Domestic workers exploited

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cape Town - There are over a million domestic workers in South Africa and many remained "invisible" and abused by employers.

These workers, who were largely African women, suffered sexual and emotional abuse "behind closed doors" and were also subject to human trafficking.

Their economic contribution to the country was not being recognised and their rights not upheld. And for those who are foreign nationals, some employers were withholding their identity documents as a form of control as well as underpaying them.

The plight of domestic workers came under spotlight on Tuesday when various concerned organisations, along with the Department of Labour, made presentations to Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Labour.

Among the organisations were the SA Domestic Services & Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), Cosatu, Black Sash, Ubuntu Development Forum (UDF), University of the Western Cape Social Law Project and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).

The presentations centred on the adoption of the Convention on Domestic Workers by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on June 16.

The committee hailed SA for taking a leading role in campaigning for the ratification of the international convention, which was opposed by countries such as Swaziland and saw the UK abstaining from voting.

The treaty, seen as "historic and binding among member states" who ratified it, sought, among other issues, to protect domestic workers from exploitation and abuse.

It states that these workers "must have the same basic labour rights as those available to other workers," as well as the right to "freedom of association and collective bargaining."

The Labour Department said that the convention would soon be tabled before Cabinet and Parliament for ratification before implementation.

"The mentality in our country when it comes to domestic workers is still that of 'baasskap'. The domestic worker is not supposed to be thinking of rights and decent work; the domestic worker must only think of how grateful she is to have a job and must always please her employer.

"Too often are domestic workers treated badly and sometimes dismissed because their employer is simply having a bad day.

"Domestic workers often live in the back yards of the homes of the employer and are often afraid to join the union as they may lose their jobs as they are a scattered workforce, and it is very hard to organize them," said Sadsawu General Secretary Myrtle Witbooi.

The committee said the department was on the right track in addressing domestic worker issues.

Cosatu welcomed the convention, but insisted that more has to be done to improve the lives of domestic workers. It also called for the banning of labour brokers in the industry.

The UDF complained about human trafficking of domestic workers from the Eastern Cape and the Karoo to Cape Town, where they were being abused.

The various organisations concurred that effective implementation of the convention was critical.

The house agreed on the need for awareness campaigns on the rights of domestic workers.