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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 2, No. 21, 15 October 2003

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Domestic Work is not what the Lotto advert suggests

By Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

Earlier in the year, the Department of Labour did very well to actively register hundreds of thousands of domestic workers on the Unemployment Insurance Fund. As this was happening, the newspapers were dominated by yet another bout of whingeing by those who have made it their core business to fight back against the post-apartheid transformation of South Africa.

As if this is not enough of an insult to domestic workers, the National Lottery has flouted on several occasions an advert showing domestic workers, sitting comfortably on a plush suburban lawn supposedly during their lunch hour, dreaming about what they will do when they win the lottery. How unreal!

Hidden behind the whingeing and the propaganda of the National Lottery, is the real experiences and working conditions of domestic workers.

It is because of the real experiences of domestic workers that the SACP has decided to focus it 2003 Red October Campaign to highlight the plight of, and mobilise, the most vulnerable workers, farm and domestic workers. Our aim is primarily to create a general awareness amongst these workers of the rights they have in law; seek to identify and expose some of the employers who violate these rights, as we did in the case of ZZ2 Tomato Company; and contribute towards the organisation of these workers into the trade union movement.

Working conditions of domestic workers

Domestic workers are in isolated, individualised employment relationships, subjected to highly unequal power relations, in the context of a patriarchal society characterised by unpaid labour. Domestic workers, who are overwhelmingly African and women, move between two spheres of the drudgery of domestic work. They perform unpaid labour at home, and move to perform the same work for low wages and mostly under the most isolated and difficult circumstances. They are subject to the worst forms of exploitation, precisely because the work they do is generally part of the unpaid labour of women in a capitalist and patriarchal society, and that they are women. As such they are amongst the workers most in need of strong state intervention which protect their rights and which goes some way towards equalising the power relationship.

The market for domestic labour has always been the very model of a so-called "flexible labour market" – wage rates at the discretion of individual employers, limited worker organisation, great flexibility (both upwards and downwards) in the number of days and hours worked, task flexibility, and no barriers to discretionary firing of workers.

Of the estimated 700 000 domestic workers, 88% are estimated to be African and 96% women. It has been estimated that 35% of African women and 23% of Coloured women are employed as domestic workers. Transformation of this sector is thus directed at the poorest and most oppressed segment of the labour market. Hence our Red October focus on vulnerable workers.

What are the rights of domestic workers in terms of the law?

It is important that more and more domestic workers are made aware of, and empowered to claim their rights in terms of the law. Not only domestic workers must be made aware of these laws: journalists, lawyers, trade unions, advice offices, government officials, and so on need to know what laws are in place to promote the rights of farm workers. The history of our struggle has taught us that information is the most powerful weapon to create consciousness and lay a foundation for organisation. Therefore our Red October Campaign this year is about reaching as many domestic workers as possible, informing them about their rights in law and how they can advance these.

Our government has, since 1994, passed many progressive labour laws to protect and advance the interests of workers. Indeed these were building upon struggles that South Africa’s working class had waged over decades to roll back the regime of cheap labour. However many domestic workers, because of the conditions under which they work, still do not enjoy these rights. The SACP believes that it is not enough to leave the matter of the implementation of these laws to government alone, but mass mobilisation on all fronts is required in order to ensure that these workers do indeed enjoy these rights.

Briefly, the government has passed the following laws and regulations which promote the rights of farm workers:

  • The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA)
  • Sectoral Determination for Domestic Workers

In summary, these provide the following rights:

  • All requirements of the BCEA apply to domestic workers
  • The law sets the working hours for domestic workers
  • Domestic workers have in addition two more days family responsibility leave to take into account the need of many domestic workers to travel far to their homes; and
  • The law sets limits for deductions for accommodation.
  • All domestic workers are entitled to a minimum pay increase per year
  • There are provisions for overtime pay
  • Domestic workers must be registered for the UIF
  • No employer may be exempted from the laws promoting rights of domestic workers

Will the minimum wages lead to job losses?

One of the main arguments mustered against minimum wages is that they are projected to lead to job losses. Whilst taking into account the considerations of the Department of Labour that because of the nature of the domestic work sector setting a high minimum wage could lead to job losses, however, low wages can also lead to a two-tier labour market and effectively reverse the basic floor of worker's rights we have established.

