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 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:
- 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.
On June 16 International Domestic Workers Day, domestic workers are celebrating a landmark legal win by South Africa’s domestic workers for colleagues who die or are injured in their employers’ homes. For the first time, starting this year, domestic workers who suffer injury on the job are eligible for compensation for temporary and permanent disability, medical expenses, funeral costs and survivor benefits.
Until last year, South Africa’s approximately 1 million privately employed domestic workers suffered deaths and crippling injuries without access to compensation for themselves or their dependents because domestic workers were excluded from South Africa’s Compensation for Occupational Injury and Illness Act (COIDA). With Solidarity Center support, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) and human rights organization Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) litigated and won a long-denied claim for the dependent daughter of Maria Mahlangu, a privately employed and partially sighted domestic worker who had fallen into her employer’s swimming pool and drowned in 2012. The historic judgment, made by the South African Constitutional Court in mid-November, recognized that injury and illness arising from work as a domestic worker in a private home is no different to that occurring in other workplaces and thus equally deserving of COIDA coverage.
Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of SADSAWU and the first president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), said in addition to the last year’s court ruling, South Africa’s domestic workers can also celebrate this year’s hard-fought win under revised compensation rules of three years of retroactivity to submit claims.
Under the new rules, all employers of domestic workers must register with the Compensation Fund or face penalties, and make annual payments to cover their employees. SADSAWU is focusing its efforts on educating employers and domestic workers about their obligations and rights under the new rules, says Witbooi. SERI made a new domestic worker compensation information fact sheet available to domestic workers, paralegals and community advice offices this month, while SADSAWU is producing and distributing an educational WhatsApp video and pamphlet and translating the amendment into local languages.
The unions and SERI continue to press the government for more time for domestic workers to submit claims and increase retroactivity. “We must remain that beacon of hope for workers,” says Witbooi.
Meanwhile, another domestic worker, Nobuhle Ndlovu, drowned in her employer’s swimming pool last month.
Ten years after the adoption of an International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention confirmed their labor rights, domestic workers across the globe are still fighting for recognition as workers and essential service providers, as documented by a new ILO report. And, although 32 countries have ratified Domestic Workers Convention 189, and 29 have entered the convention into force, most of the world’s 75.6 million domestic workers are still being denied social protection rights, including access to national health insurance, pension schemes and compensation funds.
Women working in South Africa’s mining sector report being subject to sexual and gender-based violence and harassment, inside mines and within the mining communities where they live and efforts to redress such abuse must address the nature of the workplace and political, social and economic factors.