Hope for domestic workers

Maria Mahlangu had been a domestic worker for two decades when she drowned in her employer’s pool. She was employed by the De Clercq family for 22 years. But when she died, they offered her daughter, Bongi Mahlangu, R5 000 as compensation.

Her mother’s death was the catalyst for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) to represent Mahlangu at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.

After the funeral, Mahlangu and her aunt approached the department of labour to enquire about claiming compensation. They were told they could not be compensated as Maria Mahlangu’s dependants because domestic workers were excluded from the benefits of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act No. 130 of 1993 (Coida).

With help from the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu), Mahlangu approached public interest law firm Wits Law Clinic and later Seri to challenge the constitutionality of domestic workers being excluded from Coida.

The matter was postponed indefinitely, but it was during this postponement, late last year, that the department published an amendment bill to Coida for public comment.

If the amendments are adopted into law, for the first time in history domestic workers will be eligible to claim from the compensation fund if they are injured, contract a disease or die at their place of work.

This change of heart by the department, a respondent in the case, rendered it moot. Seri said the case is now on hold because of the amendment.

What is Coida?

For years, Coida has been the only piece of legislation that excludes domestic workers from the definition of the term “employee”. The Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act consider domestic workers as employees.

Coida is a social insurance structure that requires employers by law to register employees with the compensation commissioner and make contributions towards the central fund.

In an event that an employee gets injured or contracts an occupational disease, they can claim from the compensation fund. In terms of Coida, if an employer fails to comply they can be held criminally liable.

Coida is based on “no fault compensation”, meaning employees can claim whether they are at fault or not.

For years, domestic workers have been expressly excluded from claiming from the compensation fund for work-related injuries, illness or death.

Not ‘real work’

Florence Sekolane, 46, a domestic worker of almost 18 years and member of Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance, told New Frame that domestic workers rely on the sympathy of employers if they get sick or injured at work.

The United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO) quoted Isabel Ortiz, the director of the ILO’s social protection department, as saying that 80% of domestic workers are women and that “most of their work is undervalued and unprotected, when domestic workers become old or injured, they are fired, without a pension or adequate income support.”

South Africa is often described as the most unequal society in the world and has the highest number of domestic workers in the southern tip of Africa. The ILO says there are almost 1.1-million domestic workers and the majority are women.

“Domestic workers go through a lot of stuff. You work more hours, but you get paid less. As domestic workers we are not respected, because we are those people who are undervalued … They don’t see the importance of you in life,” said Sekolane.

Seri researcher Kelebogile Khunou echoed Sekolane’s sentiments, saying that most people think domestic work is not real work and that they are doing domestic workers a favour. As a result, it’s difficult for domestic workers to challenge their employers, with class, gender, race and at times nationality often adding to the difficulty.

Sadsawu views Coida’s exclusion of domestic workers as irrational and unconstitutional because it limits domestic workers to civil claims against an employer.

Slow change

Some, like Khunou, say the implementation of the amendments will be slow and further prejudice domestic workers. The department’s lack of enforcement and employers’ lack of compliance in paying Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) contributions on behalf of their domestic workers erodes confidence that Coida will benefit domestic workers.

Khunou raised the question that, because “the place of work for domestic workers is someone else’s private home, is an employer required to allow a labour inspector to enter their home [to check working conditions and compliance]?”

She welcomed the inclusion of domestic workers within the definition of employees, but asked “how can it take so many years” to change the law. Khunou also questioned “what happens to the domestic workers who have lost their lives and have gotten injured and lost their livelihoods in the past, because it does not seem Coida amendments will apply retrospectively”. — NewFrame

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Musawenkosi Cabe
Musawenkosi Cabe
Originally from Pietermaritzburg, Musawenkosi Cabe’s areas of interest include bottom-up social mobilisation, social movements and unions, as well as football, social justice, spatial justice and constitutionalism.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Pandemic hobbles learners’ futures

South African schools have yet to open for the 2021 academic year and experts are sounding the alarm over lost learning time, especially in the crucial grades one and 12

Q&A Sessions: George Euvrard, the brains behind our cryptic crossword

George Euvrard spoke to Athandiwe Saba about his passion for education, clues on how to solve his crosswords and the importance of celebrating South Africa.

More top stories

Inside George Mukhari hospital’s second wave

The Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism and James Oatway visited George Mukhari academic hospital to document the second-wave realities experienced by doctors and nurses

Power shift at Luthuli House

Ace Magashule’s move to distance himself from Carl Niehaus signals a rebalancing of influence and authority at the top of the ANC

Trump slinks off world stage, leaving others to put out...

What his supporters and assorted right-wingers will do now in a climate that is less friendly to them is anyone’s guess

The US once again has something  Africa wants: competent leaders

Africa must use its best minds to negotiate a mutually beneficial economic relationship

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…