Best of SACSIS: Domestic Workers Overworked, Underpaid and In Your House

11 Sep 2014

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They are important drivers of the South African economy, yet domestic workers are still amongst the lowest paid workers today. Their fate was sealed during the apartheid era when “kitchen girls” were just servants with no workplace rights. Little has changed in post-apartheid South Africa we learn from Myrtle Witbooi, the general secretary of South Africa’s domestic workers’ union. Domestic work is still not considered decent work. Poor enforcement of regulations and regressive employer attitudes mean that domestic workers’ rights are being quietly violated every day by people who would never accept similar working conditions themselves.

Myrtle Witbooi is the general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU). She is interviewed by Fazila Farouk, the executive director of the South African Civil Society Information Service.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk coming to you this morning from Cape Town.

We’re here today to talk about a very important woman in your life. We’re talking about your domestic worker.

I’ve often thought that the domestic workers in South Africa are actually the engines of our country’s economy. How would South Africa’s middle class men and women be able to make their contribution to the South African economy without those domestic goddesses at home looking after their houses, cleaning their homes, looking after their children and sometimes cooking their dinner even for them?

Yet the domestic worker is someone who is overlooked and underpaid. Her worth is not valued and it seems to me that the main problem is that domestic work is not considered to be decent work in South Africa.

We’re here today to talk to Myrtle Wibooi. She’s the General Secretary of the Domestic Workers Union in South Africa, which is known as SADSAWU and SADSAWU stands for the South African and Domestic Workers Allied Workers Union.

Welcome to SACSIS Myrtle.

MYRTLE WITBOOI: Thank you and it’s great being here with you today.

FAZILA FAROUK: Myrtle one of the interesting things you told me before we started this conversation is that you yourself started out as a domestic worker many, many years ago. Would you like to share a little bit about your experience with us?

MYRTLE WITBOOI: I think that, you know South Africa…you know we have the Apartheid years in South Africa and I come from a rural little town Genadendal where we had to finish our schooling. Unfortunately, we have some problems with how we are registered at birth. And when I come to Cape Town I wanted to be – do nursing - and what I find out there was a problem with my identity and I was either a Cape Coloured, or there was many names. And then while I waiting for those ID document to see who I am, I met this young couple…

FAZILA FAROUK: So what were you, a Cape Coloured? Or what were they saying you should be?

MYRTLE WITBOOI: At the time they were saying a “ander gekleurde”. It was like a “other Coloured” and there was no such thing as a other Coloured”, but that was stated on my birth certificate, a “other Coloured”. Eventually, when they classified me, I was a “Cape Coloured”.

So you see there (were) a lot of problems with us because where we come form was a Dutch Missions station and there were a lot of things happening in that station. And…but there it was the, you know, the Afrikaner that just registered you, give, you know, whatever you are and that.

So what happened, I met this couple, they were in Sea Point and they had this little young girl that was badly burnt. She was 18 months old and then they asked me if I would like to come and look after this young girl while I’m waiting to see who I am. Unfortunately or fortunately what happened is I never left their employ. I stayed with them for 12 years. But in that 12 years while I was working for them…

FAZILA FAROUK: And you worked as a domestic worker?

MYRTLE WITBOOI: I started as a domestic worker. I had no experience of…I mean I always had my mother and always somebody else helping you. What happened in that 12 years is that I learned how to clean house. I learned how to iron and I became one of the best cooks while I was working for them because they were Jewish and I started doing Jewish traditional dishes while looking (after) the child. Another child was born. I remained with them. I got married. I had children.

This saddest part of a domestic workers is that while I was working for them, my employer was going to give birth to her second child and I was also going to have a child. When my child was born a month before her child, we had to make…I made a decision. You cannot work with both children. She already had one child that was burnt; now she is having another child and here her domestic worker is pregnant. What are we going to do?

So, she said to me well, Myrtle we want you to stay, but we cannot have your child also, unfortunately. My child was one month old when I took my child to Genadendal to my mother. I saw my child again when she was one-year-old. Yet I was only three hours away from my child, but because at that stage domestic workers worked 16 hours, 15 hours, seven days a week and there was no ways that…I had a nice employer, she was liberal, but she obeyed the laws of the country, which say that you’re not supposed to be off, you not supposed to have (holidays), you not supposed to have (anything).

But because, maybe, because I was fortunate that I was educated I questioned that. And because I had family staying in District Six working in factories, I questioned her.

And then one day there was (an) article in the newspaper where some domestic worker was saying - that time it was the Clarion and the Herald newspaper that was our newspaper - and she was saying that her employer said that she stole food for her boyfriend.