At this stage of the implementation of the sectoral determination, it is difficult to accurately project the likely effects of minimum wages, and it is also difficult to distinguish realistic responses to wages increases from what are effectively employer threats to dismiss workers rather than pay them a decent wage. These threats are part of a broader ideological offensive against labour market transformation.

Given the fact that the employed – including the working poor – are effectively a social security net for the unemployed and for each other, increased wages would certainly reduce overall inequality and redistribute income more equitably.

Middle class white households generally set aside about 2 - 2.5% of their income for domestic labour, while the equivalent figure for the lowest income group across population groups is about 0.24%. The equivalent cost of replacing domestic workers with other services (contract cleaners, childcare, laundries etc.) would be considerably higher, especially for middle and upper income groups.

In addition, specific measures are needed to increase the social wage of workers in general, but the more vulnerable workers in particular. The social wage must include a comprehensive social security system, a National Health Insurance Scheme, free basic education, free basic services and mobilisation of savings for retirement and socio-economic development.

Building of a trade union of domestic workers and general mobilisation

In order for domestic workers to earn a living wage and win fair working conditions they must be mobilised and organised into trade unions. The struggles and advances made by workers in this country has been proportionate to their strength of mobilisation and organisation. Experience has taught us that progressive policy requires mass backing, vigilant mobilisation and education..

The SACP commits itself to pay serious attention to the mobilisation and organisation of domestic workers into trade unions.

Once more we ask, what is the point of progressive labour market policies if workers cannot claim their rights?

Through the Red October Campaign the Communist Party intends to generate a momentum to mobilize domestic workers and to educate them around their rights. We will also pay attention to cases from domestic workers and how these can be dealt with on a sustainable basis. In the long-term, advice offices for domestic workers are part of the creative tools that can be built and used to advance the rights of domestic workers.

Because of some of the difficulties in organising domestic workers, new and innovative ways need to be thought of to take forward and advance the rights of domestic workers. This should include the use of existing and creating new advice centres to assist domestic workers, networks of neighbourhood groups for domestic workers, and use of constituency offices as centres to address the many problems that face domestic workers. These can in themselves address many of the problems, but also contribute towards a momentum for organisation and mobilisation of domestic workers.

Similar to the call we made on the implementation of the sectoral determination on farm workers, the SACP believes that the Department of Labour has to invest substantial resources to ensure the effective enforcement and compliance of the relevant laws. As said already, linked to all this is the need for stronger state commitment to increased delivery of social services (social security grants, education and health services).

Domestic Workers must be politically mobilised

It is interesting that many of the suburban branches of the ANC in the big cities of our country are partly constituted by domestic workers. We firmly believe that the ANC led alliance remains the home of the working class. Over the past five years we improved working conditions and in the face of opposition from the bosses, we have passed the LRA, Basic Conditions of Employment, Employment Equity and Skills Employment Acts. These acts are aimed at protecting the struggles workers waged for many years against the exploitative apartheid labour market which was supported by South African capitalists. For these reasons, the SACP must mobilize domestic workers to vote for the ANC in the 2004 elections and to join the ANC. Political mobilisation of domestic workers also applies to the SACP itself. As our political programme says, the SACP cannot play a vanguard role if, in its character, in its membership and profile, it is not rooted amongst the classes and strata it seeks to represent and influence.

This means that the Party’s profile should, in the first instance, reflect the class we seek to lead. In addition to targeted recruitment in COSATU and its affiliates, we recognise that the working class is much broader than unionised workers. Our political programme directs us to, in the coming years, the SACP needs to target work and recruitment more effectively into all of these strata of the working class, paying particular attention to the super-exploited – including street vendors, spaza shop owners, farm workers, domestic workers and the unemployed.

Postponement of the Founding Meeting of the Dora Tamana Savings and Credit Co-operative (DTSACCO)  

The DTSACCO Founding Meeting has been postponed from 01 November 2003, as announced earlier, to a later date during February 2004 to be determined by the SACP Central Committee. This is in order to allow sufficient time to the DTSACCO Formation Committee to conclude its technical work and for the 6th Plenary Session of the SACP Central Committee, to be held from 14 to 17 November 2003, to receive a progress report and make relevant decisions on the DTSACCO.

Forward to the DTSACCO, the Communist Stokvel!
Forward to a Co-operative Bank!


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