“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.
“Really awful things are happening behind closed doors,” said IZWI’s Amy Tekie.
“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 expected to be indoors even when it is our off day,” said the survey’s lead field researcher Theresa Nyoni. Credit: IZWI
“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.
The survey affirms that state silence perpetuates the status quo, said McGill University Faculty of Law Professor Adelle Blackett.
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.
“[This report] is only the tip of the iceberg,” said former South African Labor Court judge 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:
- Minimum housing standards for all live-in domestic workers, not only those paying rent
- Basic regulations on rights to family life and visitors, including the right for family to cohabit with a worker, within residential density laws, and the right for workers to have visitors in their homes
- Regulations to protect privacy, explicitly preventing employers from searching rooms, phones or property without permission
- Clear protection of a worker’s right to move freely during off hours
- Guidelines on bullying, harassment and assault, as those provided in the labor law do not address the specifics of the domestic sector
- Guidelines for provision of food.
The Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) this week celebrated the relaunch of a migrant worker office within its headquarters to help address legal cases related to wage theft or other forms of exploitation brought by migrant workers, including domestic workers, in the country. Two-thirds of Kuwait’s 4.5 million residents are migrant workers, including approximately 660,000 domestic workers.
Millions of migrant workers are trapped in conditions of forced labor and human trafficking around the world, in part as a result of being lied to by labor brokers about the wages and working conditions they should expect. Of the estimated 150 million migrant workers globally, some 67 million labor as domestic workers—83 percent of whom are women—often in isolation and at risk of exploitation and abuse. An International Labor Organization global standard—Convention189 on Domestic Workers—was adopted in June 2011 to protect domestic worker rights.
Domestic worker volunteers from Sandigan-Kuwait, a domestic worker rights organization for Filipino workers, and GEFONT Support Group-Kuwait, an organization for Nepali workers in Kuwait associated with the General Federation of Nepali Trade Unions (GEFONT), will staff the office, encouraging workers to drop in or call to report abuse and request legal assistance from KTUF.
“Nepali laborers abroad have been facing constant suffering, while legal and social rights are not implemented,” says GEFONT Support Group-Kuwait President Ganesh Rawat.
This is the first time that migrant organization volunteers have been invited to participate in the operations of KTUF’s migrant worker office. With support from the Solidarity Center, KTUF will be able to increase its assistance with migrant worker-initiated legal cases.
“The migrant workers’ office opens its doors to all representatives of migrant worker communities, in all categories, to receive complaints,” says KTUF Assistant Secretary General Obeid Menahi Al Ajmi. The federation, he continues, will devote all its resources and tools to support migrant workers, in coordination with the country’s domestic worker department.
The project can be “the avenue on helping each other for the betterment of everyone,” says Sandigan-Kuwait, volunteer organizer, Chito Neri.
Kuwait has been recognized for some important progress on migrant worker issues. A new domestic worker law adopted in 2015, the first in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, brought the country closer to compliance with internationally recognized labor standards and included a minimum wage and a maximum 12-hour workday, with one day off per week, for migrant workers such as maids, babysitters, cooks and drivers. Kuwait and the Philippines last year signed a new deal that prohibits common employment practices for migrant workers in the Gulf region, including confiscation of passports by employers.
However, migrant workers remain vulnerable to abuse. Changes to employment conditions may be rejected by private employers, who have a financial incentive for maintaining the status quo. A 2017 International Labor Organization study revealed that a significant percentage of employers in Kuwait took steps to prevent their domestic worker from leaving their employ by denying her a day off, refusing to allow her to leave the house unaccompanied or confiscating her passport—all indicators of forced labor. Domestic workers in Kuwait are not yet allowed to join unions to protect their rights.
Given ongoing challenges, unions say that protection of migrant worker rights requires cross-border, collective action. KTUF last month signed a cooperative agreement in Kuwait City with the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K), formalizing the federations’ effort to jointly address issues affecting workers who migrate from Kenya to Kuwait. KTUF signed a cooperation agreement with the Nepalese Workers’ Union in April last year, committing to joint action in support of worker rights.
The KTUF is an important actor at the national policy level, maintaining a vigorous presence in deliberations on proposed labor law reform, economic restructuring, trade union rights and democratic freedoms. The Solidarity Center supports Kuwaiti unions’ active role in cross-regional collaborations, as well as capacity building programs for Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) affiliates in the civil service and oil sectors.
Hundreds of domestic workers rallied in front of the Kenya Parliament in Nairobi today, lobbying legislators to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The effort is part of a larger campaign to improve wages and working conditions for the country’s domestic workers by the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) as well as to help build momentum for a global movement for domestic workers.
“It is amazing. It shows [the] power of the domestic workers in Kenya,” said Africa Regional Coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), Vicky Kanyoka.
Convention 189 established the first global standards for the more than 50 million domestic workers worldwide, addressing wages, working conditions, benefits, labor brokers and child labor. Although the convention went into force in 2013, it has been ratified by only 23 countries. Of these, only two African countries have ratified the convention: South Africa and Mauritius.
Domestic workers are some of the world’s most vulnerable workers, comprising a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment. In Kenya, domestic workers have suffered pay below minimum wage, long working hours, physical abuse, discrimination and lack of job security. More recently, domestic workers migrating to jobs in the Middle East from the Mombasa area, in an effort to escape poverty wages at home, have been preyed upon by unscrupulous labor brokers and employers.
KUDHEIHA—a Solidarity Center partner—has stepped up its political advocacy on behalf of domestic workers with the support of the Solidarity Center in recent years. Legislative changes favorable to domestic workers included an increase in their minimum wage in 2015 as well as an increase last year in the minimum wage from 10,955 to 12,825.72 Kenyan shillings ($108 to $126) per month.
KUDHEIHA’s current push for government ratification of Convention 189 is an effort to secure additional recognition, rights and standards for Kenyan domestic workers working inside and outside the country.
The Solidarity Center works with domestic workers and other organizations that represent them around the world, including in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, South Africa and Sri Lanka.