And that is when I respond to that article and I said, what makes us different? Why is it that we are not treated as women? And I just wrote this letter and I put it in the post-box because that time we still had the post-box. Three days after that this man knocks on the door, and he asks -- and I will never forget his words. It was a Coloured guy and why I’m saying it like that because it was that time. And he --

FAZILA FAROUK (crosstalk): During apartheid?

MYRTLE WITBOOI: Ja, yes, during Apartheid. And he ask me because I did not have on a “doekie” and an overall. I just had an apron on.

He asked me, “Hello, is the nanny here?”

I said, “No, there’s no nanny.”

The second (question) was, “Is the servant here?”

I said, “No, there’s no servant.”

I said, “Who are you looking for?”

He said, “We’ve got a letter from somebody working here, but we're sure – we're not sure if it’s a - you know - this person that (wrote) the letter.”

And I opened the door and I said, “Come in.”

My employer came down the passage. My employee asks me, “Myrtie,” because they (called me that), “Who is at the door?”

I said, “It’s somebody looking for your servant, your nanny, but he’s not looking for somebody like me.”

So she asked him. So he said, “I’m looking…the name that you just said, I’m looking (for her).”

I said, “Well this is me.” My question to him is, “Why is it that you also come to this door -- you not looking for a woman, you just looking for somebody?”

And he was so ashamed he became my best friend. He’s today…he’s in the world - Collin Diedricks - he’s one of the world’s media and photographers. He became my friend because he was so ashamed. And then he asked me questions and he said to me, “Where did you get all of this?”

I said, “By sitting in my room. I love reading and I like to hear about other people.”

So he asked me, “What do you want to do?”

I said, “I just want to talk to other domestic workers; I want to find out what’s wrong with us.”

And you know up the road is the Union buildings. And that time it was still the (tripartite parliament) and all this and they gave me a hall and that night…I will never forget it…I’m a domestic worker. I’ve never spoken to any, any other domestic (worker) - I mean domestic workers, yes we say hello. And I walked into that hall and there (were) 250 domestic workers with overalls on and things. And I remember I had a duffle coat on. It was in April and I had a pair of boots. I was shivering because I didn’t know what he (wanted) from me. He did a speech for me…what I’m going to say. But, as I went to the front and as I faced all these domestic workers, I just said, “Good evening I’m a domestic worker just like you.” And it opened…and that is where it start where I am today.

And then after 12 years because I’m married now, I got children, the group areas act say I must move out. They kick open the door. They remove my husband. And I’m not prepared to have my other child also with my mother. And that is how I had to leave it. It was a sad day for us, but I had to leave there. I end up working in a factory for five years, became a ship steward in the factory doing the same thing that I did.

But somewhere deep down here, I was missing know, what I’ve done for domestic workers. So in 1982 I went to look what happened to (those) people that we started with and I found them forming a group in Cape Town. And when I walked into the door, they said, “Myrtle we’re so glad. It’s as if you are sent today.” And since that time up to today, we are where we are now, by domestic workers, you know, fighting for themselves and domestic workers (speaking) out for themselves.

And the same question when you opened, you say about the economy, we were asking that same question. Why is it that we don’t get recognition, because just as they go out to make the money we help them to build the economy? Yet, when it comes to payment they give us the change that they have over or they put us in as a tax liability or as expenses like we put in the car or the petrol. They put us in there as just some expenses that they’ve got. And that is what bring us where we are today. You know something need to be done for us.

FAZILA FAROUK: What I’d like you to talk about is what are the challenges facing domestic workers today in South Africa?

MYRTLE WITBOOI:  The biggest challenge facing us now is, we don’t have a compensation act for domestic workers, which means if a domestic workers falls and breaks her leg and she’s off for a month or two months, you don’t have to pay her and there’s no fund where she can go and claim.

So that’s one of the challenges we’ve got this year, COIDA, the disease act. This is the challenge facing us now at the present moment, is that is that we don’t have COIDA, we don’t have compensation…


MYRTLE WITBOOI: COIDA means - its the (Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act).

You know the domestic workers are working with chemicals in your house. They don’t realise, because if the employer, if she sees the Handy Andy is better and better and better, she goes and buys that Handy Andy. She doesn’t realise what it creates. Some domestic workers have got arthritis; some domestic workers have got problems with their hands, rashes, and things from the Omo. The employer doesn’t realise the damage that she is doing. But because of the fact that you cannot prove, as a domestic worker, you cannot prove that it is from that Jik, it is from that. That is why they have never put a domestic worker in (COIDA). But now they realise that it’s importance since the ILO, that we need to…

FAZILA FAROUK: They realise? Our government realises?

