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  • Writer's pictureIzwi

The Dangers of Domestic Work

Domestic Workers report shocking levels of gender-based violence at hands of employers

New research report demonstrates high levels of impunity among employers in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, 29 September 2020 – Research into the nature of gender-based violence faced by domestic workers in their workplaces in three South African provinces has uncovered shocking levels of abuse and sexual harassment by employers, with few cases ever reported. The report concludes with recommendations to the Department of Labour on improving accessibility of GBV support services to the sector. 

The incidences documented in this report, published on 26 September 2020, reveal high levels of impunity by both employers and law enforcement agencies. Research indicates that domestic workers frequently do not report abuse because despite legal protections, almost every avenue of recourse directly threatens their livelihoods. 

As in other areas of South African society, the situation has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this period, many domestic workers have been locked down at their workplaces, unable to leave the house. This constant contact and lack of privacy has increased the potential for employers to take advantage of them.

The study was carried out between July and August 2020 on behalf of Civil society organisation Hlanganisa Institute of Development Southern Africa (Hlanganisa) and Izwi Domestic Workers’ Alliance (Izwi). Researchers interviewed domestic workers, the Department of Labour, academics, domestic worker unions and civil society organisations supporting domestic workers. 

“Hlanganisa works with high-impact community organisations reaching marginalised members of society,” says Executive Director Bongiwe Ndondo. “The organisation identifies grassroots initiatives with potential, growing them through providing mentorship and financial support. Hlanganisa partnered with Izwi, the partnership culminating in the study into GBV practices in the domestic worker sector.”

The United Nations recognises South Africa as the country with the worst GBV in the world. Women at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder are particularly vulnerable, reticent to report and unlikely to receive justice. Domestic workers are mostly women, often foreign migrants, frequently undocumented and working largely in isolation in the homes of employers. 

In the research, four interviewees mentioned cases of rape or sexual assault. In other cases, domestic workers were shown pornography, forced to touch employers and assaulted sexually. The research found that GBV experienced in the Domestic Work sector also included male employers:

  • Walking around the house without clothes.

  • Exposing their private parts to DWs.

  • Walking into the rooms of DWs during their private time at all hours.

  • Engineering opportunities for DWs to bring them something whilst employers are bathing or taking a shower.

  • Asking DWs to have sex with them for extra pay.

  • Forcing DWs to have sex or oral sex with them.

  • Commenting on the bodies of DWs and touching their breasts or buttocks.

  • Engineering for DWs to be fired when they refuse to be subjected to sexual violation.

  • Stalking their DWs on social media.

  • Spying on their DWs and using that information in their GBV infractions.

One account by a domestic worker reported to Izwi: 

In late 2019, Nomsa*, a domestic worker in Johannesburg, was told by her employer’s teenage son that she must stop wearing underclothes when she cleans. Terrified of his intentions but afraid of being fired, Nomsa decided not to tell her boss. The teenager accosted her a second time, forcing her to massage him in inappropriate places.  When she approached the boy’s father, her employer, he denounced her as a liar, accused her of abusing his son, and dismissed her immediately. When she went home and told her husband of 17 years, he made accusations and eventually divorced her. The trauma also impacted her relationship with her own teenage son. 

Domestic workers interviewed reported that employers saw them as vulnerable because they were poor, and believed this meant that workers could be manipulated. Some report employers being aware that workers desperately needed their incomes. Many reported feeling powerless in the face of abuse.

Most survey respondents did not believe that the South African government had the capacity to deal with GBV in the Domestic Work sector. 

Based on research findings, Hlanganisa and Izwi have recommended that theDepartment of Labour improve the monitoring of national policies geared at improving the working and living conditions of domestic workers. This includes the expansion of the DOL Inspectorate for the benefit of domestic workers and other vulnerable sectors. The organisations recommend that the government ratifiesILO Convention 190.

They also recommend that the government establishes Call Centres that can assist domestic workers as a vulnerable employment sector in dealing with GBV in the workplace.

“In our experience, survivors of gender-based violence in the domestic workplace are very rarely able to report the abuse,” says Maggie Mthombeni, Case Manager of Izwi Domestic Workers’ Alliance. “Without the protections available to corporate employees, and often without an employment contract, they are forced to report to either the perpetrator himself, or his wife. Workers choosing to go to the police have been accused of lying, even if a case is opened. No matter what avenue she reports through, she will almost inevitably lose her job. Her only choice becomes silence.” 

The full report research detailing the research findings and related recommendations can be found here

* Name changed to protect privacy.

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