them. There was only one slipper on the table – what can a person do with one slipper?” the one-time domestic worker asks.

Catherine said she felt terrible about being called a thief, but what she was most worried about was losing her job. The employer said she was calling the police, and hours later, when the police failed to arrive, Williams allegedly told Catherine to go home. It was seven at night. “I had R20 in my pocket, so I had to ask her for R4 so I could go home,” says Catherine.

Langton Miriyoga, the head paralegal officer of Passop, says immigrants to this country who are domestic workers, are vulnerable and easy to exploit because they don’t have their paperwork in place. “We get weekly complaints,” says Miriyoga. These complaints mostly relate to documentation or being exploited in the place of work.

“The biggest problem is the difficulty in getting work permits, but some of the other complaints we get are labour complaints like being underpaid, not having job descriptions, working hours that are way too long or doing too much work. There are workers that must take care of the children or look after a sick spouse while doing domestic chores like cooking and cleaning. Many domestics work very long hours without compensation,” says Miriyoga, who provides legal counsel to immigrants through a civic organisation that safeguards the rights of foreign nationals.

“Employers take advantage of immigrants that are undocumented. They know for sure that if they exploit you, you will be have very limited options to look for other employment. It is difficult for someone who is undocumented to report an instance of unfair work practice to the labour department,” Miriyoga says.

Like most other labour, domestic workers are covered by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, as well as the more specific law – the Sectoral Determination for the Domestic Worker Sector. Miriyoga believes that the resources in the Department of Labour aren’t adequate enough to police labour laws, a charge to which Thobile Lamati, the Chief Inspector of the Department of Labour, readily admits.

“The challenges that we experience with the enforcement of the legislation is that to date, a household has been regarded by the Constitution as a private place, which means that it is not regarded as a workplace. But we have a law that now recognises that a household is a workplace, because someone who works there is covered in terms of a law that prescribes working hours and a minimum wage,” he says.

“However, you need to get the co-operation of the employer of the domestic worker to access a home,” the chief inspector says, adding: “Remember that when domestic workers are left at home alone, they are given strict orders most of the time that no one is allowed to come onto the employer’s premises,” says Lamati, who states the obvious – most people work, ergo, most domestic workers are home alone.

Lamati says the department has 1,300 inspectors, but their responsibility is to cover all areas of employment, including that of the domestic area. “I am convinced that even if we had to increase the number of inspectors ten-fold, we would still experience the challenges we are facing now, because homes are regarded as private spaces, and are not regarded as workplaces.”

There are issues of capacity at the department, which Lamati says they’re trying to address, but he adds that ultimately, compliance rests with the employer of a domestic worker. People like Bernice Williams, a caterer who works in Bryanston and who stands accused by a foreign national, who worked for her, of undermining the labour laws.

When I put this to Williams, her version of events is completely different to that of her one-time domestic worker, Catherine. “What? That woman who stole from us? She gave us the wrong information and the police are still looking for her,” says Williams, who states that she is the aggrieved party in this transaction.

“When I phoned her husband to say that she had stolen from us, he said: ‘She’s a thief, you must have her locked up.’ All this is on an email, and I do have proof of the email,” says Williams, who firmly states that she has a letter in which the details of the issue are set out.

“Would you like me to email the letter through to you? If she was ill-treated, she would never have stayed there. She stole from me every week; there was so much stuff missing. The day I finally caught her out was the day I finally said to her that we were very disappointed, and we were very weary because a lot of things were going missing. I asked her to search her bag, which I felt I had the right to do, because every weekend she was going home with parcels,” she says.

“She was in the kitchen, and I took everything out and I still took snaps of it. That day that I searched her bag, she had my grandchildren’s slippers, she had tools of my husband’s in her bag, and she even had watches of ours. If Catherine feels that she can lie, that’s fine. We can go ahead with whatever court cases… she’s never, ever been ill-treated. I have all the proof on email which I will send you this evening,” Williams promised. Evening came and went, however, and there was no email from Williams to counter the allegations against her.

The labour department’s Lamati says problematic working conditions are a frequent cause of inspections. “We have situations where the accommodation is so bad that it is uninhabitable. In some instances we have found that people will work for months and months without getting paid. In other instances people work and get paid below the minimum wage,” he states.

The remedy is through what is called a compliance order. First comes a verbal warning and a request for the employer to remedy the situation. “If they don’t address the problem, we then issue the employer with what we refer to as a compliance order. If the employer doesn’t comply, then we apply to the labour court to make that an order of the court,” he says. Financial issues are dealt with in this manner, but issues of health and safety are taken to the criminal courts.

Passop’s Miriyoga says that because most domestic workers are women, this increases vulnerability. “The other day we had a case of a Zimbabwean woman who was raped in the workplace by her employer,” he says.

Immigrants are also faced with institutionalised bias. “There are incidences of xenophobia in the government institutions themselves. Some of the officers who are manning the labour and home affairs institutions are xenophobic. There isn’t a standard service – there are imbalances in the system. Sometimes if an immigrant worker lays a complaint with the department of labour, it is cast aside or delayed. Often it drags for months or years without action on the complaint,” says Passop’s legal head.

Page Boikanyo, spokesperson for the Department of Labour, says he can only act on specific cases. “We first have to determine what happened and see what is correct or wrong, and then set out guidelines on how to deal with foreigners. When it comes to foreign nationals, we don’t discriminate. Workers are workers first, and the basic conditions of labour act cover all people.”

But six months after trying to get some kind of recourse from the Department of Labour, Catherine says she’s hit a brick wall. She’s now come to the Orange Farm Human Rights Centre to see if they can help her achieve redress from her former employer. But with Williams charging that she is the injured party, finding closure in this case might be difficult, if not impossible.

Meanwhile the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers’ Union (Sadsawu) has joined hands with an entrepreneur called Sizile Makola to push for 26 July to be recognised as National Domestic Workers’ Day.

“We believe in empowering domestic workers and enlightening employers, so supporting an annual National Domestic Workers’ Day would help us draw attention to that relationship, for the benefit of both,” says Myrtle Witbooi, founder and provincial secretary of the Cape Town-based union, which is affiliated with Cosatu. “It really is time employers understood more about the rights of domestic workers. We welcome the opportunity to highlight the cause of this radicalised and gendered profession, whose contribution to the national economy is often overlooked.”

But what was supposed to be the first National Domestic Workers Day came and went with little, if any, recognition for the (mostly) women who help rear our daughters and sons, who often feed us, clean our homes and do our washing and ironing. South Africa needs to recognise them, once and for all. DM

Read more: 

  • Still on the fringes: Domestic workers see no light on Daily Maverick

Photo by Reuters.


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