MYRTLE WITBOOI: The damages it’s doing to the domestic workers. We had some research done by the university. We had a few doctors doing research. We presented a paper to them and how domestic workers hurt themselves. How…also the compensation act, we had a few cases where domestic workers break their leg, they slip, they trip over the cord and all that things. So now, they are now looking at that and they now saying domestic workers must get that.

But otherwise we’ve got the minimum wage. It’s our biggest challenge this year. The minimum wage started in 2001, a domestic worker only had to earn R800 a month. Yes, it was that R800, again SADSAWU, COSATU everybody watching workers in that. At that stage we said fine R800, because at that stage domestic workers were still earning R100, some were still earning R200. So we weren’t going to jump too high because we had to think of those workers that might lose their jobs at the bottom. But we wanted to bring them slowly up.

Now we find that so many years later, domestic workers are still standing at less than R2000. So last year…

FAZILA FAROUK: R2000 a month?

MYRTLE WITBOOI: Less than R2000. So last year we said to the Department of Labour, this is the year that we review domestic - the minimum wage - again. We need you to do a different way. We need you to sit down with us; we need you to have discussions.

So what the Department of Labour did they started spending a little bit of money on having imbizos where they go and talk. They came to Cape Town they spoke to 500 of us. They went to East London. They went to Durban. They now going next week to Joburg to speak to the workers. What do you want?

But what we find is that the challenge that’s facing us - when they come to us, they already know what they’re going to say. They already know what they’re going to give us. Whatever we say there; whatever we tell them, it doesn’t work. They have already made up their mind. We’re going to give you, according to the consumer index rate 2%, and then we will give you so many percent and that’s how they’ve been doing to for the last...

So we said to them now. Go back to the drawing board. We demand that we sit down and that is why now they have a research paper out where domestic workers now fill in. Those that we can reach fill in - that’s what I spend on traveling, that’s what I spend on my house, that’s what I spend on my children.

Then we ask them now look at (those) papers. Now you tell us - this worker says she only earns R1,700. Now look at what the worker says she must give out. Why do you think workers end up borrowing so much money by their employers, going to borrow money, borrowing money, getting into debt? Because to make the ends meet at the end of the month she must borrow on that money that you giving her. Yet it’s nothing for you to go out and buy a pair of boots that’s costing that money you know. We’re trying to talk to, even to the government, we’re trying to talk to them in there.

So we’re now busy with a year’s drive on a decent wage. Like the ILO says decent work, decent wage. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re hoping it will make a breakthrough.

FAZILA FAROUK: Sure. Can you talk to me a little bit about other challenges like working conditions that people have to face on a daily basis? What are the most difficult things that you hear about?

MYRTLE WITBOOI: Yes. You see the most difficult thing is that, you know, in South Africa we have a shortage of housing.

FAZILA FAROUK: A shortage of housing.

MYRTLE WITBOOI: So you know domestic – many of our members is staying on the premises of the employer at the back in a room. So what do you find? That worker staying on the premises you find that she is on call. If the employer goes out for three hours, then the employer says, will you listen to the telephone, will you just see that somebody is going to come here because you are staying on my premises. So we find that that worker is constantly on duty.

Then you find a domestic worker that must travel from Kayelitsha, she must travel to Sea Point. You find she must get up 4 o’clock in the morning to get her first transport. By the time she gets to the employer, she’s already tired. You find one thing that’s facing some domestic workers, they’re not even allowed to make themselves a cup of coffee because you arriving now, you must start working, you’ll find (inaudible). You find that domestic worker working straight through because she must finish off her work at 4 o’clock, go back home. She’s mentally, physically tired.

The other thing you’ll find that in that house you’ll find there’s no proper food for the domestic worker so she comes in there, she’s already hungry, she goes home hungry.

And the other challenges facing domestic workers is that those domestic works, that’s coming to work for you for two days or three days she must finish one week’s work in that two days because you, are only having her for two days, but you expect her -- the washing, the ironing, everything must be done in that two days. Yet you only pay her for that two days. So you find that challenge.

And you also find that domestic workers still, you know, they still find that they get abused, but they’re too scared speak out. We have now got two cases in court and we already got it a year in court because the employers get their own lawyers. And because you’re alone with that employer at home, there’s no witness to say that what has happened. So you find yourself often at the mercy of the employer right there in court. So you find that.

The second challenges we find that yes, we do have the conciliation, CCMA, which you can go to as a domestic worker and go and tell what happened.

