Domestic workers demand to be treated fairly under law

The courts declared it unconstitutional to exclude domestic workers from being compensated for injuries sustained on duty. But legal protection continues to be difficult to access.

On a sunny winter’s day, a large group of domestic workers from Yeoville, Alexandra, Diepsloot, Berea, Hillbrow and Tembisa gathered at the Yeoville Recreation Centre. The women are members of Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance, an organisation that seeks to change the way domestic workers are treated.   

While most people congregate at church on Sundays, this particular group challenged each other to netball matches as families and friends cheered them on. On the sidelines, judges agonised over whose confectionery tasted best during a baking competition.  

“When you work as a domestic worker, you are not treated like other workers,” said Siyamthanda Dube, 31. “Angazi ukuthi ngingayibeka ukuthi njengani but not njengomuntu ophilayo. (I do not know how I can put it – but you are not treated like a human being).” 

Natasha Moyo, 25, the netball team coach, explains the particularities of invisibility and the daily lack of respect for domestic workers: “The thing that is worse, it’s when you do your work with your heart – and someone comes in and messes it up, and you have to do it again, and they come and mess it up again. It’s like abanye abakholwa ukuba nawe unamafeelings (others fail to understand you have feelings).”  

9 June 2019: Natasha Moyo is the netball team coach.

Central to this ill-treatment is their exclusion from the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (Coida). Since its inception in 1994, Coida has excluded domestic workers and their dependents from claiming from the compensation fund for work-related injuries, illness or death.

New Frame previously reported that there was a glimmer of progress for domestic workers. The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) pressured the former labour department – now named the labour and unemployment department – to amend Coida to include domestic workers after a woman drowned in her employer’s pool while on duty.

Related article:

The declaration by the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria on 23 May 2018 that the exclusion of domestic workers from Coida is unconstitutional cemented this hope. Thulani Nkosi, an attorney from Seri who has been directly involved in the litigation of Coida, confirmed that since the court ruling, domestic workers can now claim for occupational injuries. 

The question of retrospectivity – whether the order should retrospectively apply to when Coida came into force in 1994 – has not been resolved. Nkosi said there is an ongoing legal dispute between themselves and the department on that issue. 

9 June 2019: The players gather from Yeoville, Alexandra, Diepsloot, Berea, Hillbrow and Thembisa.

Assaulted and fired

Until this is resolved, Dube, who was assaulted by her former employer in November 2017, cannot claim from the compensation fund. At the time of the incident, she left work to attend to her critically ill son. On her return from a trip to the pharmacy, Dube was faced with an irate employer. 

When Dube “tried to explain that her child was sick”, her employer, Kobus de Klerk, told her “he did not care … saying, ‘Your child would not have died with just malaria.” Her employers’ children were in the middle of November exams and returned home early from school. For De Klerk, Dube had placed his children in danger. He needed to be at work. 

9 June 2019: Siyamthanda Dube was assaulted by her employer.

“What was I supposed to do as a parent, because my child was critically sick? I know that I am an employee and you give me a salary … But my child is my first priority,” Dube said she told De Klerk. “The first time he pushed me – he said, ‘What are you going to do, you have got nothing but your black ass,’” explained Dube. After several pushes and a blocked punch, De Klerk pushed Dube hard to the floor.

“Before I fell, I could hear his child shouting, ‘Stop it, stop it, you will hurt her. That’s enough.’” recalled Dube. She lost consciousness and feeling in her lower torso and woke up next to her employer’s daughter, who asked if she could call an ambulance. The employer claimed Dube had fallen. “When they tried to hold me, my whole body was severely painful. I had asked them to call the police first, but they said the condition that I was in was too severe. They had to rush me to a hospital.” Dube said the employer evicted her from the house and told her partner she should not return to work.

Sharing her story on Facebook connected Dube with the cofounder of Izwi, Amy Tekié. Izwi helped Dube take her matter both to the CCMA and the Randburg Magistrate’s Court. In both cases, she was successful. De Klerk was convicted for assault and sentenced to six months imprisonment or a fine of R60 000. 

9 June 2019: Many of the domestic workers who join in the Sunday netball games are single parents and sole breadwinners for their families.

Can our work be respected?

“So, if every other worker gets UIF and covered under Coida, but domestic workers don’t [up till recently], what does that say to domestic workers about their role in society and how they are valued?” said Tekié.

According to a report by SweepSouth, a cleaning service, out of the 1 300 participants, 71% of domestic workers are single parents and 79% are the sole breadwinners, while 51% of the surveyed domestic workers said they support up to three children or family members. All the workers who spoke to New Frame at the Yeoville Recreation Centre event were single parents and have people dependent on their wage.

The recently introduced minimum wage of R20 an hour excludes domestic and farm workers, who were given minimums of R15 and R18 respectively. For Florence Sekolane, 46, even if they were included in the R20-an-hour bracket, it would still not be enough. “I would not say I am happy about it. I can say R20 is not a living wage.”

9 June 2019: Domestic workers have been able to claim for occupational injuries under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act since the Tshwane high court declared their exclusion unconstitutional.

Children neglected 

Some of the domestic workers shared how their work creates distance between them and their children. “I only see them once a year,” said Theopora Dube, 46, a mother of two from Zimbabwe. “It’s painful because you lose the relationship as a parent with your kids when you are not closer to them. They think you have abandoned them. So, it’s not easy, but we do not have a choice. I had to make sure they were all right, that they have food … so they know their mother is working and has not abandoned them.”

The childcare part of domestic labour takes a terrible emotional toll on single parents.“I have to be the security and the mother to [my employer’s] child,” said Sekolane. “To make sure that kid has something to eat while I don’t know what is happening with my kid at home. And when you come home – there’s no food in the house and the kids are waiting. You have brought nothing.”

9 June 2019: Theopora Dube is from Zimbabwe and only sees her two children once a year.

Lack of compliance  

The majority of domestic workers don’t have contracts in which working hours are clearly defined and they also don’t receive payslips. For Izwi, compliance and the enforcement of the labour laws in relation to domestic workers has been a big problem. “You can go to the department of labour for wage issues but the cases just get swallowed. Only the CCMA is functioning,” said Tekié.    

These institutional failures means things are unlikely to change soon. For workers like Sekolane, though, just to be “treated like a human being” would be a good start. 

9 June 2019: The group who get together to play netball on Sundays also hold a baking competition on the sidelines of the court.

The department of labour and unemployment did not respond to any of New Frame’s questions.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.