Domestic worker unions urged to organise migrant workers

SADSAWU says that it is concerned about the fact that domestic workers still fall below the national minimum wage. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

Domestic worker unions and organisations have gathered in Cape Town to talk about improving the working and living conditions of domestic workers around the world.

COSATU’s president, Zingiswa Losi, opened the International Domestic Workers Federation congress being held in Cape Town with a commendation to the domestic workers for organising in a hostile environment. Domestic work is often done by migrant workers and the rightward shift in governments around the world and rise in racist nationalism has made the position of domestic workers more precarious. “The task of organising domestic workers is the hardest in the world as they live in the premises of employment. Most of them are migrant workers and they are even more vulnerable now because of xenophobia that came with the Donald Trump era,” said Losi.

“This congress needs to come up with innovative solutions around the issues of access to health, education and improved working conditions for domestic workers,” said the first woman president of the Congress of South African Trade Union Federation.

According to the federation’s general secretary’s report, just 25 countries have ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 189 which mandates state supported protection to ensure decent work for domestic workers. In addition, 26 countries have passed legal reforms to protect domestic workers’ rights.

The 5-year old federation was established in Montevideo, Uruguay but has grown to a federation of 69 organisations in 55 countries with more than 600,000 members.

Working conditions of domestic workers

According to Shelly Pryce from the Jamaica Household Workers Union one of the issues facing domestic workers in her country are long hours and low salaries. As the president of the union, Pryce said she has worked as a domestic worker for more than 30 years. “The main challenge at the moment are long hours. According to the law of the country, domestic workers are supposed to work not more than 8 hours a day and if they work more then the employer is supposed to pay them for overtime. Most employers do not pay for overtime and this is due to lack of labour inspection by the government,” she said.

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The national minimum wage for domestic workers in Jamaica is J$7,000 per week ( R780). Pryce told the delegates of abuses she suffered at the hands of her employer who would not open the door for her when she returned from night school. “I would knock and knock and they would not open. I will go into a dog pound and sleep there just to be safe for the night. Then the next morning they would open the door and call me to come make breakfast for them,” she said.

According to general secretary of the Homeworkers Trade Union of Nepal, Gyanu Maya Kshatri, Nepal has not ratified convention 189, reflected in the minimum wage of 69 Nepalese Rupee which is about R8.42. According to Kshatri, some employers do not pay the minimum wage but “as a union we always deal with them”. Asia has the highest number of domestic workers in the world. “We deal with issues of migrant workers mostly. They are exploited and are physically abused by the employers,” she said.

Another country that has not ratified convention 189 is Malawi. According to  the organiser for Commercial, Industrial and Allied Workers Union (CIAWU), Anefa Chagunda, some employers pay the domestic workers below the 25,012 Malawian kwacha (R484) per month.

South Africa’s deputy minister of labour, Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa promised the congress that the South African government is going to prioritise the amendment of the Compensation of Injury on Duty Act (COIDA). A court case is pending against the Ministry of Labour regarding a domestic worker who died at her workplace after falling from a stepladder and drowning in a pool.

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The congress is scheduled to continue over the weekend and will end on Monday.


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