Opinion piece for National Women's Day 
focusing on domestic workers 
by Adv Rams Ramashia: Director General: Department of Labour

National Women's Day commemorates a period in our history when women dramatically broke the silence, protesting against the pass-laws of the apartheid regime. The time has come for domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, to now break the silence on their invisibility in society. For so long South Africans, from all walks of life, have at some time or another relied on the services provided by domestic workers. However, their contribution to society remains undervalued despite their contribution to the economy of our country.

The Department of Labour has begun a process to ensure that society recognizes the social and economic value of domestic work. One of the key ways of facilitating this, is ensuring that domestic workers receive the same protection from the law as other workers. It is for this reason that the ambit of new labour legislation put in place since 1994 has been extended to cover domestic workers. Government has gone one step further and initiated an investigation into the plight of domestic workers.

Over the last 18 months my department has been conducting an investigation into the feasibility of setting minimum wages and conditions of employment for domestic workers. The process involved hosting public hearings and conducting extensive research including a review of international experience. Last month we released the results of the investigation for public comment and debate.

The Department has been heartened by the extent to which the public has begun to debate the issues and highlight the plight of domestic workers. The debate so far has reflected the very diverse experiences of domestic workers. Some of the respondents said that the rates being proposed are too low. Individual comments by domestic workers has revealed that some are earning way above the levels being proposed in the report, while many are earning relatively low rates. Some domestic workers in the urban areas said that they earned as little as R300.00 per month. It is the plight of these domestic workers that the Department wishes to improve the most vulnerable and marginalized. It should also be understood that the rate proposed in the report does not constitute the maximum amount to be paid, nor does it represent a standard but it simply suggests a bare minimum that is a floor rather than a ceiling.

The results of the research revealed that rural workers are more likely to be negatively affected should a minimum wage be set too high. Therefore, in setting minimum wages, government has to take into account that its first priority to these workers is to protect their jobs while also ensuring that their conditions of employment are enhanced. Government will therefore have to take into account the need to alleviate poverty in employment, affordability of proposed wage levels by employers, as well as ensuring that what is proposed does not have a displacement effect.

Government is acutely aware of the fact that domestic work remains a major employment generator as there are close to 800 000 domestic workers in South Africa who support millions of dependants. Domestic workers account for about 18% of all those employed in the South African labour market. It is interesting to note that the demand for domestic work has not declined despite the introduction of new labour laws. But what has remained unchanged is the fact that they remain one of the lowest paid category of workers.

It must be understood however that the document released by the Department of Labour on this matter is nothing more than a discussion document to be considered by the Employment Conditions Commission along with submissions made by all interested parties; which should reach the department by 11 September 2001. The current proposal therefore does not have the force of law and employers are not required to implement them. In fact, it is an offence for an employer who already pays a worker above the proposed minimum to unilaterally reduce a domestic worker's wage to the proposed minimum.

As we celebrate the contribution made by women to building a new society, let us not forget the role domestic workers have played in being the backbone of the economy. For so long they remained at the back of the queue when it comes to respect, decent wages and conditions of employment. It is the responsibility of all South Africans to ensure that they get the recognition and protection they deserve. Let us begin to sing from the same hymnbook with these unsung heroes and heroines.