OPINION | We want ubuntu, but fail to treat our domestic workers properly

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Employers of domestic workers in South Africa can best be described as "relaxed" argue the writers. Photo by Getty Images
Employers of domestic workers in South Africa can best be described as "relaxed" argue the writers. Photo by Getty Images

Every August, South Africans engage in a national conversation about women and gender equality ignoring the inequalities they perpetuate in their own homes, and domestic workers are tired, write Pinky Mashiane and Kelebogile Khunou.


Another Women's Day has come and gone in South Africa. 

Most people are aware that the public holiday commemorates the historic women's march to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956. Fewer know that the march was held on a Thursday to accommodate domestic workers. Thursday or "Sheila's Day" as it was known then, was their day off, and on that historic Thursday, many domestic workers joined the 20 000 fearless women protesting against the apartheid government's Pass Laws.

It is often forgotten that domestic workers were active protagonists throughout the struggle for freedom in South Africa, toiling shoulder to shoulder with unionists and activists against apartheid authoritarian rule and for democratic labour rights. Despite this, domestic workers remain one of the most exploited occupational groups today, their contribution to the political and labour movement forgotten and ignored by those who ascended into power post-1994. 

Undervalued 

Well into September now, we reflect that Women's Month is not a cause for celebration for domestic workers. Domestic workers continue to be oppressed and exploited, and no one is being held accountable. In general, employers treat domestic work as an informal arrangement, not a form of employment regulated by labour laws. This work is undervalued because it is work historically performed by female family members and by "servants" during apartheid. 


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Domestic work is often referred to as the last stronghold of apartheid as, behind closed doors, domestic workers continue to live under the same conditions. "Live-in" workers are housed in derelict backrooms, separated from their children and partners to raise other people's children to make a living. "Live-out" workers receive slave wages because they have to spend a substantial share of their wages on transport costs. Most employers do not increase their wages annually. In townships and villages, people call their domestic workers "Aunty" or refer to them as a "Helper" in the name of Ubuntu. However, where is Ubuntu when Aunty is first to wake up at 05:00 and last to sleep at 22:00 with no breaks? Where is Ubuntu if Aunty does not have access to social protections like UIF and Compensation for Occupational Injuries?

READ | Nolwandle Mthombeni: It's about time we stop underpaying our domestic workers

Employers of domestic workers in South Africa can best be described as "relaxed". Employers are confident that there will be no labour inspector knocking on their doors, enquiring about whether their employee has a written contract, is registered with the UIF or whether employee wages are in line with the National Minimum Wage. Where employers try their best to comply with the law, they quickly encounter registration systems which are not user-friendly, causing frustration and significant delays. South African labour laws are progressive but do not work in practice because of non-compliance by employers and weak enforcement by the Department of Employment and Labour. 

Enforcing laws that cover domestic workers, like the Basic Conditions of Employment Act has long been a challenge for the Department of Employment and Labour and understandably so. Regulating work in private households is not simple. However, there are simply no consequences for non-compliant employers. Domestic worker unions are calling for the Department to:

  • Promote the recognition of domestic work as real work and the value of domestic work to the South African economy;
  • Raise public awareness about domestic workers' rights;
  • Promote registrations for Unemployment Insurance and Compensation for Occupational Injuries with the respective funds among employers and simplify online registration systems; 
  • Strengthen its enforcement mechanisms in the domestic work sector by securing a sufficient number of qualified labour inspectors and ensuring that their compliance orders are respected and enforced;
  • Ensure that domestic workers have access to effective complaint mechanisms, including by ensuring that all officials of the Department of Employment and Labour and the CCMA respond professionally to domestic workers' reports of mistreatment and follow due process to ensure that employers who are not meeting labour regulations are held accountable. 

It is with these demands in mind that history can once again be made as domestic workers continue to struggle for recognition as "real" workers, entitled to the same protections as all workers in the democratic era. Perhaps by 9 August 2023, domestic workers will have cause to celebrate. 

Pinky Mashiane is the President of United Domestic Workers of South Africa and Kelebogile Khunou is a researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.

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