« 100 Years – 100 Lives » | SOUTH AFRICA - “The Domestic Workers Convention can become a powerful tool for justice”

A union leader from South Africa explains how the ILO Domestic Workers Convention made a difference in the struggle to improve working conditions for this particularly vulnerable group.

Feature | South Africa | 03 September 2019
GENEVA – “My story begins in a small room in the backyard of an employer’s house in South Africa, where I worked for nearly 12 years. I was separated from my child when she was one month old – because a domestic worker cannot have her children or her husband with her,” says Myrtle Witbooi.

Witbooi reflects on her life back then: “We worked seven days a week and simply remained in that little room in the back of the house. We were slaves in our country and had no voice. We received little or no pay.”

Nearly 50 years later, the former domestic worker is now General-Secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) and President of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).

It is thanks to the organizing efforts by the IDWF, and their affiliates, as well as other organizations of domestic workers around the world that their struggle has been placed in the spotlight.

According to the ILO, there are around 67 million domestic workers worldwide, mostly women. Without clear terms of reference, unregulated payment scales and unregistered status, domestic workers are among the most vulnerable groups of workers in the world.

Witbooi‘s life changed one day when she decided to speak up: “In one minute my life was changed when I dared to ask why are we different? Why do we have to suffer like this?”

A local journalist helped Witbooi organize meetings with other domestic workers. “I started on this around 1965. And I still remain committed to this struggle,” she adds.

“It was not easy. They tried to silence me but today we are free.”

A historic convention

Things have indeed come a long way for Witbooi and domestic workers around the world.

In June 2011, the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (No.189) became the first international labour standard to guarantee domestic workers the same basic rights as those available to other workers. These include limits on hours of work, weekly days off, minimum wage, payment of overtime, social security, and clear terms and conditions of employment.

Since the adoption of Convention 189 and its accompanying Recommendation, the list of countries ratifying has grown to 28 in May 2019. It includes South Africa. The ILO has also observed changes in law and policy to improve the rights of domestic workers in many countries and this movement appears to be growing.

Indeed, decent work for domestic workers begins at home, with individual employers and workers knowing and respecting each other’s rights and responsibilities.

Employers have also shown their readiness to engage in dialogue with a number of policy actors to improve the working and living conditions of domestic workers. At the country level, there are already examples of national employers’ organizations that have started to do so.

The ILO has been collaborating with both workers’ and employers’ organizations to develop their capacities to respond to the needs of domestic workers.

“The ILO has a big role to play, to reach out to countries that still exploit this sector and to help strengthen the federation when it comes to educating workers, so that C189 can become a powerful tool for justice,” says Witbooi.

“Our task has just begun,” she concludes.

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