What do you find in there? There’s a problem there. The CCMA is now having a summit on the 27th to address this problem because the domestic worker says you go in there alone. You face that very employer that’s been abusing or chasing you away and in the end you find that you lose out. You can’t go nowhere. So that is the challenges facing - low wages is still very there in South Africa and of course there’s the unemployment fund.

You find many workers that come in this door, they don’t even know about unemployment. They’ve never been registered for unemployment. So what happens is that worker that worked now 30 years - okay the unemployment is now at 14 years - she’s lost out completely because either the employer is going to pay in and she won’t get the money, or she’s not getting (anything) for her services.

The Department of Labour - the challenge that we have - the Department of Labour is just phoning the employer and saying, “Okay you haven’t put (the money) in yet, can you do that?”

We find it doesn’t work. There’s no fine for the employer, it’s just to the employer, “Can you put in some money?” She’s old, she wants to retire. Who do they put in the money for now? What we try and which is not right, but we have worked some way where we tell the employer, if you didn’t put in (UIF monies) for 14 years, we get the figures from the Department of Labour. You need to pay up. In some cases, it does work. But we don’t have the law behind us. We…its just something that the union is trying to do. So that is also something we’re facing.

You find that there’s a difference between the rural and urban domestic worker. Why is there a difference? The rural domestic worker is sometimes working harder than the urban. And also the rural domestic worker pays much more for her stuff in the rural (areas) than…the urban domestic worker. We don’t understand why they still make a difference for us. So that is the situation.

The challenges about wages. Domestic workers - I went last week to Pretoria, the domestic workers say, “Myrtle we would like to earn at least R2500-R3000.”

They ask me the question, “How long do you take, think it’s going to take us to get there?” Here I’m sitting, they…It’s like looking at you Myrtle. You going to create now a miracle because we’ve been fighting for 40 years, 37 years for this. How long do you think?

Immediately what I did, I sent a letter to the Minister of Labour because we, we do have an open door with her because she comes from the struggle and because she’s a woman. And I said to her, I want to put this question to you, “How long is domestic workers still going to wait for a decent wage?”

Then they said to me, “You have to understand if we now go from R1,850 and we go to R2,500 its like a 33% increase. Whoever has got that in South Africa?”

I said, “But did you look at where’s the domestic worker’s wage? We’re not talking about people that’s earning R10,000 and R12,000. We talking about bringing that people only up.”

She said, “There would be a outrage from employers, there will be this…”

I said, “You are saying to me that you are bound by the employers and not by the domestic workers?”

“It’s not what I mean Myrtle.”

But it makes you feel like that, that business is controlling. Yes, they do control, but it is like you were saying, domestic workers is so important. It is time people understand and appreciate our value.

Also, they were saying last week if domestic workers should go on strike. We know for a fact that if I work for an old lady or I look after children, I cannot leave…or I wouldn’t leave that children or I wouldn’t leave that elderly lady on her own because I care for them. So they know that we won’t really do it.

But what if…they not…if you have a domestic worker that’s been working for you for 12 years and that domestic worker decide today she’s going to go on strike, you not just going to put anybody in your house. Because you trust her, but you don’t know who’s gonna come in your house. So they always threaten us with I’m going to replace her. We say its fine, replace them.

FAZILA FAROUK: How many women are employed in South Africa as domestic workers?


FAZILA FAROUK: 1.25 million.

MYRTLE WITBOOI: Ja, million. But that is just what they say. But they don’t have really figures on…because they only have 750,000 according to them that’s been registered for unemployment.

But if we see the workers that we reach and the workers that we talk to, we sure they not sure of about their figures. Because every time we go to them, they give us a different figure. But domestic workers are changing all the time because even young matriculants, that’s the only job they can find. So they go and work for two days, for three days doing childcare or doing homecare - working for a family.

So everyday the Department of Labour says the figures change -- but because they don’t have the time to look at it. But at the moment that was when…we now got ILO…and now when we had this (wage discussion), those were the figures they gave to us.

FAZILA FAROUK: So talk to us a little bit about this ILO Convention 189. I was reading your website and I read that it took two years of lobbying to get our government to ratify this convention. Can you tell us what the convention is about, what does it mean for South African domestic workers now that we’ve adopted it? 

MYRTLE WITBOOI: You see international labour standards, its much more powerful than your own labour standards within your country. Because now if South Africa is not abiding by the rules, we can take them to the international labour standard, ILO. Because ILO is controlling the international labour laws in the world because its all the governments of the world, all the federations of the world and workers. Its worker bodies in business and that.

