Domestic work is one of the largest sources of employment for black women in South Africa; however, domestic workers remain one of the most vulnerable occupational groups.
This according to the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA, a non-profit human rights organization, which said many domestic workers continued to be subjected to exploitative working conditions and disrespectful treatment from their employers.
The institute also said domestic workers had been excluded from key legislation aimed at protecting workers.
On Tuesday, the Constitutional Court heard the matter of Slyvia Mahlangu versus the labor minister.
Mahlangu is the daughter of a domestic worker, Maria Mahlangu, who drowned at her employer’s home in 2012. Mahlangu and the SA Domestic Services and Allied Workers’ Union (Sadsawu) successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act No 130 of 1993 (Coida) in the North Gauteng High Court last year.
According to a researcher at the Seri, Kelebogile Khunou, the application challenged the constitutionality of Coida to the extent that it excluded domestic workers employed in private households from the definition of “employee”, thereby excluding them from benefits afforded to other workers and their dependents.
“This exclusion has meant that, unlike other workers, domestic workers and their dependents have been left with no safety net against loss of income due to workplace injury or death,” she said.
Sadsawu general secretary Myrtle Witbooi said domestic workers had always been undervalued, adding that the union wanted to empower them. However, as a small union, she said, it was hard to reach many domestic workers. “We must understand that most domestic workers come from poor backgrounds, with others coming from as far as outside the country, and because of this they are prone to be exploited by their employers,” she said.
Witbooi said many domestic workers were not aware of their rights or legislation concerning them. “They may be unfairly dismissed, for example, because they arrive late at work because of unreliable transport, or lose a day’s salary, and most of the time they lose these cases because there is no evidence, or the eyewitness favors the employer.”
Witbooi said there was much work to be done for domestic workers to ensure they were compensated for injuries sustained while at work.