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Domestic workers running hard to stay where they are

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Picture: ANA (files) – Workers take care of children, the elderly, houses, gardens, cars and pets, taking responsibility for what is often most valued by their employers, yet they remain among the most poorly paid workers in the economy, the writer says.

By Trevor Ngwane

The lack of recognition and respect for domestic workers in South Africa is inexcusable. These workers take care of children, the elderly, houses, gardens, cars and pets. They are given responsibility for what is often most valued by their employers, yet they remain among the most poorly paid workers in the South African economy.

The decades long struggle of domestic workers brings to mind the story of a panting Alice (in Wonderland) who asked the Red Queen why their long run had seemingly got them nowhere. The Queen replied ‘This is a slow sort of country! Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’ How long must domestic workers struggle for dignity, justice and a living wage?

In 2002, there was a fleeting feeling of victory when, for the first time, the government legislated a minimum wage for domestic workers, and later for farmworkers. However, the celebration left a bitter taste in the mouths of domestic workers because R4.10 per hour (equivalent to R11 in 2022) was arguably the formalisation of existing exploitation and an endorsement of starvation wages by the government of national liberation.

Tragically, it took the death by drowning of a domestic worker, Maria Mahlangu, for the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) to pass a judgment declaring certain clauses in the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) unconstitutional for excluding domestic workers from the right to claim compensation for work-related injuries, illnesses and death. The ruling of the country’s apex court on November 19, 2020 was justifiably lauded as a victory and a turning point in the implementation of laws that improved the conditions of domestic workers in South Africa.

‘If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’ said the Red Queen to Alice. The Herculean effort of domestic workers, supported by the South Africa Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), United Domestic Workers of South Africa (UDWOSA), Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, among others, has successfully opposed the exclusion of domestic workers by COIDA. Because from exclusion it can be a short distance to abuse: workers got nothing if they were injured, fell ill or died while on duty, employers paid nothing and callously applied the no work no pay law.

Two years after the ConCourt victory, only about ten COIDA compensation claims have been processed despite the court ruling stating that domestic workers could claim damages dating back to April 27, 1994. The Department of Labour has not done enough to raise awareness of the ruling among employers and employees. Employers of domestic workers are not filling the CF-1E form to register their workers and pay their contribution to the Compensation Fund. When workers are injured or fall ill, the employers do not complete the W.Cl 2 (Notice of Accident and Claim for Compensation) form, nor do they submit it within seven days to the Compensation Commissioner.

The domestic employment sector suffers from a lack of employer compliance and weak enforcement mechanisms by the state. The ANC government, especially the Department of Labour, should actively encourage compliance with the law including imposing penalties on employers who fail to do so. This sector also suffers from a bigger disease, namely, the race and gender bias that is inherent in domestic work in South Africa. Of the nearly million domestic workers in South Africa, three-quarters are women and 91 percent are classified as ‘black’ and 9 percent as ‘coloured’.

This highly skewed racial and gender distribution of domestic workers has serious implications for how this profession is viewed by the public. At the heart of the sexual division of labour is the exploitation of the unpaid labour of women. The work of caring for children, the sick, the elderly, of cooking and cleaning, that is, of taking care of other people’s needs is left to women to do in this male dominated society. The undermining and denigration of this compassionate work as unimportant, gender stereotypes and patriarchal marriage customs are essential in the justification of the exploitation of women’s labour.

Historically, the system of racial capitalism (apartheid) in South Africa and its fantastic fortunes for mining capital was built on the backs of black cheap labour and the migrant labour system. The men were forced to leave their homes for months to dig out gold and diamonds while the women subsidised this process by taking care of the children, the sick, the elderly and the household.

Ending the exploitation and oppression of domestic workers would be an important and mandatory step in challenging and ending this colonial legacy. A living wage, justice and dignity is what the capitalist ANC government owes domestic workers. It’s payback time now.

Trevor Ngwane is the director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, University of Johannesburg.

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