Dozens of leaders of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) gathered recently in Cape Town in a first-ever national conference to plan organizing and advocacy goals.

“Our vision remains to help domestic workers demand their rights,” said SADSAWU General Secretary Myrtle Witbooi. “But we have to restructure, regrow and build a new layer of leadership.” The Solidarity Center facilitated the meeting, and staff held workshops covering organizing strategies and outreach techniques.

Many South African domestic workers have had union representation since the early 1980s. In fact, domestic workers are credited with being among the first groups of workers that originally founded the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the country’s largest labor federation.

But even as SADSAWU has advocated on behalf of South Africa’s domestic workers, it has struggled to organize new members and represent members on a nationwide scale. In recent years, the union’s registration with the South African government has lapsed and COSATU disaffiliated it. These hardships represent the difficulties of maintaining a union structure for low-paid, marginalized workers who labor in individual work environments.

COSATU’s Gender Committee and the Solidarity Center have pledged to work with SADSAWU on a reorganization plan. SADSAWU’s goal is create a sustainable structure and be recognized by the South African government and reaffiliated with COSATU. As a first step, the November national meeting enabled participants to develop a new draft constitution and an interim plan for union operations leading to a full congress in November 2013. As part of the interim plan, SADSAWU is developing improved leadership structures and a communications plan and has set 2013 membership organizing targets for provincial affiliates.

SADSAWU’s reorganization comes at a critical time in South Africa. Strikes in mining and agriculture have sparked a dialogue within the country about the economic livelihoods of South African workers in traditionally low-paid jobs.  While South African law contains many protections for domestic workers, SADSAWU is pushing for higher wages as well as for laws that would include them in a state-run pension fund and the nation’s worker compensation system.

The union also is urging the South African government to ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Although South Africa already has some of the best legal protections for domestic workers on paper, ratification would create a stronger basis for SADSAWU and COSATU to press for improved enforcement of those laws. Further, Witbooi believes that South Africa’s ratification would be seen as a clear sign of leadership on domestic worker rights among countries in the global South, especially in Africa.

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the News from The Solidarity Center