Hope on the domestic slavery horizon

Posted on August 5, 2011


On June 16, South Africa celebrated Youth Day. At the same time, in Geneva, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) announced “a turning point in the history of the world of work”. This turning point, it added, “will change the lives of at least 100 million workers globally”. This statement was largely ignored.

I didn’t register it at the time, let alone the implications of Convention 189 that, for the first time, places domestic labour — the nannies, maids, chars and house helps — on the same footing as other workers in terms of a decent work agenda. This lapse was pointed out to me following my column last week on the poor pay and conditions of the mainly female workforce on farms.

The plight of the poorly paid, the numbers involved and the fact that women form the bulk of the most exploited was underlined. And one veteran trade unionist noted that it was appropriate to raise such matters now, on the eve of national Women’s Day.

She quoted a 1938 comment by the exiled Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky that she felt government would do well to heed: “The position of woman (sic) is the most graphic and telling indicator for evaluating a social regime and state policy.”

Unlike many other countries, South Africa does not have a standard minimum wage, designed to keep workers marginally ahead of poverty. Instead, there are various minimums set for different categories of work and for various geographic areas.

This fairly complicated system probably covers more than 5 million women and men — perhaps 40 per cent — of the national workforce. And union research shows that many workers in the categories covered receive no more than the minimum.

According to studies undertaken in the farm, domestic, forestry and security sectors, a significant number of workers — illegally or by means of legitimate deductions — are paid even less. But there is no accurate assessment of the overall situation.

However, it is clear that millions of workers, with full time jobs, labouring for 45 to 48 hours a week, earn less than R2 000 a month or half the “living wage” assessment made by Cosatu. These figures seem to make a nonsense of the claim last week on national radio that the average “worker pay” in South Africa is R7 200 a month.

When it comes to low pay, I was also remiss last week in giving that dubious distinction to farm workers. In fact, it probably belongs to forestry workers.

Although one of the major forestry companies now provides a free hot meal each day to its workers, the rate of pay in the forestry sector has accurately been described as “appalling”. This year, the minimum hourly rate for a forestry worker increased by just 34 cents to R6.55 for a monthly wage of R1 278.03.

Farm workers — at least in theory — do marginally better financially, but a report from the Paarl branch of the Food and Allied Workers Union this week revealed that even workers paid above the minimum often end up getting less. The branch named a wine farm in that region that pays R350 a week, but deducts R120 a week for electricity.

In such cases, a wage of R1 516 a month is what is registered officially as the pay of these farm workers. However, after legally rendered charges for electricity and rent, the real wage is no more than R845.

Domestic workers, in terms of the minimum wage regulations, are better off, but only if they work in designated urban areas. If they do, the hourly rate for a 45-hour week is R7.72 for a monthly pay packet of R1 506.35, less 10 per cent for rent in the case of “live-in” domestics.

In designated rural areas the legal rate of pay is R6.44 an hour for a monthly pay packet of R1 256.14. A similar distinction is made for domestic workers who labour for fewer than 27 hours a week for an employer. They should be paid R9.12 an hour in urban areas (R1 067.15 monthly) and R7.60 in rural areas (R890.52).

“We want the difference between urban and rural removed. It’s the same work and having to pay the same for everything,” says Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu). Because of the ILO decision on June 16, this may now be on the cards.

Many years in the making, the convention was passed by an overwhelming majority: 396 votes for, 16 against and 63 abstentions. South Africa’s delegates were to the forefront in promoting it.

“So now we want the government to ratify it,” says Witbooi who this week attended parliament’s labour portfolio committee meeting to stress the point. “We just hope it doesn’t take another two or three years [for ratification],” she adds.

Not that Sadsawu members will be holding their collective breath in anticipation of any prompt action or improvement; experience has taught them that even legal provisions are seldom enforced. This applies particularly to the “blitzes” the labour department has promised to conduct to bring errant employers to book.

“The department says they have employed more inspectors and that they will have a blitz on employers in September,” says Witbooi. She only hopes that it will not turn out to be a repetition of a the previous, much publicised, blitz.

“Then it was for just two weeks and only in one suburb,” says Witbooi. The suburb chosen — Constantia in Cape Town — is also not where the union has discovered most abuse takes place. “But things have improved although we have a very, very long way to go,” she says.

This was borne out by veteran trade unionist Leon Levy who recalled the horrendous conditions on the Bethal potato farms that were exposed more than 50 years ago by ANC activist Lilian Ngoyi and radical journalist Ruth First.

Today, with a democratic constitution, a legal framework, unions and modern communications, such horrors can no longer be hidden or condoned.