Myrtle Witbooi: A Clear Vision of Justice for Domestic Workers
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The global labor movement lost a bright light and a pioneering leader on January 16 when Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), and president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), passed away after a long and valiant battle with cancer.
Myrtle began her career in the 1960s as a domestic worker in apartheid South Africa. A newspaper article about domestic workers moved her to write a letter to the editor. Myrtle was just 18 when, with the help of a local journalist, she convened the first meeting of domestic workers in Cape Town in 1965.
“As I entered, I saw about 350 workers all looking at me, and I said to myself, ‘Oh Lord, what now?’” Myrtle recalled in an interview.
“And I went up to the stage and I said, ‘Good evening. I am a domestic worker, just like you. I think we need to do something for ourselves because nobody is going to do anything for us.’ And they all started clapping and said, ‘You are going to lead us.’”
It was the beginning of a lifelong fight to secure rights and protections for domestic workers.
At that time, domestic workers in South Africa were not allowed to move freely and needed identification to enter the White neighborhoods where they worked.
“We needed an ID to identify that we were allowed to come to the White area to work. But we could go to church,” Myrtle said. The workers formed a committee in 1979 because they could not form a union. Their church meetings served as cover for committee meetings, even after the government banned all labor organizations in 1986 for fear they were ANC-affiliated.
As general secretary of SADSAWU, Myrtle fought for a national minimum wage increase and compensation for domestic workers injured on the job. In 2011, she helped lead an international coalition of domestic workers to secure passage of the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C 189), which ensured domestic workers the same basic rights as other workers. The convention marked the unprecedented involvement of informal women workers in setting ILO standards.
Myrtle became the first chair of the International Domestic Workers’ Network—and when the network formalized as a federation, Myrtle was elected the first president of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation, the only global union founded and led by women of color.
Myrtle was often recognized for her work on behalf of domestic workers. In 2013, she accepted the AFL-CIO’s George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, which recognizes international leaders and organizations who have overcome significant hurdles in the fight for human rights. In 2015, she was awarded the Fairness Award, which honors outstanding leaders dedicated to bringing economic justice, fairness and equality to poor and marginalized communities.
Myrtle was serving her second term as IDWF president when she passed. Under her leadership, the federation expanded to 87 affiliates in 67 countries, representing 670,000 domestic workers. Their “nothing about us without us” motto that achieved ILO Convention 189 served as the clear model for the fight to eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work, resulting in the passage of ILO Convention 190 in 2019—an effort led by affected workers, largely women workers and informal workers.
Upon news of her passing, tributes came in from domestic workers around the world, sharing stories of how Myrtle inspired courage among workers who have been made invisible by employers and governments to raise their voices and stand firm together in their demands for dignity and respect.
“Myrtle was bold, had a clear moral vision and was relentless in building up alliances to see a vision of equal rights for domestic workers to fruition. Myrtle’s legacy of courage, justice and sisterhood will live on for generations,” said Alexis De Simone, global lead for domestic worker rights at the Solidarity Center.
The trafficking of agriculture workers, including children, is widespread globally, and “practices of exceptionalism” limit workers’ rights to freedom of association, organizing and collective bargaining, according to a new report on trafficking in persons in agriculture from United Nations Special Rapporteur Siobhán Mullally.
“Characterized by high levels of informality, lack of oversight and protection, trafficking in persons remains a serious concern within the agricultural sector, affecting both adults and children,” she writes.
The report notes that while the COVID-19 pandemic saw agricultural workers designated as “essential,” worker protections did not follow. Indeed, temporary, seasonal and migrant workers are provided limited legal coverage, and restrictive migration policies persist despite the demand for agricultural workers.
The Special Rapporteur also highlighted that recruitment practices for the sector–particularly of seasonal, temporary and migrant workers–increase risks of trafficking for forced labor. Recruitment processes and substantial recruitment and other fees often lead to debt bondage.
Meanwhile, “intensive agriculture and agribusinesses contribute negatively to climate change, reflecting the wider nexus between trafficking in persons, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis,” she writes.
The protection of all workers and their families “is essential to prevent trafficking,” she says, urging governments to, among other urgent actions: “Strengthen the capacity of trade unions, civil society organizations and human rights defenders to support agricultural workers, including through effective protection of rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and to collective organizing and collective bargaining, without discrimination.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report was bolstered by a submission from the Solidarity Center related to the conditions for migrant workers in Jordan’s agriculture sector. The submission noted:
Migrant workers work very long hours in hazardous conditions that lack occupational, safety and health (OSH) standards, medical care and overtime compensation. Forced overtime is an indicator of forced labor under ILO standards. The agricultural sector in general is an informal economy sector, and the work is usually temporary or seasonal. Agricultural areas are isolated and far from service centers; therefore, agricultural workers who suffer from labor and human rights violations do not have access to justice. Forced labor and wage theft are common violations, although usually not reported because of limited access to justice, absence of labor inspection and fears of retaliation and other threats workers face, especially undocumented or irregular workers. Because these workers were not recognized as workers under Jordanian labor law until May 2021, they lacked access to labor courts and were forced to file complaints through civil courts, which do not exempt court fees, making this an inaccessible complaint process for agricultural workers.
