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Domestic workers face a lonely battle against abuse

Martha Lesu says the stress she endured at work was unbearable. After working for the same employer for five years, the domestic worker says her relationship with her boss’s daughter became strained. 

“I was working with stress. But there is nothing you can do. Because if you are a breadwinner, you just say to yourself: ‘Maybe things will get better’.”

Things did not get better. Lesu says one morning earlier this year her boss’s daughter — during a confrontation over food — poured a two-litre bottle of Coke over her before attacking her with a glass cake stand. The 53-year-old was left with a bloody gash under her eye. Pieces of glass were stuck in the wound.

“When I saw I was bleeding, I turned to her mother and said: ‘Did you see what your child did to me?’ She said: ‘It was a mistake’ … The daughter was always swearing at me. She would say: ‘I want the dog to bite you until you die. I told you that you must go. We don’t want you. All you want is money’.”

Lesu’s experience is not unique. Last month the brutal beating of 65-year-old Khabonina Mkhonza made headlines. The domestic worker was allegedly attacked by her employer’s son, Christiaan Henrico Muller, after 20 years of working for the family. Muller was charged with assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm and granted R500 bail.

After Muller’s court appearance, worker organisers said what happened to Mkhonza is an example of the reality domestic workers face in South Africa. Many of them have to deal with this abuse alone.

Lesu says she hasn’t been able to sleep properly since her own alleged beating. “I can’t do anything. I am always thinking. It is painful and I just think: Why? I was afraid to fight, because I knew what would happen if I went to the police,” she says.

“Because she told me: ‘You can go to the police. But they are not going to do anything, because you are nothing. They are not going to help you.’ She placed a big knife on the table and said: ‘Why don’t you call your police and tell them? Because they are not going to do anything.’”

Lesu says she opened a case but hasn’t been contacted by the police since May. She says she even took her case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration

But Lesu says she was rushed into settling for R8 000. “I was heartbroken. My heart was bleeding that day. Because, when I go this side, they fail me. When I go that side, they fail me.”

Last weekend, Lesu joined a picket by domestic workers in Springs in protest of workplace violence. Lesu said the picket helped her to feel less alone. 

“I didn’t know so many domestics face this. But when they spoke there, I heard that they are tired.”

There are just over one million domestic workers in South Africa, according to Statistics South Africa. The majority of them are women and many face some form of workplace abuse. In 2019, SweepSouth, a digital domestic-worker booking platform, published the results of a limited survey, which found that 16% of the 1 300 respondents faced physical or verbal abuse by someone they worked for. 

Earlier this year, a study by the Solidarity Center, an international labour rights organisation, revealed the different forms of injuries sustained by South African domestic workers on the job. A number of the domestic workers who were interviewed for the study said they were frequently abused by their employers. One worker was hospitalised, and eventually died, as a result of work-related stress.

According to a 2014 study by the global network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organising (Wiego), live-in domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse because they are isolated and totally under their employers’ control.

And, when these workers do face abuse, they have little recourse. “Laying a criminal charge or suing the employer in court (assuming the worker can find a way of covering the cost) is not compatible with the intimate nature of the domestic employment relationship and, in practice, will mean an end to the relationship,” the Wiego study reads. 

“The law does not require this, and the worker has a legal right to remain in her job. But, in reality, this is unlikely to happen. A claim of unfair dismissal is likely to result in an order of compensation rather than reinstatement. The effect is that the worker cannot defend her rights without losing her job.”

Florence Sosiba, president of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, said: “Domestic work is not safe. There is a lot of abuse. There is a lot of violence … As domestic workers, we stay alone. We work alone. If I was abused, it could happen left and right — my neighbour wouldn’t even know.”

United Domestic Workers of South Africa president Pinky Mashiane says she used to keep a notebook filled with complaints by domestic workers of alleged abuse by their employers. “Though not all of them will report it, it happens,” Mashiane said. 

“They are experiencing violence. But most of the time, they are afraid to speak because they don’t want to lose their jobs. Some are single parents and breadwinners, so they try to protect their work.”

The treatment endured by domestic workers is linked to a mixture of racism, sexism and classism inherited from apartheid, Mashiane said. Domestic workers have historically been excluded from new labour rights won by South African workers during the democratic dispensation.

“Domestic work is like no other work. They work individually. If they worked in a factory, they could protest; they could strike,” Mashiane added.

“But because they are one by one, they can’t drop their work and stand outside the gates of their employers alone. They can’t say: ‘I have been abused, I am going to fight back alone’.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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