First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 7
Domestic workers

Making domestic work decent work in South Africa

2 July 2021

Convention No. 189 defines domestic work as work performed in or for a household or households, within an employment relationship and on an occupational basis.

While progress has been made in legal coverage of domestic workers, these legal rights have not yet become a reality for most domestic workers across the globe. There remain significant decent work deficits in the areas of working time, wages and social security.

South African domestic worker Florence Sosiba shares her experience representing the rights of domestic workers in her country.


Hello, and welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I’m Belinda Japhet.

I’m joining you from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Our guest today is Florence Sosiba,

president of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU).

We're very honored to have her with us here today

to mark the International Domestic Workers Day

on June 16.

Florence will be giving us some much-needed insight into the amazing work

that SADSAWU is doing in their mission to make domestic work decent work.

SADSAWU was formed in 2000 as a response to the fact that

South African labor laws were not extended to domestic workers.

SADSAWU, therefore, strives towards national and worldwide recognition

of the rights of domestic workers to decent work.

To achieve this, SADSAWU organizes, mobilizes, and educates individuals

employed as domestic workers in South Africa.

They also work with employers and government bodies,

as well as other unions to address the rights of domestic workers.

Domestic workers are a significant part of the global and South African workforce.

Worldwide, there're at least 75.6 million domestic workers over the age of 15,

and most of these are women.

There are likely many more than this, including child labor and domestic work.

The numbers cannot be verified due to the unregulated nature of their work.

The number is increasing greatly especially in developing countries,

with over 9.6 million domestic workers in Africa.

Unfortunately, domestic workers are also amongst

the most vulnerable groups of workers.

Most work in private households with very unclear terms of employment,

compensation, social protection, or health insurance.

Their work parameters are often very unspecified with work tasks

including many activities ranging from cleaning the house, cooking,

washing the dishes, ironing the clothes, taking care of children, elderly,

or sick members of the family,

gardening, guarding the house, picking up the children from school,

driving for the family, and even taking care of household pets.

At present, domestic workers often face low wages, excessively long hours,

and have no guaranteed days off.

They're also at times vulnerable to physical, mental, and sexual abuse,

or restrictions with their personal freedom.

Exploitation of domestic workers can be partly attributed to gaps

in the National Labor and Employment Legislation

and often, reflects discrimination along the lines of gender, race, and cast.

Therefore, ILO's 2011 Domestic Workers Convention 189

aims to address these challenges and bring about decent work for domestic workers.

Also, it's very important that we also mark the work that's SADSAWU is doing,

and how extremely important it is not only for South Africa

but for the global community as well.

Florence, thank you again for joining us and welcome.

Thank you.

You've been working as a domestic worker in South Africa for almost 38 years now.

May I ask you, do you remember the exact moment

when you knew that something was wrong for domestic workers in South Africa

and that you needed to do something about it?

Yes, I start to come Joburg in 1983.

Then I start to work in the domestic workers

because my auntie she's the domestic worker.

Then, I start to work there.

As check it, the time I start to see is something is not right.

Now, my auntie if she's working there, me and my auntie,

all the plate and maybe the plate where you must supposed to eat the food,

our plate is not put all together and our bosses.

Then our plates it stay somewhere like it's the small room.

Then evening, you wash the dishes, but you mustn't put the same sink

where you're washing for our bosses.

Now, I think I’m very, very happy to be domestic workers.

Then I’m very proud to domestic workers.

Then also, I’m very proud to fight to the domestic workers,

and the domestic workers to trust me.

It's not easy.

Then you go to mobilize.

Then you go to speak to them because also the domestic workers

is not work that maybe work all together like the company.

Also, to mobilize is not easy to mobilize them,

but because I have the experience from me,

and then I try, I try in my heart.

Then to try to also the domestic workers they must have their freedom.

Then they must have their right also because all domestic workers,

they have their rights.

They got the right like the other workers now.

You've been quoted as saying the following in another interview.

You were talking about being a domestic worker in South Africa.

I think you were also speaking about being a domestic worker in Africa as well.

I quote you.

You were saying, "Working in private households

means that there is no one to ensure that labor laws are being complied with."

This is often something that lawyers and the rest of us really don't acknowledge.

We don't really realize how difficult it is working

in such an isolated environment.

Your statement really shows how psychologically isolated

and unsupported domestic workers feel in their work environments.

How have the SADSAWU meetings and union meetings and mobilizations

that you’ve been doing,

how have they helped domestic workers in South Africa

deal with this isolation?

SADSAWU we help a lot domestic workers because

we know us we're fighting for the domestic workers.

SADSAWU, you go out.

You have the pamphlets.

You can go to the media.

You go to the park, even the taxi rank.

Maybe I’m in the taxi, even for the street, even for the park,

even for the church, you go there and then to mobilize for the domestic workers.

Where you find the domestic workers?

You find the domestic workers in the church.

You find the domestic workers in the taxi rank.

You find the domestic workers everywhere where you go.

SADSAWU to mobilize also the media, they help us a lot

to mobilize for the domestic workers.

Also, SADSAWU, we have the pamphlets.

Then you take that pamphlets.

Then you go to give the domestic workers everyone where you go.

Then these people if you have the pamphlets

and then you read SADSAWU and the address.

Then everything they write for the SADSAWU.

Then even come for the office and then direct office.

Also the office of the SADSAWU we have the office.

