There are just over one million domestic workers in South Africa, according to Statistics South Africa. The majority of them are women and many face some form of workplace abuse. In 2019, SweepSouth, a digital domestic-worker booking platform, published the results of a limited survey, which found that 16% of the 1 300 respondents faced physical or verbal abuse by someone they worked for.
Earlier this year, a study by the Solidarity Center, an international labour rights organisation, revealed the different forms of injuries sustained by South African domestic workers on the job. A number of the domestic workers who were interviewed for the study said they were frequently abused by their employers. One worker was hospitalised, and eventually died, as a result of work-related stress.
Live-in domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse because they are isolated and totally under their employers’ control. And, when these workers do face abuse, they have little recourse. Laying a criminal charge or suing the employer in court (assuming the worker can find a way of covering the cost) is not compatible with the intimate nature of the domestic employment relationship and, in practice, will mean an end to the relationship. The worker has a legal right to remain in her job. But, in reality, this is unlikely to happen. A claim of unfair dismissal is likely to result in an order of compensation rather than reinstatement. The effect is that the worker cannot defend her rights without losing her job.
The treatment endured by domestic workers is linked to a mixture of racism, sexism and classism inherited from apartheid, according to United Domestic Workers of South Africa president Pinky Mashiane. Domestic workers have historically been excluded from new labour rights won by South African workers during the democratic dispensation. For example they have been excluded from the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, which compensates employees, or their survivors, for work-related injuries, illnesses or death, since it was enacted in 1993.
Mashiana has further pointed out that domestic work is like no other work. They work individually. If they worked in a factory, they could protest; they could strike. But because they are one by one, they can’t drop their work and stand outside the gates of their employers alone. They can’t say: ‘I have been abused, I am going to fight back alone’. it is difficult to organise domestic workers, who each work in individual workplaces. Many are so afraid of their employers, they don’t dare speak to strangers. They don’t associate with other workers.
According to Mashiana, because of this lack of representation, domestic workers have been sidelined in key decisions taken at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). This includes the R20 an hour national minimum wage, which precludes domestic workers. This minimum wage means domestic workers would earn just R2 500 a month working every weekday, though few work full-time.