Pinky Mashiane is wearing all black. With her lips painted deep red, she looks glamorous but tired. She’s been fasting for three days, a show of solidarity amid the reports of violence against women.
Mashiane, the co-founder of the United Domestic Workers of South Africa (Udwosa), recalls how she came across the story of Maria Mahlangu, who in 2012 drowned in her employer’s swimming pool. Mahlangu’s family received no compensation for her death.
“I was reading an article in Pretoria News about how a domestic worker drowned in a pool in Faerie Glen. There was no name there,” Mashiane says. “I asked the domestic workers in a meeting about the article … I asked: ‘Do you know that domestic worker?’ They said they would find out.”
What followed was a seven-year journey, culminating in a 2019 high court judgment declaring the exclusion of domestic workers from the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act to be unconstitutional.
Domestic workers have been excluded from the Act, which compensates employees, or their survivors, for work-related injuries, illnesses or death, since it was enacted in 1993.
“It is long overdue,” Mashiane says, her soft voice turning sharp.
“Some are crippled; others are dead. And there is no one taking responsibility. The employers don’t compensate the families. They don’t even attend the funeral. They don’t care. I die today, the next day they hire somebody else.”
Mashiane, who was raised by her grandparents in Mpumalanga, was 18 years old when she started working as a domestic worker in 1989. “I am from a family of domestic workers. All my aunts and my mom were domestic workers,” she says. “So my bondage with domestic workers comes a long way.”
Mashiane says when she began working, she — like many other domestic workers at the time — didn’t know her rights. “And it was still the apartheid time, so as domestic workers we didn’t have any voice,” she notes.
“Anything that the employer was giving you as a salary, you would take it. You’d think that just because you worked for a person, this person is owning you: He can give me anything, he can fire me any time, everything is possible. And we allowed it — the exploitation and mistreatment — because we didn’t know anything about our rights.”
Domestic workers are central to South Africa’s economy, but are often taken for granted, Mashiane says.
“They can raise children — they leave their own children and sacrifice their own families — and after that employers will pass them off to their children without even thanking them,” she says.
“They say: ‘You have worked for me for 20 years now go and work for Lucas, my son.’ Then I go to Lucas and he will exploit me. Even though I am the one who worked for you, Lucas. I was taking care of you, Lucas. I am the one who was walking Lucas to school when he started school.”
In 2000, Mashiane joined the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union. As a union member, she learned about the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.
A year later, she discovered the power of knowing her rights when she was walking in Moreleta Park in Tshwane and saw a man strike his gardener.
“Something just said to me: ‘No. I cannot just leave this guy’,” she says.
“I walked straight to the gate. The gate was open. I said: ‘Good afternoon, sir.’ He said: ‘Wat soek jy?’. I said: ‘You better be polite sir, I am working for the labour department and as a labour inspector, I just witnessed you assaulting your employee.’ I didn’t tell him I was lying.”
Mashiane says the man offered her R1 000, which she refused. She told him to give the money to his gardener instead and apologise.
“He was so pink. He didn’t want to do it. I said to him: ‘You better do it sir or I am calling the minister,’ ” Mashiane says, half giggling.
“I am always carrying around papers in my bag and a pen and a cellphone. And I had an old cellphone, which I took out of my bag.”
The man handed the money to his gardener.
Mashiane says she ran into the gardener again some months later. He said his employer — who sometimes hit him so hard that he fell to the ground — hadn’t laid a hand on him since the confrontation.
“That employer, I saw how terrified and afraid he was when he was listening to me. I said: ‘Then I can do this. I can fight for voiceless domestic workers.’ That is where it all started and I never looked back.”
Today, hundreds of domestic workers and allied organisations have come together under the banner of Domestic Workers Rising campaign to demand better pay and equal rights to workers in other sectors.
But Mashiane says it is difficult to organise domestic workers, who each work in individual workplaces. “And others are so afraid of their employers, they don’t dare speak to strangers. They don’t associate with other workers,” she says.
Trade unions are, for the most part, kept afloat financially through membership fees. Without a considerable and stable membership, it is difficult for a trade union to become established enough to wield power.
Udwosa has 300 members nationally, most of whom are from Pretoria. According to Statistics South Africa’s most recent quarterly labour force survey, the country has almost one million domestic workers.
Mashiane says, because of this lack of representation, domestic workers have been sidelined in key decisions taken at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). This includes the R20 an hour national minimum wage, which precludes domestic workers. This minimum wage means domestic workers would earn just R2 500 a month working every weekday, though few work full-time.
“The big three federations [Cosatu, the Federation of Unions of South Africa and the National Council of Trade Unions] — they don’t represent us at Nedlac. They never came to domestic workers. So domestic workers are not treated like other workers,” Mashiane says.
Faced with these challenges, Mashiane has had to be resilient. “I said to myself: ‘If I don’t do it, who will do it?’ Somebody has to do something, even if it is out of nothing,” she says.
In the years it took to get Mahlangu’s case heard in the high court, she was turned away by countless lawyers and organisations.
“It was a long journey. But because I am always positive, even if I see that I am in the tunnel and it is dark everywhere, I see the light,” Mashiane says.