Defend Truth


Domestic workers of the world, unite

Wendy Landau is research communications officer at the African Centre for Migration & Society, Wits University.

June 16, 2016 is the 40th anniversary of the start of the Soweto youth uprising which spread within weeks to many parts of South Africa. It is also the fifth celebration of International Domestic Workers Day.

The two commemorations – of the Soweto uprising and International Domestic Workers Day – are connected, although on first appearances it doesn’t look like it.

Many of the parents of the high school students who protested in 1976-77 were domestic workers in precarious and informal work in private households and in institutional settings such as schools, hospitals and canteens. At the time, the majority of South African working class people worked in low-level jobs to which they were restricted because of segregationist and apartheid legislation which strictly enforced the movement of black people and also reserved most skilled jobs for white people.

The 1976 students observed their parents working in vulnerable and undignified jobs, and that they were frequently separated from their families by employment. Historians and others have often argued that the socio-economic conditions of black people were one of the factors that led to the students’ uprising.

The testimonies of Patience Tshetlo and Albertina Mshudulu about their experiences during the uprising are available online in an e-book. Patience Tshetlo was a domestic worker living in Soweto. Twenty years later she recounted how she realised during the day that it was her children and their peers being shot at and that she simultaneously felt solidarity with the students’ protests and afraid for the safety of her children.

Albertina Mshudlulu was a domestic worker living in Gugulethu in Cape Town. In written testimony to the Cillié Commission of Enquiry she told how her son disappeared on 11 August 1976 and of her fruitless search of police stations, hospitals and mortuaries for his whereabouts. Almost two months later she was called to identify his body at a mortuary: he had been shot dead on the day he disappeared. Many other parents, domestic workers or not, experienced the detention, trials, imprisonment or exiling of their children over the next few years with long-term impacts on their families in the next 40 years.

Today many of the generation of young people of 1976 and their successors continue to seek and find work as domestic workers across South Africa, in an occupation that is poorly paid and routinely not in compliance with basic labour conditions. Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2016 indicates that there are approximately 1.2-million women and men employed in private households.

Research conducted in 2014 in two towns in Mpumalanga by the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (which was co-ordinated by the African Centre for Migration & Society) found that, among contemporary South African-born domestic workers, the majority were migrants from rural areas to the towns.

This is a continuation of internal migration patterns among domestic workers for most of the 20th century, alongside more recent patterns of cross-border migration from other countries in SADC. Respondents reported that the absence of secure livelihoods in rural areas in South Africa and within the poor regional SADC economy were push factors that helped explain the motivation for people to move to find work. In addition, for South African respondents, personal and immediate family circumstances were critical determinants of migration.

In addition the research recorded that many South African domestic workers (whether born in urban or rural areas) are the children or grandchildren of people who previously migrated to seek domestic work. Replacing relatives and friends in domestic work was one of the ways some respondents were recruited into the sector.

The research also found that employment social protection benefits (such as pension schemes, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, medical aid schemes, maternity and sick leave) were almost nonexistent in the domestic work sector. The majority of domestic workers across the world also have or no little social protection.

The researchers’ analysis was that domestic work in South Africa is largely informal, and negotiated outside of existing South African labour laws and regulation. They noted that recruitment is done mainly through word of mouth and agreed to verbally between employer and employee; that job requirements are frequently vague, and termination of employment is often carried out without notice.

The students who started a march of many schools at Morris Isaacson High School 40 years ago expected that their protests would help to lead to better education, better employment opportunities, and less inequality for them and their parents.

However, as the research mentioned above shows, and despite the provisions of Sectoral Determination 7 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and those contained in the ILO’s Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, a lot of those 1976 expectations have not yet been achieved.

Let us hope that, before the next International Workers Day, the South African government will address this problem by introducing recommended stronger sanctions for noncompliance with labour legislation; and ensure the enforcement of the minimum wage contained in that legislation by the police, courts, and the CCMA. DM

Wendy Landau is research communications officer at the African Centre for Migration & Society, Wits University. International Domestic Workers Day commemorates the passing five years ago at the International Labour Conference of ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. It is a day of advocacy about the ratification of the convention by all UN member countries, and a day of solidarity with domestic workers worldwide.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.