ITUC OnLine – October 8, 2007

Spotlight interview with Esther Stevens, president of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers’ Union, SADSAWU

Esther Stevens has been a domestic worker for 45 years and is the president of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers’ Union, SADSAWU. She talks about how difficult but also how important it is to organise these workers, who are among the most exploited.

Is it difficult to organize domestic workers into trade unions in South Africa?

We currently have 25,000 members, mostly women, who pay 120 rands (€12) per year in union dues. Reaching this level hasn’t been easy, because these women are afraid of joining a union. We have to spend a lot of time explaining to them how important it is for them to join, reminding them, for example, of the unfair work practices seen every day in South Africa. The workers who have never attended a trade union meeting have no idea how to defend themselves, they don’t know their rights, but they soon come to realise how useful it is to join a union. In case of dismissal, for example, they would simply leave their job, not realising that the employer owes them money, and doesn’t have the right to throw them out from one day to the next. This is particularly the case since the change in legislation we fought for: they now have the right to stay in their employers’ accommodation for a month, whilst they find another job.

What type of services do you offer your members?

We offer them training, for example, in how to defend themselves in discussions concerning overtime, wages, etc. We also train them to become the leaders of tomorrow. We hold sessions about HIV/AIDS, during which we inform our members that if an employer asks them to go for screening, they can refuse and even file legal action against an employer wanting to impose screening against their will.

Domestic workers are generally isolated. How do you manage to contact them and bring them together for training activities?

The training takes place at the weekend or during the holidays. If we have the means, we take them to a rural area, to get away from the stress of the city. They don’t all have time off at the weekend, unfortunately. The labour legislation establishes a maximum working week of 45 hours, overtime being payable for any additional hours worked, but not all employers respect the law. In practice, most domestic workers do not have time off on Saturdays and Sundays. We contact them by distributing pamphlets on the trains in poor areas, for example, in supermarkets, etc. We also try to form small street committees, to distribute pamphlets door-to-door. It can be difficult, but in my street, for example, there are about a hundred domestic workers. If I contact two or three of them, they will, in turn, talk to others, passing on the message about upcoming events, such as the holding of a meeting in such and such a place. In my case, I organise these meetings in my own room. That’s where I start to tell them about the importance of joining a union.

Do you work with the union confederations in South Africa?

We are not affiliated to a confederation at the moment. In 1985, the domestic workers’ union was the first to affiliate to COSATU, but we had difficulties managing our finances and our affiliation was cancelled. We are planning to re-affiliate in the future. In the meantime, COSATU has been letting us take part in all its meetings, which is a nice gesture. We are also working with COSATU and other organisations to support domestic workers taking legal action. A domestic worker would not go to court alone, she is too afraid of her employer. She has to be accompanied, otherwise she would accept whatever amount the employer offers.

What kind of wages do domestic workers earn?

We have tried to obtain a minimum wage of 1500 rands (€150) a month for domestic workers, but the government responded that it would lose us our jobs. It decided that domestic workers in Johannesburg and Cape Town should earn 950 rands per month, and those in rural areas only 600. These wages are very low but, even so, making sure they’re applied is by no means easy. The workers who have been employed by the same person since the apartheid era earn less.

How is a domestic worker recruited?

Some employers and domestic workers place small ads. Have said that, there are still many women without work, especially in the rural areas, and most of them go though recruitment agencies. These agencies, and the government’s registration of them, was already a problem under apartheid. Anyone can set up an agency; all you need is a telephone, a fax, a desk and a chair and you can register with the authorities as an agency supplying workers. In Cape Town, where I work, an agency sends a vehicle to the rural areas where intermediaries take care of finding people looking for work in the city.

Once they reach Cape Town, the agents pack them into a room and tell them to stand in line while potential employers come to look at them, ask them questions about their skills, and choose the one they like the most. The employer has to pay the agency 300 rands (30 euros), and will then deduct this amount from the poor worker’s wages during the first few months. Sometimes, domestic workers only earn 200 or 300 rands a month, because they are unaware of the law. They will do anything to find a job so that they can help their families back in the village.

