Kitchen Tables Unturned and Sickles Rooted in Strife

2012-11-20 06:31

The proverbial elephant in the room is easy to spot.  We may play blind to it’s presence but the trumpeting sound of the elephant reminds us that not all is well. It is always there.

Labour relations in South Africa is like the proverbial elephant, present yet unsettling. As the strikes in the Cape Winelands  ensued last week, it was clear that a different yet important elephant was not present – the Minister of Labour, Mildred Oliphant.

Violence mounted and a farm worker was shot dead in Wosley last Wednesday. All of this happened while the highly sought after Minister of Labour was out of the country. Politicians, commentators and members of the public lashed out at Oliphant. By the end of last week, it became clear that she was not the only one to blame for this muddle.

Yesterday, the Department of Labour announced that the minimum wage for domestic workers will increase  on the 1st of December, but not by much. This announcement and the Cape Winelands wage clashes bring a range of interesting questions to the fore. Can government legislate decency in these two vocations?

Will the kitchen tables ever turn for our domestic workers?  Will the farm worker's sickle ever be free from strife ?

Inside yet outside

Domestic workers occupy an insider role in the households they work in. While they may seem to be outsiders, their work positions them at the center of any household.

“I knock off at around six in the evening but they can call me two or three times in an evening to wash the dishes, polish the kids' school shoes, to iron a dress that madam wants to wear the next day or to correct something that they think I have not done properly” – [From a range of interviews conducted by Mmatshilo Motsei, The Best Kept Secret: Violence Against Domestic Workers, 1990]

Their tasks are wide-ranging and often undefined.  A good 10 hours a day might be spent on housekeeping duties and attending to the children of the household. The job entails a loss of self and severing of boundaries in many ways. Some domestic workers live far from their homes and away from their own families. Close proximity to the household they work in reaps little or no benefits at all. Instead, substandard servant quarters and a deprivation of social and family life are some of the things that make-up the life of an average domestic worker.

Farm workers are no different.  Their vocation is ingrained in the dreadful migrant labour system which makes them dependent on the farmer for lodgings and provisions. Reports of the Kloovenburg Wine and Olive Estate, North of Cape Town paint a grim picture - 46 women living in rat-infested hovels.  For a fine juxtaposition walk a couple of meters from these hovels and you will find a plush Cape Dutch guesthouse on the estate.

Proximity does not always translate into parity.

Let’s Wage War against Poor Wages? 

The efforts of farm workers last week symbolize a continuous effort to ascribe value to the dignity of work. No matter how dull the vocation is perceived to be, it is deserving of dignity.  Better wages for farm workers and domestic workers is only half of the victory - the other half requires brute honesty from all of us. The reality is that these two vocations carry a motif of the past that continues to replicate itself and some of us are caught in the crossfire.  Labour legislation has failed to prevent the devaluing and exploitation of farm and domestic workers. From the absurd figures set for minimum wages in both vocations, to the failure of the law to protect vulnerable workers. The letter of the law has failed these workers. We fail them even more.

What is left for us is to question our own part in this. How do we perpetuate the subordination of domestic workers in our own homes? Why do we allow farmers with little respect for the dignity of their workers to flourish in affluence?

Encounters with some of my white peers reveal an inconvenient truth.

Some of them refer to their domestic workers as ‘the girl’, ‘the maid’ – even better admit that one of their parents (usually the mom) ascribes an ‘English or Afrikaans’ name to the domestic worker.  When asked why they make these bizarre references to a human being worthy of respect and affirmation through a name - the generic response is -  ‘It is very difficult to remember her name’. This is absurd really. Affirm the person who works earnestly to keep your household intact. Stop assigning names simply because the real names don’t suit you.  Learn to pronounce the name until you can say it properly.

These workers have become mere tools in the hands of their employers. They have become impersonalized and unworthy of basic respect and the decency they deserve from their employees. The Department of Labour will continue to increase the wages of these workers by insignificant margins.  Legislation will be put in place but these stomach-churning motifs may just outlive all of these changes.

So while the war against poor wages is waged, consider waging a different war -one that seeks to affirm the worker as deserving of respect and decency.

Help turn the kitchen tables the other way around. Lend your hand and free the sickle from strife.

Follow Sibusiso on Twitter @SbuTshabs

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