So we then, as South Africa, we were part of the front people and I was fortunate or lucky that I became the spokesperson for South Africa at the ILO. So we wonder, in our hearts we truly believed that South Africa was going to be the first country to ratify this convention. We found out, no. We had a meeting with our Minister of Labour. Myrtle, it is at NEDLAC. And then it must go to the cabinet and it kept like that. And it keeps like that and other countries was already starting to do ratification.

Now if two countries have signed this, it becomes a international labour standard. It means that its ratified. It must work, but because of South Africa having most of those things that’s in this international labour law, South Africa was just sort of pushing it one side.

Until 2013 SADSAWU was getting very angry with our minister. And we know that 16th of June we having an Africa conference of domestic workers here in this very building. And Minister of Labour was at the ILO. And just before she went, we, 10 of us, we went to sleep in the rain in front of the gates of parliament. And we ask President Zuma to come out. We want to see him. Of course, President Zuma didn’t come, he sent somebody we don’t know. She doesn’t know why she had to come out. And we said - it was raining, it was storming, it was soaking wet - we said to her…the document is a bit wet, but will you give it to your President. It was a bit wet. We were cold because we were sitting in front there and the church come to say we can go in there. We said no.

Five days after that the international labour relations, they sent a letter to me. “Dear Myrtle, you don’t need to take any more action. Really this time its going to go to the ILO.” And we said to them, “Watch us. If it doesn’t go to the ILO, we going to do some action.”

FAZILA FAROUK: The issue then is we have the conventions, we have government moving slowly, but they’re moving in some direction, but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference in the actual day-to-day working lives of domestic workers.

MYRTLE WITBOOI: Because the problem is this. The problem is this. South Africa don’t have money for labour inspectors. So what happens? They…if you now go to the Department of Labour and you put some pressure on them, they all of a sudden - they have about 50 inspectors that’s now going through. Here in Cape Town they did it last year, 80 inspectors now going around to see are you abiding by the rule. They fill in a form - form goes to the office. There is no acting on it. Because now the inspectors is finished. The inspectors are not working again. We stop.

We set up a domestic worker forum within Cape Town, Pretoria and that. Here the forum is working. The forum works like this: We go there every third month and we say to them, “This is what’s not right. This is what we want. This is what we want.” They act for that week – quiet.

FAZILA FAROUK: I wanted to ask you Myrtle, you know, what is your message for employers?

MYRTLE WITBOOI: If employers is saying…you know if I work for my employer 10 ten years. Surely my employer knows my value now. If my employer really considers me really that important in their life, she will make sure that she abides by all the laws. She will make sure that she treat and respect me.

But the thing for us to change, it must start in that house where I work. There must be the respect between me and my employer. There must be the understanding between my employer. If we don’t have that, the labour laws can come in, the labour inspectors can come in, but if my employer is not going to abide by that, it’s not going to work for me.

And that is why one of our role is to actually empower the woman to speak out for herself. To empower the woman to go and sit down and talk to her employer. Its (as) if the employer is just ignoring that.

They make booklets for employers. The other night I went to a meeting, an employers’ organisation invited me to the meeting. There was a beautiful book for the employers, “Know Your Rights”. My question to (those) employers was, “Are you going to share that book tonight with your worker?” Secondly, “Why are you here and not your worker?” I said, “Why? I’ll answer it for you. Because while you sitting in this 6 o’clock meeting, she must prepare the food. So when you go from this meeting you going to eat.

Yet you want to say that we are part of your family. We’re not part of your family. We’re working for you. You must pay us.

I think you know we need a whole turnaround job. How do we break through that, how do we really get employers to respect? Like I’m saying I had a good employer, but yet I worked for her for six years with not a holiday because every time you go on holiday…you want to go on holiday, they have to do something.

And then we have something that we cannot run away from, which is very sad happening. We have the new black elite. We have the new of us that’s employing domestic workers and exploiting them.

What we find in our own parliamentary villages, because the parliamentary or cabinet people and that they have beautiful meals in parliament. What about the people working and staying in these villages? They don’t have food. We were there. We went to see that these people -- because their employer that’s serving our country is having meals -- if you go in the parliament you see the beautiful meals in there. That worker, you open that fridge, there’s nothing for that worker. When they go and live now the three months or the six months in Pretoria or they coming come down here, they leave that worker with nothing.

Domestic workers, most, we vote for the ANC. So is this the life that they must still live? You see, this is the reality. If we can just get a message across to all of us in the morning. Get up and just have a look at your worker and say, “let us have some tea this morning. Let us talk. Let us talk about the two of us. We’re both women.” I’m sure, I’m sure there will be a change.

FAZILA FAROUK: Myrtle I want to thank you so much for joining us at SACSIS.

And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. And remember, if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at our website at

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