These recruitment agencies sometimes bring people under 18 to the city, even though no one under that age can be a domestic worker, according to the law. We want these agencies to be closed down, because they exploit workers. They are legal because the government registers them, despite knowing what goes on. We have talked about it at the Labour Ministry but to no avail, no one listens to us.

How did you get involved in the trade union movement?

I didn’t know anything about trade unions in the beginning. I became a domestic worker at the age of 14; I had to leave school at 5th grade. I didn’t know how difficult this job would be until I started it. One day, in Cape Town, I saw the police throwing teargas at demonstrators heading towards parliament. I didn’t know what it was about, but there were a lot of people. They dispersed and I asked them what they were doing. They told me they were fighting for a decent wage, for better treatment for workers, etc.

I became a member in 1984 and went from being a simple member, paying my dues, to attending the meetings and then becoming an active unionist. I was elected vice president in 1996.

How did your employer react to your trade union activities?

Fortunately, I have a good employer… and I’ve educated her over the years!

When I went back to her place after the election and announced the news, she took it very well. We sat down and I showed her the schedule of the meetings I would have to leave town for, we made a photocopy and stuck it to the fridge, so that she would know when I wouldn’t be there. We have a good relationship. In 1995, I was chosen to represent COSATU at a one week meeting on gender equality issues in Brussels and Rio. She didn’t want to let me go at first, but I told her that even if it cost me my job it was a unique opportunity for me, a domestic worker, to go abroad. I didn’t take any notice of what she said and submitted my application for a passport.

Nothing could stop me. My employers couldn’t do anything because they trust me: I’m honest, I have never stolen anything from the house. I have been with them since 1991, and am still there now. I have access to the whole house, to the alarm, and look after the house when they go away for a weekend, ….

What motivation do you find in trade unionism?

I have learnt to defend myself in the workplace. I don’t need trade union officials to come and defend me because I’ve learnt to do it myself, through all the meetings and seminars. I now teach other domestic workers to do the same, but in a disciplined manner: first they have to calmly let the employer know that they need to discuss something and then try to reach an agreement.

Domestic workers are usually in a very vulnerable situation. How can they negotiate?

Domestic employees work directly with their employers. They know their moods, and can tell when they are having a bad day. If I see my boss is in a good mood, I offer to make her a cup of tea… She asks me why, and I say that there’s something I’d like to discuss with her. She’ll let me know when she’s free to talk. The main problem is that domestic workers tend to leave their jobs rather than trying to discuss things with their employers. I advise them not to flee; there are so many ways to deal with the situation.

If the employer really doesn’t want to talk, the domestic worker should take a pen and paper and, if she can write, leave a note on her boss’s bed or pillow, where it’s sure to be seen, and it may be possible to talk then.

Many domestic workers dare not speak out. On May Day, no one in South Africa has to work, but many domestic workers are not given leave. Sometimes I ask myself when they will finally find the courage to “educate” their employers, to give them a tap on the shoulder, for instance, and tell them, “Today is a holiday”. I tell our members that no one will help them if they don’t make an effort themselves, that their employers will never know they have a problem if they don’t tell them about it.

What difficulties are involved in domestic work?

I became a domestic worker at the age of 14; I’m now 59. It’s a hard job, especially when you have no experience. Some employers flood you with work, without thinking; we wonder if they are trying to kill us! You’re employed in a big house, for instance, and you know by experience that two domestic workers are needed to look after it, but the employer refuses to take on another person. Then there’s the contemptuous attitude towards the worker.

In Western countries, the employer would generally offer you a cup of tea at least. In South Africa, employers give you nothing and do nothing for themselves… they don’t wash anything, they always depend on the domestic worker and if you complain they reply that they are paying you so you have to do as they say. It’s really too much sometimes. I, personally, am allowed to plan my week myself, but not all domestic workers have the right to do this. Is sad to hear about the situations others have to cope with, especially when they are not aware of their rights. Employers do not call the women they employ “domestic workers”, they still call them “maids”, or something else, and some of them work like slaves.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau