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Decent Work Still a Dream for South Africa’s Domestic Workers

Davison Makanga

CAPE TOWN, May 11 2010 (IPS) - The abuse of domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, is still widespread in South Africa despite calls for the government to intensify the implementation of the domestic workers law.

SADSAWU Secretary General Myrtle Witbooi says violations of domestic workers' rights go unnoticed and unreported. Credit:  Davison Makanga/IPS

SADSAWU Secretary General Myrtle Witbooi says violations of domestic workers' rights go unnoticed and unreported. Credit: Davison Makanga/IPS

The Sectoral Determination 7: Domestic Worker Sector law, which was promulgated in 2002, set minimum wages and conditions such as working hours, leave days and compulsory registration with the Department of Labour.

Despite the law’s eight-year existence, various speakers at a recent conference on domestic workers noted that this skills sector is still regarded as casual work by most employers. The May 7-8 conference, titled “Exploited, Undervalued and Essential” and hosted by the University of Western Cape’s Social Law Project, revealed sad cases of domestic workers’ rights violations.

A private business

While appreciative of the legislation, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) is concerned with its poor enforcement. According to SADSAWU Secretary General Myrtle Witbooi, the private nature of the sector makes it difficult for them to mobilise workers. The union has 4,500 members out of an estimated one million domestic workers in the country.

“We believe most workers would like to join the unions but they do not know about us because they are isolated. They stay at the backyard of employers’ homes,” Witbooi told IPS.

As a result, most cases where worker’s rights are violated go unnoticed and unreported. They record little success with the few cases that come to their attention, due to the slow and onerous arbitration procedures. In some instances, Witbooi revealed, employers win due to their influence in the employer-employee relationship.

The situation is more dire for migrant workers whose lack of legal status exposes them to exploitation by employers.

One such worker is Mercy Moyo*, a Zimbabwe national working in Cape Town. Moyo had such a bad experience with her former employer that she has now chosen to “freelance”.

“I was told not to use certain utensils and had my salary deducted if I made little mistakes like breaking a cup,” Moyo told IPS.

South Africa has seen a rise in freelance domestic workers like Moyo, popularly called “chars” and researchers want them accommodated by the law.

“They are not defined by law, so they do not have any benefits or rights. Interestingly many employers are also opting for this kind of service to evade law requirements such as minimum salary and Unemployment Insurance Fund registrations,” said the Social Law Project’s lead researcher, Fairuz Mullagee.

Enforcement challenges

The Labour Department is well aware of the anomalies but cites a shortage of personnel as their major challenge. In the Western Cape province, the department has just short of 90 inspectors, too few to monitor even one sector, let alone all the province’s workplaces.

“We embark on an inspection blitz in specific areas for a period of a week each in order to deal with our situation,” said Trevor Bailey of the Labour Department in the Western Cape.

Another challenge is the country’s competing laws. While the Constitution guarantees the right to privacy for home owners, inspectors are empowered to conduct routine checks. It’s a dilemma too difficult to deal with for the inspectors who are sometimes barred from access to certain properties.

Another contradiction is between labour and immigration laws. According to Ray Mungoshi of the Social Law Project, while immigration law aims to keep illegal immigrants out of the country, labour law guarantees everyone the same rights regardless of migration status. 


Judge and University of Cape Town professor Halton Cheadle believes the nature of domestic work can be improved if administered at municipal and local government level. Cheadle argued this would make it easy to monitor and organise collective bargaining.

Alternatively, Sahra Ryklief from the International Federation of Workers’ Education (IFWEA) suggested incentives, such as tax relief, to encourage employers to register their employees for the Unemployment Insurance Fund and to pay them minimum salaries.

Others argue that the domestic workers’ law needs a complete overhaul to improve worker’s rights and welfare.

Some employers are complying with the domestic worker’s labour regulations. Carol Spencer in Cape Town’s Muizenberg suburb told IPS she had registered her domestic worker because “I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the law.”

Others, like Spencer Daniels*, say they are not aware of the legislation. “We just agreed on our terms with the worker,” he said. 

Decent work

The domestic workers’ rights conference also contributed to ongoing research and consultation on the drafting of a convention on decent work for domestic workers that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) hopes to have adopted by 2011.

The proposed convention is widely seen as a step forward to realising decent work for the domestic labour sector. But it will require a great deal lobbying to convince government to buy in to the idea. Consultation will take place in June and SADSAWU say they will campaign to have the vision implemented.

“It is part of empowering women where we have to be free and speak for ourselves,” said Witbooi. After all, she added, women are the majority of domestic workers.

*names changed on request

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