The kafala system requires migrant workers to be fully reliant on their employers for legal status. In the case that an employer does not renew a work permit, the worker is punished with deportation and a ban from returning to Jordan for three years. Workers are often deported without receiving their owed wages and other compensation–a form of wage theft, which is also an ILO indicator of forced labor. In cases where agricultural workers leave a workplace to escape harassment, rights violations and forced labor without reporting such violations, they are subject to an overstay fine, which is 1.5 Jordanian dinars per day (approximately $2) and they are subject to detention and false or retaliatory theft accusations by their employers, essentially becoming undocumented workers. Migrant workers rarely if ever report violations, fearing employer harassment or retaliation. Undocumented workers are victims of exploitation by brokers and fixers who charge excessive fees for work permits. A Syrian woman worker said, “Syrian agricultural workers’ wages are the lowest not because they accept to work for low wages but because the shaweesh (the middleman) takes a percentage of their wages.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report cited these examples and supported the Solidarity Center’s conclusion in its submission: “Trade unions are important to combat forced labor and other forms of labor trafficking and exploitation, and to raise workers’ awareness about their rights and the available services and access to justice channels.
“The explicit exclusion of both migrant workers and workers in the agricultural sector is a violation of these workers’ fundamental right to freedom of association under the Constitution of Jordan and international human and labor rights as enshrined in the ICCPR, ICESCR and ILO Conventions 87 and 98. The right to freedom of association is fundamental in a workers’ ability to advocate for her/his own rights, protect themselves from forced labor, and ensure protections from GBVH, and other occupational hazards.”
Demanding the ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers, leaders and members of the National Domestic Women Workers Union (NDWWU) on June 16, 2022, rallied in front of the National Press Club in Bangladesh to mark International Domestic Workers Day.
They also demanded the ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on violence and harassment in the world of work (ILO C190). A Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS) report says 12 domestic workers were raped in 2020.
Although Bangladesh presided over the 100th session of the International Labor Conference and voted for ILO C189, the country’s domestic workers still are not protected by the global treaty because the government has yet to ratify it.
When Sitara Begum, 60, approached law enforcement after being harassed at her job as a domestic worker they did not assist her, and she was forced to flee from her employer. “In 22 years of working as a house help, I had to endure many such incidents. When does our agony stop?” she asks.
Domestic worker Rehana Akter Mita, 37, her family’s only breadwinner, earns $96.59 per month, which does not cover living expenses. Mita often takes loans from relatives to support her son’s education and husband’s medical costs.
The 2006 Bangladesh Labor Act does not recognize domestic worker rights. Domestic workers and their unions are urging the government to ratify ILO C189, a global treaty ensuring domestic workers their rights on the job.
Photos: Solidarity Center/Amir Hasan Shahriar
“The dignity of people’s very being is at stake,” said IZWI Domestic Worker Alliance’s founder and lead researcher Amy Tekie in opening remarks at a recent webinar focused on a new qualitative survey of human rights violations against live-in domestic workers in South Africa.
“The Persistence of Private Power: Sacrificing Rights for Wages“—co-published by Johannesburg-based IZWI Domestic Workers Alliance and the Solidarity Center—surveys the constitutional and human rights of live-in domestic workers in South Africa. It describes how domestic workers’ rights to privacy, freedom of movement and children’s right to parental care are frequently sacrificed for wages in a sector underpinned by racism, sexism and classism. Resulting exploitation—largely invisible because of the private spaces in which it occurs—continues regardless of constitutional protections and industry-specific labor regulations.
“We are not allowed to be seen around,” said the survey’s lead field interviewer, Theresa Nyoni, of a sectional title housing complex in which she was formerly employed as a domestic worker.
Nyoni described almost universally denied opportunities for live-in domestic workers in sectional title housing to enjoy open spaces on, or near, the employers’ property and lack of freedom to move around or receive visitors in their own quarters—even during off hours. And, for most live-in domestic workers, she noted invasive employer surveillance and almost total lack of privacy.
“We are sleeping with kids and not allowed to lock the door; parents barge into the room and even the bathroom,” she said.
Employers isolate domestic workers by routinely denying them visits from friends, spouses and children, and some domestic workers say they are not allowed to leave their employer’s home for any reason. Nyoni described her former employer’s refusal to allow her to leave the work premises, on her own time, to purchase and arrange for transportation of bulk food items to her own children during the pandemic.
“When I held a plate of food to eat, I was thinking: Did my children get food today?”
Survey interviewees outlined living conditions that Tekie described as “almost kidnapping [in its] constant and complete employer surveillance and control.” Besides being isolated from loved ones, many live-in domestic workers said they were denied employer permission to keep their infants with them, receive packages or use their employer’s kitchen to preserve and prepare their own food, and those employed in sectional title housing complexes reported repeated employer and security guard searches. Some live-in domestic workers said they have chosen abortions for fear of losing their jobs.
IZWI interviewed 115 mostly migrant live-in domestic workers for the survey, most of whom were working in or near Johannesburg—where working conditions are anecdotally better than those than in rural areas, said Tekie. Approximately half of South Africa’s more than 800,00 domestic workers live in by IZWI’s estimate, although definitive data does not yet exist, she said.
McGill University Faculty of Law Professor of Transnational Labor and Development Adelle Blackett underscored the significance of the report being centered on the lived experience of domestic workers and the persistence of private power in their lives, even post-Apartheid.
Describing the report as “chilling,” Blackett defined the status quo for South Africa’s domestic workers as, “historicized, racialized, intersectionalized enslavement to domestic servitude.”The survey illustrates that translating South Africa’s laudable rights into reality for domestic workers is a tremendous challenge, said former South African Labor Court judge and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and panelist Urmilla Bhoola.
“When domestic workers live in, they forfeit their rights,” she said. And so, civil society legal activism is essential, including that spearheaded by trade unions, she added.
Report recommendations include extension to domestic workers of many of the rights contained in South Africa’s farmworker Extension of Tenure Security Act (ESTA) but absent from Sectoral Determination 7 governing domestic work. ESTA guarantees to farmworkers residing on employers’ land “the right to human dignity”—including privacy, having family life, the freedoms of association, movement and religion, and to have visitors and receive postal communication.” Alternatively, concludes the report, legislation specific to the domestic work sector should be created that includes: