New South Africa, 'same old system'; Domestic workers are still mistreated in post-apartheid era


KENILWORTH, South Africa -- For the past eight years, home for Hester Stephens has been a 10-by-9-foot room at the back of her white employer's carport in this leafy suburb of Cape Town.

The end of apartheid has done little to change her lot in life. The early promise from her employers of a bathroom extension to her room has evaporated. She must still cross the yard, winter and summer, to use the washing and toilet facilities.

She has no cooking area of her own and is reluctant to use the family kitchen on weekends for fear of being told to clean it.

She works eight hours a day, five days a week, cleaning, cooking and shopping, for which she earns $140 a month. She is one of this country's estimated 1.2 million domestic workers.

"There's nothing for us as domestic workers in the new South Africa," says Stephens. "There's absolutely nothing, because it's still the same old system."

The black maids and gardeners keeping clean and tidy the homes and yards of mainly rich whites are regarded as the lowest paid, most exploited workers in a country now committed to creating a better life for all people.

The black majority government, first elected in 1994 and re-elected for a second term this year, has extended two laws -- the Labor Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act -- to cover previously excluded workers. So, legally, domestic workers have rights to a 45-hour week, with overtime for extra work, 21 days of annual vacation, 10 days of paid sick leave and three days of compassion- ate leave yearly, with double payment for working on public holidays and Sundays.

"But the laws are only on paper," lamented Stephens, during the three-hour afternoon break in her 7-a.m.-to-6-p.m. workday at the smart, white-walled home she services.

"Most of the employers just ignore the laws and continue doing the same things to the workers," said the 52-year-old, a domestic worker since she was 16. "Of every 10 employers, you get one very good one.

"Most of the employers know the workers are desperate, and that's the way they treat them. Most of the workers are scared. They won't say a word. They will suffer in silence, because they are scared they will lose 'this little room.' "

Union effort

To push for reform, a new union is being launched this month -- the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union. It has quietly been recruiting workers for the past three months, and has enrolled 10,000.

The union wants a minimum wage of $250 a month for domestic workers, with the provision of accommodation. But the catch is that if the government were to enforce such a minimum wage, many employers would get rid of their domestic workers, adding to a national unemployment rate approaching 40 percent.

Domestic workers have traditionally been hard to organize, because many live in isolation, like Stephens, in small rooms, tucked away behind high walls. And they are frightened. The domestic workers interviewed for this article did not want their employers approached for comment; the workers feared jeopardizing their livelihoods.

A previous union collapsed in 1996 when its funding from a Dutch church group was withheld because of internal bickering and a lack of recruitment.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has also been wary of involvement with domestic workers because they lack the organized political or financial power of industrial workers. But it has signaled new interest, including a door-to-door recruitment campaign for the new union, whose officials have access as observers to COSATU meetings.

It was a first step toward formal affiliation with the powerful umbrella labor group, which is a partner in the ruling alliance of President Thabo Mbeki's African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. In the new union's Cape Town office, regional director Myrtle Witbooi, a former domestic and factory worker, conceded that it is difficult to exercise much pressure on behalf of house help.

"There is nothing we can do except play on the humanity of the employer," she said. "I don't think you can pay anybody that kind of money any longer. But that's what's happening. That is the reality in South Africa."

Another problem is that most members of Parliament, black and white, employ domestic servants. "We like our democratic government, but they are also employers of domestic servants, so they are not doing anything to get conditions improved," said Witbooi.

Workers' complaints

Even before the union was officially launched, Witbooi was fielding complaints from fledgling members.

Maxwell Mxolisis Soga, 37, arrived at the union's single room in Community House, a center of civic, social and labor activism, to report that for the past seven years he has not had a paid vacation. His employer recently moved from Cape Town across the peninsula to Simon's Town, too far away and too expensive for him to commute daily from his shack home in the black township of Philippi.

Only after quitting the job did Soga discover from another gardener that he had been entitled to paid vacation during his seven years of work.

Witbooi immediately picked up the phone and called Soga's former employer. The employer told her that Soga's holiday pay was included in his daily rate of $10.20, and so he was not given specific vacation pay. Soga denied that he agreed to the arrangement.

"He lied," Soga said of his former employer. "He never, never, never told me."

Witbooi asked the employer, referring to his two maids, "Don't you think it's unfair that at the end of the year they don't have any holiday payment?

A labor activist for 17 years, she promises to take the case to labor conciliation, then arbitration, and, if necessary, to court, to get $600 dollars in outstanding vacation pay for Soga. "It's going to be a tough case," she acknowledged.

Cynthia Mtombemi, 45, has a different problem. She has been working for the past 16 months in the canteen of a small firm.

She makes sandwiches every day for the workers and cleans the kitchen at day's end. But her boss has informed her that he can no longer afford to pay her $50 a week. He wants to drop her salary to $35 a week, a sum she cannot afford to accept.

"I am not even surviving now," said the mother of four, who works from 7: 30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. "Already, I am struggling. There are times we don't have food to eat."

Witbooi says the employer can't get away with the reduction. "The law says he cannot reduce her wages because he is not reducing her hours. He is saying to her, 'Take it, or leave it.' "

Rather than lose her job, Mtombemi, from the former black homeland of Transkei, one of the poorest areas of the country, is inclined to accept the pay cut. A new worker in the canteen, she noted, was being paid $25. Witbooi promised to try to arrange a meeting with the employer.

"People are desperate for work," said Witbooi. "She is just accepting a reduction in salary because she needs to work. Domestic workers will come here and talk about their problems but still be scared that they will lose their job.

"And where are they going to go? There is no housing for them. They can't go back to the rural areas, because there is no job for them."

For Salone Soxujwe, 64, working life is coming to an end. He retires next year after tending the garden of a white family in posh Bishopscourt for 39 years. Last month, he was given a weekly pay raise of $1.35, which increased his earnings to $32 a week.

When he finishes his job, he will lose the small cottage that has been home. He will get no pension from his employers.

"I am worried about all those years, and then he is left with nothing," says his wife, Salone, 61, a retired domestic worker.

As Hester Stephens sits in her white-walled quarters in Kenilworth, surrounded by mementos of her life in domestic service, she says simply, "Look at this small room. You have to stay here for your lifetime."

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