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SOUTH AFRICA: Convention To Secure Decent Work for Domestic Workers

Erna Curry

CAPE TOWN, Mar 16 2011 (IPS) - Despite formal recognition of domestic workers’ rights in South Africa, they still face a struggle for fair treatment.

Fifty-nine-year old Gladys Mnyengeza knows all too well about being treated like a third-class citizen. She’s been doing domestic work since she was nine years old. She said domestic workers are often hidden and isolated.

“When (the employer) has visitors you have to cook the food, do everything. They will dish for themselves. You are washing the dishes and they will close the kitchen door so the visitors don’t see you.”

Mnyengeza is a proud member of the South African Domestic, Service and Allied Workers’ Union (SADSAWU), a trade union looking after the rights of domestic workers in South Africa.

“Our people are scared to come. They are scared their madams will see them here. If we can go with each other and fight all this, we are all in a struggle as domestic workers,” said Mnyengeza.

In June this year, the second and final reading of an International Labour Organization Convention on the rights of domestic workers will take place. If it is adopted, it would strengthen legal protection for millions of the most vulnerable workers worldwide.

Invisible workers

A domestic worker is defined as an individual in a private home doing services such as cleaning, childcare, driving, gardening, cooking, elderly and frailcare.

According to the 2010 Labour Force Survey, there are about 880,000 domestic workers in South Africa. The majority of domestic workers in South Africa are women with low levels of education that render them vulnerable to exploitation and sexual harassment. Many are also migrants.

South African domestic workers met in Cape Town as part of efforts to ensure that the South African government along with 93 other countries, votes in favour of the Convention come June.

Myrtle Witbooi, General Secretary of SADSAWU, was an active participant in Geneva in 2009 when a first round of discussions on the Convention was held. “If we can win, if we can get a Convention on Domestic Work as Decent Work, it means we will be able to have one voice in the world. And all governments must listen to that voice.”

Countries, including South Africa, would be bound by this Convention if it is adopted at the ILO’s 100th session in June this year.

Minimum working rights

The convention would affect billions of vulnerable domestic workers all over the world by affording them minimum working rights and protection. As a Convention is binding, member countries are called on to interpret the new labour standard within their national labour legislation.

The situation is particularly unique because domestic workers are so isolated in private homes. It also makes it difficult to organise, as illustrated by the voices from the different domestic workers at the event.

One SADSAWU member said, “I am here on behalf of the workers in Plattekloof, Cape Town because they cannot speak up. They are alone there and they are suffering. That’s why I came, because at least I can go back and report to them… that you know they exist and their problems.”

She added, “I had a hard time. To be a domestic worker is not easy. It’s not nice… you work so hard. Sometimes you don’t even get something to eat. It’s worse when you do a sleep-in job. You will cook that food there but you won’t even eat a piece. After supper the madam will tell you, ‘You can just take that bread there and put some jam on.'”

Africa lagging behind

International trade unionist Cecelia Mather congratulated South Africa’s government on its commitment to the Convention. “The South African government is good – they need to get the rest of Africa to follow.”

Domestic workers in South Africa enjoy better labour protection than their counterparts in other countries, but there are important gaps. They are excluded from compensation for workplace injuries, for example. A SADSAWU member working in the Cape Town suburb of Bellville was washing windows when she fell off a ladder and broke her right arm; she was fired by her employer and had to pay her own medical bills.

Research from the Global Network in Africa shows that across Africa, domestic workers endure poor working conditions and a significantly lower level of access to social security in terms of health, education, housing, electricity and transport.

Making rights an election issue

The hundreds of women and their supporters who attended the meeting are proud to be a members of a union and seemed uninterested in discussions about the upcoming South African local government elections in May.

The ruling ANC has set itself a target of achieving 50/50 representation of women on local councils.

But the workers were unimpressed by this “The parties? They don’t recognise the domestic workers and it’s a long struggle we have to fight.”

Myrtle Witbooi, who is also the chairperson of the International Domestic Workers Network, said, “If they want to implement rights for domestic workers then we are working for all of them. We need someone that will fight for workers’ rights.”

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