May 2 2013 at 12:22pm By Karen Chen
Johannesburg – They are the invisible housewives of the nation.
From scrambling eggs to washing dirty underwear, domestic workers are the silent backbone of the South African household.
Nineteen years after the end of apartheid, sexual harassment, mistreatment and abysmal wages and hours are still common, rampant even.
The labour legislation now protecting domestic workers is of the most progressive in the world, but few people know what it stipulates.
Salome Molefe remembers the enamel plates and jam jars she used for cups while working under apartheid. She remembers the coarse sugar reserved for maids and the way it would never truly mix into her coffee.
Molefe has been a domestic worker for more than 30 years. Now she earns a wage and uses a real cup, but she does not feel free.
“Apartheid is alive and kicking in the suburbs,” said Eunice Dhladhla, an organiser for the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union.
The Star——-Sarah Ratshibai (right) cries as she tells her story to South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union organiser Eunice Dhladhla. Ratshibai was dismissed for failing to greet the meter reader. Photo: Dumisani Sibeko
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997 created protections specifically for the domestic work sector, including minimum wages, working hours, maternity leave and unfair dismissal protections. It also laid the foundation for a basic social security net, including unemployment insurance.
The skin colours might have changed a little, but in people’s homes, the facts didn’t match the words, Dhladhla said.
There are about a million domestic workers in South Africa, according to the Department of Labour. In big cities such as Joburg, workers should make a minimum of R8.75 an hour.
With the wages most earned, they could barely afford more than food and clothing, with nothing left to send their children to university, Molefe said.
Though some employers pay school fees and health costs and think of “auntie” as part of the family, in the informal workplace, bargaining is difficult.
Domestic workers fear eviction, and losing their job can mean losing their rural family’s sole income.
A University of Johannesburg study found that many employers did not comply with the law.
The more hours a domestic worker worked, the more dependent they were on their employer. Those who worked more days a week were paid less money and worked more hours than those who worked fewer days, concluded authors Jenni Gobind, Graham du Plessis and Wilfred Ukpere.
In the worst case, a study respondent worked seven days a week for R9 a day.
“They are marginalised, vulnerable – there’s no poster in the living room saying ‘Know your rights’ like there may be near the water fountain of a traditional office,” Gobind said.
Dhladhla said workers didn’t come to the union until after they had been wrongly dismissed or mistreated. Many feel instantly replaceable.
The UJ study showed South African domestic workers earn similar wages to foreigners, with no significant difference, contrary to popular opinion.
Fear of dismissal precludes talking to other workers about unfair treatment, joining the union, visiting family, saying “no’’ to tasks beyond contract, seeking health care.
Fear precludes complaining, so domestic workers swallow their hardships, often not realising that they can ask for better.
“I feel invisible, scared, tired. Mostly tired. But I can never say I’m tired,” Molefe said.
There is always another dusty corner. Days repeat. While many domestic workers are fond of tucking in their madam’s child, they wonder who is tucking in their own kid. It’s not slavery, but sometimes it felt like it, Molefe said.
But policing people’s homes would be troublesome with the constitutional protection of privacy, said Titus Mtsweni, director of employment standards in the Labour Department.
“As a country we can be proud of the social net we have for domestic workers,” he said. “But if there’s an abuse, they have to report it or the government cannot make an intervention, and there’s the challenge.”
Dhladhla said some employers answered their worker’s challenges with “Go complain to your government, to Mandela”, as if the government belonged only to black people.
Domestic worker Thokozile Maisa said black employers could be worse than white people, refusing to pay, yet demanding outrageous hours. “We are supposed to be sisters, brothers, but we are not even people,” Maisa said.
After seven years of living and working at the same household, Sarah Ratshibai packed her bags to return to Limpopo. She was dismissed last Monday for failing to greet the meter reader, and arguing when she was reprimanded.
Her employer locked her out. With no access to the kitchen, Ratshibai went hungry.
A day later, she received a letter under her door with her dismissal and a demand to evict the property. Sitting in the union office, Ratshibai cried.
“What else can I do?” she asked.
A guide to minimum wages and leave:
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997 outlines the terms applied specifically to domestic workers. The act defines a domestic worker as an employee who performs work at the private home of his or her employer and also includes drivers, gardeners and at-home caretakers.
According to the act:
* The minimum wage in large urban areas like Joburg is R10.48 per hour, R285.62 per week or R1 237.60 per month for workers who work less than 27 hours a week.
* Workers who work more than 27 hours in big cities should receive a minimum of R8.95 per hour or R402.96 per week or R1 746 per month.
* Pay should be doubled for work on Sundays or public holidays.
* Employers who provide housing that meets the Department of Labour standards may deduct 10 percent of pay.
* Domestic workers legally cannot work more than 45 hours a week without overtime pay, and not more than nine hours a day in a five-day week or more than eight hours a day should they work more than five days a week.
* Workers should not be asked to work more than three hours overtime a day and should not work more than 15 overtime hours in a week.
* Domestic workers are entitled to 21 consecutive days of annual leave if they work full-time or, if arranged, one day per 17 days of work. Unpaid maternity leave of four months and six weeks of paid sick leave every three years should also apply.