It's not like, "Maybe it's the fly by [?]" At SADSAWU have their own office.

Then also, every Saturday you open.

All domestic workers, you go to the office.

Then you start to educate

their own right for the domestic workers.

Then the domestic workers start to learn our right.

Then that's how I help the domestic workers.

In terms of getting other domestic workers to join the union,

what challenges have you faced?

If I were a domestic worker and somebody like you came to me telling me that

I need to fight for my rights,

I might be afraid that I will lose my job if I join,

or I'll be afraid that my employer wouldn't be happy about

the fact that I’m joining a union.

Have you found this to be a challenge?

Yes. That one is the big challenge,

but us we try to speak to him.

That's why he start to mobilize in the park.

Then he tells him, "No if you join, your boss, you don't have the right to

know will you join for the union."

It's not easy because a lot of people will be,

"Really, really, we don't want to join."

If you lose the job, you know where the union is.

That's why we tried to go out and then to speak to them, to educate them,

and then to explain them, but it's not easy.

I can see now why SADSAWU as an organization would need someone

to be very vocal as their president.

Can you tell us how you ended up being the organization's president

and what your duties are.

My duty I’m the president in the nationally.

In the provincially I’m the chairperson.

My role in the nationally,

I must organize.

Then also, I must make unit.

Then I must make sure all the province,

the whole union is functioning.

Then I must work altogether under all the province.

Then I must chair. It's a lot of role that I play.

Then I work hand to hand and the general secretary.

Then also, me, I’m the president but I’m go out.

I’m go to recruit.

I’m not stay in the office because I’m the domestic workers full-time.

The weekend or during the week after work,

then I’ll go to recruit the domestic workers.

I’ll go to speak to the domestic workers.

I go to tell the domestic workers they must go to join SADSAWU.

I work very hard. I work very hard.

You can't see even maybe I’m the president or I’m the chairperson.

I’m go out like the other members.

In terms of some of the things you've actually made happen,

SADSAWU has had a very big win recently.

There's a short open letter on your website from the general secretary

who you mentioned.

It reads, "Nearly two years have gone by, after so many letters,

emails, protests, and marches, our government has approved

the ratification of Convention 189.

We are now truly workers, like other workers.

Our work is decent work.

Viva to our international network, and all that supported us."

It was a great win.

Yes, it's long time.

Then you fighting for the right for the domestic workers, for the COIDA.

Now you fighting but now you win the COIDA in the South Africa.

What Florence is talking about in terms COIDA, is that prior to this,

South Africa's domestic workers were not covered

under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, COIDA.

Which means if you suffer an injury or death while at work as a domestic worker,

neither you or your family will be compensated.

Domestic workers need to be included under such an act

as injuries while at work are sadly very common.

The recent death of domestic worker in South Africa called Maria Mahlangu,

who drowned in her employer's swimming pool,

her family wasn't compensated for her death.

This really shows that domestic workers really need to be covered

under this act.

Death for Maria Mahlangu is change the domestic workers a lot

because the time if is not Maria Mahlangu and then he's dead.

Then to start to fighting to know this is enough.

The domestic workers, I don't know how many us if we march after Maria or

before Maria, there a lot of people dying from the work.

Maria Mahlangu is change a lot for the freedom for the domestic workers

in the South Africa.

He's dead, and then you march.

Then is that of fighting for the government.

Is that out of pushing the government, and then now till he listen to us.

That song, this song from the 1994.

Then you fighting for the COIDA.

It's a lot of domestic workers some already die,

already passed away a long time.

You don't even know because that people who passed away,

no case to open.

I don't know how many.

Now Maria Mahlangu and then she change

a lot of domestic workers right.

In terms of the way things are going in South Africa at the moment,

how has COVID-19 impacted the livelihoods of domestic workers

and also the functioning of SADSAWU?

A lot of domestic workers they lose their job.

The domestic workers their time start

last year in the COVID-19.

A lot of people is locked inside in the domestic workers.

Then now they start to abuse.

A lot of things is happening because if you say, "Go out."

Then you say, "You the domestic workers, you go to bring the COVID."

A lot of people is chased away.

The people will lose their job.

Then some people say, "Go home."

Then you go home and then after that, you're not coming back.

Then you lose the job from like that. Then I don't know.

This COVID-19, it affect us a lot.

A lot of people who are working there two days.

Some people don't even working.

Then you don't have the food.

You don't have the money for the domestic workers.

Even that 350, the domestic workers they don't have it.

It affects us a lot.

One final question.

What advice would you give to the domestic workers unions around Africa

and the rest of the world in their fight for

the rights of domestic workers at work?

As you give the domestic workers, he must be power.

Then you mustn't feel shame.

You must be strong.

Then all domestic workers, you must be united.

Then you must be one umbrella because that domestic worker you fight.

You fight for the one umbrella for the right,

for the domestic workers all the world.

If you work altogether, and then for the one umbrella, you can win.

Even the other country can win for the right for the domestic workers.

I know it's too hard, the other country or whatever; it is still far away going.

If you work all together, and then you fight,

one, the right for the domestic workers, you got to win this war.

I think that's great advice.

Thank you so much, Ms. Florence.

It's been great chatting to you.

All the best with yours and SADSAWU's future activities.

Okay, thank you. Thanks very much.

Thank you so much.

That's all for this edition of the ILO Future Work podcast.

Thank you for listening and goodbye.

Making decent work a reality for domestic workers