OPINION | Labour law for domestic workers explained

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Many domestic employment relationships are ridden with frustration and conflict, bringing tension into the home. But laws regulating domestic employment have changed, explain Amy Tekie and Kelebogile Khunou.


The laws regulating employment of domestic work have changed. If you employ a nanny, cleaner, driver, gardener or other domestic worker in your home, you may need to amend the terms of employment in order to stay within the bounds of the law.

Firstly, from 1 March, employers of domestic workers are required to pay their employees a minimum wage of R23.19 per hour, as announced by Minister for Employment and Labour, Thulas Nxesi. This translates to approximately R4 019.57 per month for a 40-hour work week and R4 522.02 for 45 hours per week. Overtime must be paid for any hours worked beyond 45 hours, and should be paid at 1.5 times the employee’s normal wage. Overtime pay for domestic workers is R34.79 per hour at minimum.

It is important to note that the minimum wage is the lowest pay an employer can legally provide to their employee.

For sole income providers, the national minimum wage is usually not sufficient to meet a family’s basic needs. According to Statistics South Africa, the food poverty line, also known as the "extreme" poverty line, is R624 per person per month.

A domestic worker earning the minimum wage, just over R4 000 per month, supporting a family of four, would have to spend more than 50% of her salary on meeting the family’s basic needs; less than R2 500 would have to cover non-food household costs like rent, water, electricity, transport, education and others. In situations like these, food needs often must be sacrificed in order to meet other requirements, which are still not adequately met.

Secondly, on 18 February 2021, the Compensation Commissioner gazetted a notice to employers of domestic workers, informing them of their responsibility to register domestic workers with the Compensation Fund under the Compensation for Occupational Diseases and Injuries Act (COIDA). The Act provides for the compensation of employees for workplace injuries, diseases and death.

COIDA protects both employer and employee: it provides a system of "no-fault" compensation, which means that an employee does not need to prove that the injury is the employer’s fault in order to receive compensation and it also prevents employees from suing their employers for damages. Employers continue to be legally liable for upholding other employment standards pertaining to working hours, meal breaks, rest periods, deductions, public holidays, Sunday work, standby, night work and different kinds of leave.

Of particular importance is the provision of a written contract, and registration and contributions to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). UIF provides short-term disability, unemployment, maternity and death benefits, as well as other protections such as the Covid-19 relief payments for workers who were told to stay home. Documented migrant workers are included in UIF and from 2016, refugees and asylum seekers were ruled eligible as well.

If employers simply comply with the basic labour laws, it can have a significant impact on the well-being of South Africa’s 900 000 domestic workers. The majority of domestic workers are women and many are sole income earners for their families. Fair working conditions, living wages and protections stand to substantially improve the lives of domestic workers and their families.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the domestic employment relationship is how it is managed, beyond the employment standards. Domestic workers appreciate being paid a fair wage and having reasonable working hours, but like other employees, they also want to be treated with respect and dignity, a right which is enshrined in our Constitution.

Unfortunately, many domestic employment relationships are ridden with frustration and conflict, bringing tension into the home. In some cases, employers may be under the impression that everything is running smoothly, while workers are seething with frustration but feel too uncomfortable to speak out. Workers who feel unfairly treated by their employers sometimes or all the time explained why:

"I am working Monday to Sunday, weekends, and holidays and I’m working more than 12 hours [per day], but I’m scared to say something because I might lose my job. I only take off once per month."

"We agreed on starting and finishing time but I always knock off late and don’t get an apology … I have to ask for my salary every time after I worked."

Many employers are also frustrated. A domestic worker may abscond after leaving the workplace for what was supposed to be a short holiday, leaving an employer in distress. Some workers may seem to disregard instructions that have been given repeatedly or may continuously show up late. Some employers feel they bend over backwards to be fair and generous, but workers take advantage of the flexibility.

Too often, grievances are not addressed until resentment has built up. Miscommunication and lack of communication result in differing expectations, and when those expectations are not met by one side or the other, frustration sets in. Communication challenges are exacerbated by different native languages, cultures, and ways of handling conflict.

Such challenges can be found in most workplaces and industries, and thus labour laws exist to guide employment relationships. Employers and domestic workers, just like other sectors, are bound by the regulations set out in the Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Sectoral Determination 7 and others.

The Department of Employment and Labour needs to raise awareness of the rights and responsibilities of domestic employers and improve its registration systems for UIF and Compensation Fund. Employers who are not aware of the law, or too busy to engage with it, are setting themselves up for a failed relationship.  

Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance and the Socioeconomic Rights Institute (SERI) recently launched "Employing a Domestic Worker: A legal and practical guide". This guide, which is freely available online, provides employers with everything they need to know, including basic labour law requirements, how to register for UIF and COIDA, managing performance and communication, and how to handle difficult situations.

SERI and Izwi have also produced a series of short factsheets which cover the following topics, Beginning the Domestic Employment Relationship, Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases, Minimum Standards of Employment, Dealing with Poor Work Performance and Misconduct. Engagements with these products and investing time in managing the domestic employment relationship will result in more harmonious homes and better compliance with the law. 

Amy Tekie is co-founder, Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance, and Kelebogile Khunou is a researcher at the Socioeconomic Rights Institute of South Africa. Views are their own. 

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