Domestic workers: overworked, underpaid and unprotected

Armed with brooms and mops, domestic workers took to the streets to demand better wages, recourse to legal protection against unscrupulous employers, proper paid leave and payslips.

Domestic workers wearing colourful coveralls, aprons and head wraps, some carrying mops and brooms, recently gathered at Church Square in Pretoria to highlight their struggles. Founding member of the United Domestic Workers of South Africa (Udwosa), Pinky Mashiane, asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Why are we discriminated against? What is [this] R15 an hour [minimum wage]?” 

17 June 2019: Pinky Mashiane (front, in red) is a founding member of the United Domestic Workers of South Africa.

Speaking to New Frame, one of the workers, Savy Mafindo, 52, from Zimbabwe, who marched from Church Square to the Union Buildings carrying an ironing board, said she wants the government to recognise them as workers and force employers to treat domestic workers with dignity. “Just having a cup of tea for 10, or even less than 10 minutes, you make it cooler, not hot, because you can’t take long drinking that tea. When you are having lunch, you find that your boss will call you again: ‘Come to work.’”

She said workers from other countries are even worse off because they “are so stranded”. “You want something to put on the table, so you will go for that money. But it’s not that you like that money.” Mafindo is not registered for the unemployment insurance fund (UIF) because she feels that insisting that her employer register her would jeopardise her position. 

17 June 2019: Domestic workers want the minimum wage raised from R15 an hour and more humane working conditions in general.

No protection 

Rose Kabani, 60, has been working as a domestic worker for 37 years. She said her employer has stopped paying her UIF. She sang along as the women marched: “Siya sebenza ekitchen kanzima – sisebenzela imali encane. (We are working in the kitchen – we are working for very little money.)”

Kabani supports her entire family because her husband and two children are unemployed. Her daughter wants to train to become a security guard, but Kabani can’t afford to give her money. “I have to buy food,” she said.   

“I am part of the march because I am underpaid,” said Lettie Skhosana, 44. “We are expected to work on holidays and weekends, but we are not paid.” Skhosana has worked as a live-in helper for 19 years. She sees her child only at the end of each month. She said R15 [an hour] is not enough but that “R20 or R30 could be a consideration”.  

17 June 2019: Lettie Skhosana’s sign refers to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s love of expensive buffalo.

Joana Matuibela, 52, disagrees with Skhosana. She wants workers to earn at least R45 an hour. “My child thinks I am choosing my work over him. At times, he thinks I do not care about him. But it’s not like that. I am oppressed at work.” She works on Saturdays and Sundays, and said her employer will neither change her working hours nor increase her salary. Instead, she was told: “Thousands of people are looking for jobs. You can leave my house.”  

Her employer has denied her the right to attend union meetings. “She told me, I must not rush cleaning her house. Because her dogs get frightened. I must work slowly to prevent frightening her dogs.” Skhosana described her working conditions as “emotionally draining”. 

As a single parent and a mother of two, Sonto Mahlangu, 42, doesn’t earn enough. She rents in Mamelodi, and spends R32 on a round trip to work. “What must change is the R15 [minimum wage]. We want to be paid decently. And count us in for medical aid. Don’t just give us Panado when we are sick,” she said.

17 June 2019: A member of the South African Police Service closes a gate at the Union Buildings in Tshwane to prevent the protesting domestic workers from entering the premises.

Khumama Nteke, 53, from Lesotho, is a gardener. He works for five employers during the week but does not receive a payslip from any of them. He is paid only in cash. He told New Frame that whenever he attempts to challenge his employers at the CCMA*, they bribe officials there. “This is painful,” said Nteke. “All my employers have never registered me for UIF – I don’t know why it’s like that.”

Udwosa’s Mashiane said they have welcomed the decision to include domestic workers in the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (Coida), a “long overdue” move. People like Christina Moyo from Alexandra, who was raped and killed while house sitting for her employer, or Johanna Motha, who was bitten by a dog at her workplace and died a day after she was discharged from hospital, must be remembered. Now, domestic workers who have been hurt at work will be compensated and their families will receive compensation in cases of death at work. 

17 June 2019: A domestic worker waits in Church Square for the start of the march.

Update, 4 July 2019 | CCMA response:

* The CCMA condemns Mr Nteke’s allegations as pure fabrication and absurd attack on our reputation. From our records, Mr Nteke does not have a case at the CCMA and he did not come forward to validate his allegation when requested. In addittion, Mr Nteke did not bother to use mechanisms put in place for reporting suspected corrupt conduct on the part of CCMA officials.

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