South Africa has been free from the slippages of apartheid since 1994. At least, officially, because the life of blacks in the first industrial power of the African continent is, in general, far from being idyllic. This is the case of domestic workers, who live in misery that inevitably recalls the harsh years of the late racist regime.
Siyamthanda Dube knows something about it. For three years, she, her husband and their two daughters experienced suffering, forced to live in a rudimentary cabin located outside the luxurious home of the couple for whom she worked. The daily life of the young woman (she is thirty) was punctuated by the cooking, cleaning and childcare of the couple based in Johannesburg. But not only that.
The problem is that Siyamthanda was forced to perform her work in conditions of extreme poverty. “We had to put our bed on buckets to be able to slide under the children’s mattresses. The house was in the shade of a tree, full of insects, « said the young woman.
One night my boss was drunk. He entered my room and touched me.
Siyamthanda is unfortunately far from being an isolated case. In South Africa, there are a million working as a housekeeper, housed on the property of their bosses and living in unenviable conditions.
This habit of living with one’s bosses dates back to the time of apartheid, when an exception was made for black servants to stay with their white bosses, in a context where rigid separation of races was a norm on a national scale . Nowadays, black employees, domiciled far from their place of work, are comforted by the problem of the lack of means of transport. This situation forces them to live on the property of their employers, often in working conditions that are difficult to bear.
Amy Tekie runs a housekeeper support network called Izwi and says, « Often employers think they can use their workers as they see fit because they live permanently. »
Layoffs at will
The Izwi network, which helps more than 200 women a year, has identified several cases of ill-treatment of domestic workers, ranging from endless working hours to derisory wages, including weekly leave granted at the whim of the bosses.
Some employers take cynicism a step further, bluntly dismissing domestic workers. « People don’t know you can’t fire a housekeeper like that! » Said Amy Tekie.
Siyamthanda paid the price. In 2017, the young woman was beaten. “(My boss) started shouting, insulting me. Then he pushed me over and knocked over. ”She says. This mishap earned him a hospital stay. His wrong? She arrived late for work. In reality, Siyamthanda had accompanied her daughter that day to the pharmacy, because the little girl was burning with fever.
The sulfurous boss gave Siyamthanda the sum of 200 rand (12 euros) so that she would keep quiet. After she returned from the hospital and hoping to return to work anyway, she was unpleasantly surprised to learn that she was fired.
But things ended pretty well for Siyamthanda. Indeed, a court condemned its ex-employers to pay an almond of 60,000 rand (3,600 euros) for unfair dismissal. _ “I felt like a zombie, but now I’m better.” , She said, relieved.
South Africa is one of the few African countries to have ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on workers’ rights. This is far from ending the ordeal of domestic workers. To better understand this state of affairs, it is necessary, once again, to go back to the time of apartheid, and even beyond. It is simply necessary to refer to the « racial cartography » of South Africa, a country where skin color remains a timeless subject.
Fazlyn Toeffie is 39 years old and comes from the middle class. According to her, she hired a cleaning lady ‘‘ in the rules ’‘. For a long time, Fazlyn was convinced that relations between her family and her Black house staff were “not normal”.
“I grew up in a home (…) where the servants were not respected. They could only eat in their quarters and then came back to do the dishes, ”she says.
Without paper, without work permit, without rights
Many domestic workers (mostly women) come from neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe and Eswatini (formerly Lesotho) in the hope of finding a better life in South Africa. Coming from very poor countries, without a work permit, without paper and finding themselves penniless, they are therefore easy targets on which crooked employers let off steam.
« They’re not the ones who are going to stand up for their rights and say no, » said lawyer Chriscy Blouws. In such a context, employers’ slippages go unpunished for most of them. Among these abuses, rape. Itumeleng (not his real name) is one of many victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by animal libido bosses. The housekeeper paid dearly this year.
“One night, my boss was drunk. He entered my room and touched me. But I can’t say anything, ”she said, too scared by what she had to go through to give the details. And, as if to confirm the thesis of the fragility of foreign domestic workers in South Africa, Itumeleng concludes by: « I am not South African, I do not have a work permit … ».
Many women domestic workers find themselves alone, facing their suffering. “Most do not join a union. They are really very isolated. ”Laments Amy Tekie.
The derisory salary of domestic staff challenged the South African government, which addressed the problem in January of this year, fixing it at a minimum of 1.36 dollars (1.2 euros) per hour. But in the field, things are different, employees have to settle for a dollar. « No reason has been given » to explain this difference, notes lawyer Chriscy Blouws bitterly. Requested by our colleagues from the AFP (Agence France Presse), the South African Ministry of Labor did not respond.
For her part, Amy Tekie still has hope for the recognition of the rights of cleaning women: “We see that things are starting to change very slowly.”
Another step was taken in 2019 by the justice system of South Africa, which recognized domestic workers the right to damages in the event of an industrial accident.