Domestic workers in South Africa
Haushaltshilfen in Südafrika rackern sich ab, um ihre Familien zu ernähren - und haben endlich mehr Rechte.
Every day, 15-seater taxis deliver passengers at various stops around Johannesburg’s bustling business districts and leafy suburbs. This scene repeats itself throughout South Africa’s towns and cities. This is the rhythm of the working-class population, the glue that sticks the country’s unequal economy together.
Among those passengers are women who work in private homes as domestic help. Working mothers and other career women depend on these women to clean their homes, pick up their children from school, prepare their food and take on all the household chores they choose to outsource.
Domestic helpers are among the lowest-paid workers in South Africa, despite working long hours, often without overtime or paid leave. For the longest time, they toiled in South African homes at their own risk because they were excluded from a law that requires workers or their families to be paid compensation if they get injured or die while carrying out their duties.
In a recent decision, South Africa’s constitutional court said it was unconstitutional to exclude domestic workers from that law. The court described domestic workers as "the unsung heroines in this country". Importantly, the ruling applies retroactively to 1994, when the law came into effect — the same year South Africa became a democracy.
Domestic workers have Sylvia Bongi Mahlangu to thank for this new development. Mahlangu’s mother, Maria Mahlangu, had been a domestic worker who drowned at work. The daughter was denied compensation for her mother’s death because, at the time, her mother did not qualify as an “employee”. Mahlangu got the help of non-governmental and civil rights organizations to challenge the law.
Finally, her persistence paid off in November 2020, when the court delivered its judgement, noting: “Many domestic workers are breadwinners who put children through school and food on the table. In some cases, they are responsible for the upbringing of children in multiple families. Sadly, despite these Herculean efforts, domestic work as a profession is undervalued and unrecognized; even though they play a central role in our society.” Thanks to women like Sylvia Mahlangu, this is about to change.